April 5, 2014

Why I Don’t Read Fiction

Recently retired United Methodist Will Willimon mentioned to me his new and first novel, Incorporation, which focuses on a local church’s drama across four Sundays. Next week I’ll interview him about it for a podcast, but first I’ll need to read it!

I haven’t read a novel since about 1988, having largely quit after college. The last non-fiction I tried was Hunt for Red October, the Cold War submarine drama by Tom Clancy. It was hailed for its meticulous realism, no doubt deserved, but I only got through a few pages and lost interest, deciding I preferred to read books that are strictly factual.

That decision came abruptly, having enjoyed many novels on my boyhood and youth, starting in grade school, when I read virtually every novel I could find about the Civil War except Gone With the Wind, watching the movie instead. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane was a favorite. In my early teens I moved to political fiction like Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days in May, Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, and Edwin O’Connor’s Last Hurrah. I also read Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, plus George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984.

In my later teens I moved to international suspense and espionage novels like Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal and John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Sometimes I read classics like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Lewis Wallace’s Ben-Hur, and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. For school I read, not unpleasantly, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, and Mark Twain.

In college I became a fan of William Faulkner, although deciphering some of his works, especially The Sound and the Fury, would have been impossible without the professor. I still don’t understand Reverend Hightower of Light in August, the professor telling us to figure him out on our own. In recent years I’ve appreciated reading new biographies about Faulkner, who was a charming but self destructive drunk and chronic adulterer. And I’ve visited charming Oxford, Mississippi to understand Faulkner’s setting for his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, including his home, Rowan Oak.

But after college, the fiction reading ended, and across almost three decades I’ve ready mostly biography and history, with some theology and political theory. Partly it’s because cold facts interest more than stories, although I still watch television dramas and occasional movies. Partly it’s simply a matter of limited time. If only the day were 48 rather than 24 hours.

The last surviving American World War I veteran, whom I met, once reportedly explained that he read only non-fiction because he had no time for fiction. A man over age 100 understandably knows his days are numbered. But time is a precious commodity for all of us. There’s just too much non-fiction I want to read. Recently I’ve resolved to read epic multi volume histories like Douglas Southall Freeman’s biographies of Lee and Washington, plus Dumas Malone’s Jefferson. Such biographers are themselves fascinating. A recent biography of Freeman, who frenetically arose at 2am to conduct his writing before heading to work as a newspaper editor, was excellent. I’m looking forward to a new biography of Malone, who finished his final volume at about age 90 when nearly blind after decades of exclusive focus on Jefferson. Such dedication!

More and more I know authors of books who send me their work, almost all non-fiction. I’m trying to make time. May The Lord prolong my years to finish these stacks.

Not long after abandoning fiction I pondered writing my own novel, which would have been a deeply Faulkneresque portrayal of General Stoneman’s Raid during the Civil War in Southwest Virginia. My Methodist ancestors were among his victims. In my mind, this novel, so full of rich symbolism, would have epically illustrated the triumph of northern Calvinist zeal over southern agrarianism. This book was never, and never will be written. I’m now unsure I’d even read it, much less write it!

I’ll also credit/blame my fiction aversion to Methodism, which like much of Protestantism, is uncomfortable with entertainment per se. Wesley’s General Rules warned against “reading those books which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.” Early preachers inveighed against novels as corrupting time wasters. An 1853 denunciation of fiction cited the “beverage of Romance, blasting soul and body.” We’re supposed instead to be redeeming the time, earnestly, always, which can be exhausting.

I doubt there’s any Methodist clergy anywhere anymore inveighing against novels. And obviously Bishop Willimon has himself produced one, although of course it has a very earnest spiritual purpose, presumably. Willimon warns it does have risqué parts. Hopefully Wesley would still approve.


6 Responses to Why I Don’t Read Fiction

  1. Daniel says:

    Mark,

    You should make time to read Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry.” While Lewis was obviously anti religion, it is still a fascinating read. I was always slightly troubled by the fact that Elmer started out as a Baptist, and after getting run out of several churches and denominations, ended up as a Methodist preacher. I often wonder what Lewis’ novel would have ended up as if he had lived to see the plethora of theologically challenged televangelists we have today before he wrote it.

    BTW, I find it interesting you do not mention ever reading any science fiction or fantasy in your youth. Most males seem to find these genres, and everybody I knew in high school and college devoured Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, although almost none of them knew about Tolkien’s Christianity and overt Christian symbolism in these novels.

    If you decide to give science fiction a try, I suggest Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” It’s a good read and has very strong religious themes in it, although not of an orthodox variety.

  2. Karen Booth says:

    Aha. Now I’ve discovered one of the major differences between us.

    I started reading fiction in 2nd grade – “Miss Acorn” being the first “non-primer” work that I can remember. My love of it has continued to grow over since, and last year I read over 120 novels, mostly before retiring for bed.

    I admit that some of it was little more than fluff — I tend to read fiction for escape — but the majority was historical fiction or brain-teasing mysteries. This year I’m considering trying to tackle “the great 50 or 100 classics.”

    So it amazes me that the only book I’ve written and published is a lengthy work of non-fiction. I’d someday like to attempt a family-based novel, too.

  3. Roger says:

    As a Southerner, I’m glad to know you read “The Red Badge of Courage.” Depending upon where you were raised many folks of the South read “The tales of Uncle Remus, his songs and sayings, by Joel Chandler Harris” that was funny, enlightning, preserving of a distinct dialect and history. I know this is not P.C. today but many Preachers used the tales to illustrate moral sermon points. What about westerns like the Lone Ranger, by Fran Striker, or Westerns by Zane Grey, or The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. A High School Biology teacher encouraged us to read “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under Sea, because it described so many species of sea creatures. It is a hard read like the begat verses in the Bible.
    Today, I read mostly non-fiction, true stories or some that may have a little literature license put to them. A good non-fiction story for leisure reading happens occasionally.
    Don’t become too discriminating.

  4. Glenn E. Chatfield says:

    “The last non-fiction I tried was Hunt for Red October,”

    You might want to edit that to “The last fiction I tried…”

    I too am one who left novels behind a few decades ago, except that I’d read some to my kids and now my wife wants me to occasionally read one to her. But I find there is just too much to learn and don’t want to spend my reading time on fiction.

  5. Stephen Scott says:

    With appreciation, allow me to put in a word for fiction. When it’s well done, the use of words and employent language provide aesthetic pleasure, and story or character development can enlarge the spirit. Some of the best writers of fiction speak to Christian themes, from Jane Austen, to George Bernanos, Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O’Connor, to name but a few (one comment already mentioned Tolkien).

  6. Joyce Neville says:

    Hurrah! At last I’ve found someone else who doesn’t read fiction. The last time I read a novel was in my teens. Since then I’ve read books on Christianity and other religions, politics, history, biographies and health. I’ve benefitted greatly from all of them. As far as I’m concerned, reading fiction is a waste of time unless you are just looking for entertainment.

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