Exploring The Anti-Fiction Reader, and Why I'm Not Dead - July 11, 2013
I was at a party recently, and at that party I got into a conversation about literature with someone. He asked me what I read, to which I responded "pretty much everything". I've found that a "pretty much everything" response is bullshit 99% of the time, especially if you're talking about what kind of music you listen to, but it's the absolute truth when it comes to my reading preferences. I'm usually in the middle of seven or eight books at any given time, switching from one to another depending on my mood that day. I haven't listened to music while in the car or out walking the dog for over four years because I have an audio book playing at all times. The topics range from fiction to memoir to reference to study manuals to text books to self-help to graphic novels and beyond. I've been an equal opportunity book slayer for as long as I can remember.
"You read fiction?" he asked.
"Oh, totally. I love fiction."
"Not me. I only read non-fiction. Fiction is a complete waste of time."
This wasn't the first time I've heard this response from somebody in regard to their reading preferences and it sure as hell won't be the last, but this particular instance compelled me to finally sit down in front of my laptop and explore the subject of the anti-fiction reader.
It has been my experience that there are three different kinds of people who don't read fiction:
1) He was brought up by strict, goal-oriented parents who, by his teenage years, condemned all fiction as childish pleasure reading, and replaced it with textbooks, advanced placement classes and anything else they thought it took for their kid to succeed (read: financially). This stuck with him through adulthood as he repeats his parents' convictions without second guessing them.
2) He has imposed a fiction reading moratorium on himself because he wants to be perceived as a worldly, intelligent, logical, business-minded adult, and he sees fiction as the antithesis of that. It's not as much about him having been taught that or even really believing it, as it is about him wanting to appeal to certain people (I'm referring to the "Pillars of Society" group whom I will discuss a little later in this piece) who do genuinely believe it in order to advance himself socially, professionally, financially or any combination of the three.
3) He had a bad experience with fiction when he was younger (i.e.: picked up Twilight by accident) or was forced to read one in a high school English lit class and the experience permanently damned the genre for him.
There's not much to be said for anti-fiction reader #3, because there's a huge chance fiction isn't the only thing he's denying himself because of a bad experience in his younger years. Anti-fiction reader #3 most likely still won't eat his vegetables or take out the trash until he's diagnosed with colon cancer or his house is buzzing with flies. Anti-fiction reader #3 probably allows the experiences of his childhood to dictate most of his adult decisions, and he's not giving anything a second chance until he's absolutely forced to. Heck, a lot of anti-fiction reader #3s don't read at all because they were forced to do it so much in school. Moving on.
For me, anti-fiction reader #1 has been the most common of the lot. While I was no whiz kid and did just well enough to squeak by during my public school years, I had a lot of friends who were whiz kids, taking every advanced placement class and signing up for every after-school intellectual club they could get their hands on. They were class presidents, editors on the school newspaper, math league juggernauts and card carrying members of the Future Business Leaders of America. While I only attended the latter once before deeming it "the most boring fucking thing imaginable", I had enough in common with some of the whiz kids to be friends with them.
When I'd go over to their houses for study groups, team project work or even just to sit down and have dinner with them, I'd have the opportunity to meet their parents. Usually, you could break their parents down into two groups; the "Blue Collar Hustlers" and the "Pillars of Industry".
The Blue Collar Hustlers owned auto body shops, had engineering positions at the naval yard and were managers at car dealerships. They put in at least sixty to seventy grueling hours a week providing for their families. When they weren't working, they were fixing up cars for resale, sweating out lung-clogging drywall gigs as a second source of income and worked every perceived angle to rake in extra money. Their homes and vehicles were modest, but extremely well taken care of, not just because they took pride in what they owned, but also because they saw the items in their personal property inventory as investments that must be maintained in order to be sold or traded down the road.
The Pillars of Industry were pretty much what you'd expect from the title; banking executives, pre-financial collapse real estate savants and law firm partners. They put in just as many hours and loved their families just as much as the Blue Collar Hustlers did, but brought in enough money to be considered upper-middle to upper class. They lived in fantastically large Victorian era homes in the more historic parts of town, and in cookie cutter McMansions dotting the winding streets of wealthy developments. If their impeccable lawns weren't coddled by a professional landscaping crew, the job went to the children, who would in turn receive a weekly allowance that was equivalent to my lunch money for the month.
While both groups might seem vastly different, they're actually similar when it came down to the fostering of anti-fiction reading children. The Blue Collar Hustlers saw it as their duty to raise their children in a way that gave them a better quality of life and elevated them from the 24/7 grind, and despite how many hours they spent working, they made sure to have very active roles in their children's academic planning. The Pillars of Society saw it as their duty to maintain the family's financial success, and they believed the foundation of that success started with what they took in for information. Both groups attended PTA meetings, poured over report cards with fine toothed combs and scoured the course listings to make sure John and Jane were eligible for the advanced placement classes and every other business related academic ladder rungs they could get their hands on. Both groups thought the pinnacle of human achievement was financial security, and that fictional literature was nothing but a distraction from that goal. Both groups imparted pearls of wisdom to their children such as "people who read fairy tales don't end up leading fairy tale lives" and "there's just too much interesting stuff happening in the real world for me to be wasting time reading about made up stuff" (which now explains why I laugh so hard at the movie Sideways when Jack's father-in-law says "Good. I like nonfiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time."). Those life lessons didn't always stick, but when they did, another anti-fiction reader #1 was born.
Any feelings of empathy I might feel for anti-fiction readers #1 and #3 immediately evaporates whenever I'm confronted with anti-fiction reader #2. For me, anti-fiction reader #2 has usually been nothing more than a pandering, emotionally dishonest, steaming burlap sack full of Talented Mr. Ripley bullshit. If anti-fiction reader #2 was a Buddhist monk, his mantra would be "fake it 'till you make it". He drinks skunky tasting Heinekens at the bar because that's what he sees rich people doing. He golfs even though he secretly hates it, and shuts the movie Blow off halfway through, just before things start to get shitty for George Jung. He essentially mimics any and all financially successful people he comes into contact with, and hopes they will take him under their golden wings and elevate his status in life. At one point in time he encountered a Pillar of Industry, and decided he too would preach the uselessness of fictional writing in order to curry favor and be perceived as a member of the club. He has a prominently displayed bookcase at home that is filled with the biographies of the world's wealthiest men and women. Anti-fiction reader #2 is not his own person. Instead he is a crudely cobbled together collage of Forbes magazine cutouts hanging above the bed of an emotionally dishonest child. In summation, anti-fiction #2 is aptly numbered.
Despite how different all three groups of anti-fiction readers are, there is a grand, shared hypocrisy among all the ones I've come across over the years. When asked what movies they've gone to see lately, they'll tell you they took in the latest action or horror movie, and that they absolutely loved it. They'll post on Facebook about how their souls were shattered after watching the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, and how It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia almost made them wet themselves with laughter. They'll take their dates to a local production of Othello or Death of a Salesman. They'll even sit down and play a round or two of Grant Theft Auto. They do all of this without even stopping to think that what they're actually enjoying is the work of fiction, just through a different medium. That horror movie monster certainly never graced the cover of National Geographic. Game of Thrones is not a historical documentary about Medieval times. No matter how hard you try, you will never find a social security number or employment history for Willy Lomax. They're not real, and they have never been real. They're the intellectual creations of some of the greatest creative minds to ever grace humanity with the products of their genius, and the anti-fiction reader loves them. For the anti-fiction reader, fiction is acceptable everywhere else other than the pages of a book.
OK, now for the part you've probably been waiting for. Here's why I'm not dead.
I grew up in a family that fluctuated between lower-middle class and abject poverty like the line on a heartbeat monitor in a hospital. Dad left the house when I was six, and took his monetary contribution to the family with him in order to spite Mom by turning us against her. My older sister and I would visit Dad on long weekends and during the summers that Mom used to complete her master's degree, and we'd be spoiled rotten. Candy, video games, watching whatever we wanted on TV and eating whatever we wanted for dinner; Dad's apartment was heaven. We'd come home to the exact opposite; strict budgeting, strict healthy diet and an hour of TV a day I would regularly save up for The A-Team. My mom did her best to keep a roof over our heads with a full-time job, which sometimes meant I'd come home from school to find my toys had been sold at an impromptu yard sale, or that I'd have to return my first bike in order to pay bills and keep food on the table. Dad's plan worked, and for many years growing up, we resented the hell out of Mom.
Several years after Dad left, Mom met a guy and we all moved from New Hampshire to the Midwest, where he landed a job as a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Money was perpetually tight after we moved because Mom had problems landing a job, and shortly after we moved, Mom's boyfriend became hostile and verbally abusive because of it. When he wasn't screaming at me and my sister or punishing us for minor infractions like forgetting to scrape our dinner plates into the trash before putting them on the kitchen counter, Mom's boyfriend was screaming at her because he didn't want the financial burden of feeding and clothing two kids that weren't his; kids he loathed. Mom would argue back and forth with him, but she never sided with us and always did her best to mediate because she wanted things to work. There was a semblance of security with her boyfriend, and she didn't want to pack up and leave it behind. When my sister and I weren't at school or out of the house doing something, we spent the bulk of our time in our bedrooms, out of fear of being lambasted or punished by the man sitting on the couch drinking gallons of wine in the living room. We stuck up for each other at every opportunity and comforted each other when one of us was in tears because we got it extra bad.
One year, my older sister and my Mom started getting into huge fights about our living situation in Wisconsin, about how Mom's boyfriend was a really bad guy and about how she wanted us to move back home. It got so bad that Mom, who was then still embroiled in court trying to get our child support, called up my Dad and said she would drop the case if Dad paid my sister's tuition at a private school back east. He agreed, my older sister and sole protector of an eleven-year-old boy hopped on a plane and left me all alone. And then it got worse.
After a series of wine fueled arguments, Mom and her boyfriend agreed that Mom would have the sole financial responsibility of me. Dad's child support was feeding my sister's tuition, Mom's boyfriend wasn't contributing a dime and Mom was advised by her council in a different employment lawsuit she was in for being terminated without cause not to retain full-time employment in order to leverage the judge's decision. We had no money. My clothes came from Goodwill, and sometimes I would be forced to wear whatever could be deemed remotely unisex out of the items my sister abandoned when she left. I would regularly go to school wearing L.E.I. Jeans that I took care to fold the waist over so kids wouldn't see the leather logo, women's winter jackets and even an oversized t-shirt commemorating the musical CATS. As you can imagine, I was ridiculed unmercifully during grades four through six.
Ridicule rapidly escalated into full-on bullying, as it tends to do during that age. Girls would send me fake love notes and openly mock me when I responded, I was beaten up on the playground every other day, throw things at me in class, pour chocolate milk over my head at lunch and kids would go as far as to follow me on my walk home from school on their mountain bikes and throw rocks at my face.
During those three years, I would come home from a day at school, go upstairs to my bedroom, sit Indian style in the corner of my wood-paneled room and bawl my eyes out. I would rock back and forth, tears cascading down my face and drool stringing from my lower lip to the lap of my L.E.I. jeans and cry until my head pounded and my nose was clogged with snot because I was nobody and I had no one. I had no one at school and I had no one at home. Dad and my sister were back east, and they couldn't help me even if they wanted to, nor could I run away and traverse 1,200 miles in the rotting Lower East Side brand shoes Mom got me at Payless earlier that year. Mom wasn't an option because she was still "trying to make it work" with her sociopathic boyfriend. There was no escape for me. I just wanted to be done with it. I just wanted out. I started scraping my forearms and legs with a Swiss army knife, toying with the concept of closing my eyes tightly and running it across my wrists as fast and as hard as I could, ending the throb in my head, the torture at school, the screaming at home and the loneliness that consumed a little kid's heart.
I was a suicidal eleven-year-old, and the only thing that kept me from going through with it was reading. More specifically, reading fiction.
Despite the whirlwind of substandard living arrangements, professional failures, social horrors, disastrous relationships and abusive behaviors raging around us during those years in Wisconsin, Mom always made sure my sister and I had books and were always reading. Mom came from parents who were both university professors and valued the written word in all conceivable formats. Mom was instilled with that love of literature at an early age, and in turn instilled it in us. She was pro-fiction reader/pro-everything reader #1.
Mom, my sister and I would make weekly trips to the local public library, my sister and I carrying red plastic milk crates. Mom would make recommendations for books she loved reading growing up, as well as grabbing books our teachers thought would be good for us to read. She helped us browse the card catalogs and make our own selections as well. When our milk crates were full of enough books to last us the next two weeks, we'd lug them to the counter where a smiling librarian would check our books out for us and give us a brand new cardboard bookmark to take home with us. We would drive home from the library and spend every waking moment outside of school, chores, homework and playing by reading. Not just reading, reading voraciously.
We took to reading early and strongly. I finished the Chronicles of Narnia during my eleventh year, the DSM-IV during my twelfth and both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings collections by the thirteenth. When my red plastic milk crate was empty, I'd tear through Mom's old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books like wildfire, and sometimes made the journey to the library halfway through the two week period to fill the crate again. I even found Mom's copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves and pored over pages and pages of black and white 60's pubic hair and illustrations of how the human uterus worked. She wasn't too stoked about that, but at least she didn't have to give me the awkward 'birds and the bees' talk.
I loved non-fiction. I read loads of historical text books and biographies. I read with genuine interest about the warfare tactics of Shaka Zulu. I was mortified by the stories of how they ate the soft, still unformed bones of baby penguins to stay alive during the Shackleton Expedition. These were all amazing stories, but for me, as a kid was so close to the snapping point of his sanity, the true stories of success against all odds and how destitute orphans became billionaires seemed so far away, so unreachable from my vantage point that they didn't offer any comfort or inspiration, at least not enough to keep myself from carving up my wrists and leaving a note for Mom to find when she came home from work. Fiction, though? Fiction did.
I'd sit under my blanket with a flashlight after bedtime and read massive paperback novels by Stephen King, even though Mom didn't really care for him and the librarian lady always gave me a sour face when I'd bring his books up to the checkout counter. I'd climb the tree in front of the house and lose myself in something from Piers Anthony while Mom was enduring salvos of verbal hate missiles from her boyfriend inside. I'd sit on a swing in the playground during recess and let Isaac Asimov take me to a distant place where the kids weren't taunting me. I'd wrestle through the deeper messages of human spirituality in the works of C.S. Lewis while eating a loaf of Wonder Bread I stole from the university convenience store because Mom was away and her boyfriend decided he was only making dinner for one that night. Fiction not only gave me the perfectly defined lessons, morals and allegory that non-fiction couldn't because you can't tailor a true story to do that, but it allowed me to switch my brain to autopilot, walk away from the control panel and go somewhere else; somewhere that was weird and good and scary and far away from the domestic screaming and the schoolyard beatings and the hunger pains.
I read anything and everything, but it was fiction I clung to the hardest, and it was fiction that kept a suicidal eleven-year-old boy from pulling the trigger, got him through the worst of the impulses until his pro-fiction reader #1 finally decided enough was enough, packed up her boyfriend's black Toyota truck while he was teaching one day, and drove her son all the way back to New Hampshire; back to a better life.
Is there a clean cut moral to this rambling essay? Is it to preach the values of fictional writing to the world and maybe convince a few staunch anti-fiction reader #1s and #3s to give the genre another chance? Maybe. Probably, but definitely not #2s. #2s are still pieces of shit.
Posted by KungFu Mike at 12:46 PM
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Posted by: Mitchell M at July 12, 2013 08:50 PM
One hell of an article. I applause you.
Posted by: Maxi at July 13, 2013 09:50 AM
Excellent post. I will be dealing with many of these issues as well.
Posted by: at July 13, 2013 04:41 PM