Written by Billy Potocnik in 2020
“Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.”
Alan Moore, the author of V for Vendetta among other works, said this about fiction. I have been working with people in the capacity of personal growth, wellness, and spirituality for the better part of 20 years. And one of the trends that I am noticing in working and talking with people seems to be an almost troubling obsession with “self-help” and “self-improvement” books. I am aware that I have already provoked many of you by saying this. First of all, understand that this is not an attack on “self-improvement” - or, as I prefer to refer to them - “personal growth” books. I love “The Untethered Soul” and “The Power of Now”, as much as the next person. And, I am usually always reading a “personal growth” book along with a different translation of the “Bhagavad Gita”, “The Tao”, “The Upanishads”, or wrestling with the profound messages of “A Course in Miracles” or the writings of Krishnamurti. I’ll be the first to admit, all of these have improved my life, contributed to my emotional and spiritual growth, and helped me through times of suffering and pain. So, understand that this is not an either/or argument. In fact, it’s not an argument at all. Rather, this is a celebration of the necessity of literary fiction and the power of the human experience and condition found in this deeply human art form.
Our culture is often very polarized and two-dimensional so it’s natural for people to get defensive when you suggest to them to do the “opposite” of what they’ve been doing - which, in this case - would be reading more fiction. “Well, what’s wrong with my non-fiction and personal growth books?” Nothing. It’s easy to think that fiction is the “opposite”, but neither one has to ‘oppose’ the other. The only difference is that one tells stories to reveal truths, while the other may use truths to reveal a story. As the saying goes, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Exactly. The stories are how we learn, how we connect, how we feel. Jessamyn West said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Myth is part of our history and what we pass along to each other to better understand our human condition. We are reminded of the power of stories with every ancient piece of literature that we read.
So, it begs the question . . . Why aren’t you reading a great work of fiction? Would reading Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” — the Booker Prize Winner of Booker Prize Winners twice over — really get in your way of reading “The Art of Not Giving a F*ck”? Or, would the magnificent prose of Toni Morrisson’s “Sula” take too much valuable time away from “The Four Agreements”? Don’t get me wrong, I loved “The Four Agreements” — helpful and profound, but don’t you think you could make the time to mix in a little Proust or Tolstoy?
When I hear about “self-help” book after “self-help” book, I am not necessarily reminded of the ambition to be more and do more that seems so blindly and highly regarded in our society. Rather, I am often reminded of our deep insecurity that we never seem to feel like we are enough. I am reminded of that part of ourselves that is always standing on the sideline waiting to get all of the necessary directives, sufficient pep talks, positive reassurances, and proper training before we feel good enough about ourselves to actually run out onto the field and play with everyone.
We seem captivated by “reality” television, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and just about anything else that can grab our short and decreasing attention spans. In his article “7 Benefits of Reading Literary Fiction That You May Not Know,” Joshua Fechter informs us, “Recent research showed that the average human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds in 2000, to eight seconds. We can’t sit still enough to read books. Instead, we pick up a book only to then take out our phones and endlessly scroll. When we stop scrolling, we forget why we picked up the book in the first place.” 12 seconds seems pretty pathetic to me, and we’re only getting worse?!? Wow! It makes me wonder how far back we have to go in history where humans actually had an impressive attention span!
Courtney Seiter in her article “The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways It Make Us Happier and More Creative,” talks about how reading reduces stress more than listening to music, going for a walk, drinking tea, or playing a video game. In addition to reducing stress, reading fiction improves our ability to empathize, gives us better sleep, enhances our relationships, opens our minds and makes us more tolerant, increases our vocabulary, and makes us happier and more creative! How’s that for “self-improvement,” all you self-improvement addicts?
Fiction also makes for more interesting people:
I have friend who WILL NOT — “cannot” as she would say — watch horror movies or anything too violent or aggressive in nature because she is so energetically sensitive to that kind of subject matter — she will have horrible dreams and thoughts. Yet, her favorite book is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. This is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, of a father and son trying to survive in a hopeless world with — seemingly — no ‘light at the end of the rainbow’. Who knew? Now, that’s interesting!
And, I have another friend who’s read Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” four times! Each time he reads it, he says that he notices new things and gains a deeper appreciation.
My dad would probably say that Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” is his favorite book of all time and he’s read it twice. And honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has read McMurtry’s masterpiece who didn’t love it.
My wife read the nearly 1000 page “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts in two weeks. Seeing someone so immersed in a story while working, raising kids, and tolerating me was pretty inspiring!
I remember the person who recommended I read “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. Reading Barbery’s brilliant novel introduced me to Erik Satie, the ancient and insanely popular Asian board game - Go, and inspired me to read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. It took me five months to finish it, but I enjoyed every sublimely placed sentence and felt the thread of Tolstoy’s prose connect through the time and generations that separated us.
After finishing Christopher Moore’s hilariously and darkly imaginative book, “A Dirty Job,” I will never walk around San Francisco and look at manhole covers and storm drains the same way again!
Every time I eat chutney, I am reminded of Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children.”
I don’t walk into the zoo without thinking of the first part of “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel.
And, I learned that the the massacre of banana plantation workers and their families depicted in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism masterwork, “100 Years of Solitude” — unfortunately — actually DID happen and wasn’t just another creation from Marquez’s boundless imagination.
I will never forget staying up all night finishing “The Kite Runner” and how the next day was just a little more vivid even through my tired eyes.
My nine year old son is reading “Romeo and Juliet.” No doubt I will have to explain the ending and the nuance and complex, sometimes tragic nature, of romantic love. Strangely, he will probably grasp more than I thought. Maybe next time, in the car, on the way to the coffee shop, I can play Dire Straits’ heartbreaking tribute to Shakespeare’s timeless tale followed by The Killers formidable “Romeo and Juliet” remake and see which one he enjoys more. Maybe it will inspire him to practice his guitar. But, I won’t count on it.
In this modern day culture of results-oriented, hyper-ambition, reading Michael Ondaatje or Jeanette Winterson’s newest seems like profitless dithering compared to reading Deepak Chopra’s latest release or the most recent book on ‘how meditation reduces stress and helps your brain’. I mean, you know about meditation, don’t you? You’re either doing it or you’re not and everyone should be doing it because we KNOW that it reduces stress, helps our brain and basically increases our quality of life. But, seriously - are you going to read ANOTHER book on it? When is enough enough? I say this partially in jest, to make a point of course . . . But, I know that when I take my final breath that there will be so many books unopened and stories unread that I had planned for otherwise, and only the ones that I was lucky enough to have touched will go with me. And, all the fibers of my being will be grateful for paragraphs, like this one by Jaroslav Kalfar:
“Yes.This life awaited. I saw children’s feet marking the fall mud in the backyard. My daughters and sons picking their first tomatoes off the vine.The children of my children digging for potatoes when my knees were too old for bending. And there was Lenka, silver-haired, watching the bursting life grow around us. Somehow I’d gotten her back. Somehow we’d found each other again.” - Jaroslav Kalfar
We don’t even have to know who Lenka is to appreciate this paragraph. The dream of a life surrounded with love and the achingly indifferent arc of time looking into the future of what we want our lives to be as we reflect back then to see ourselves now. Children laughing and playing and the taste of fresh tomatoes and potatoes from our garden. And, Lenka, obviously his love and his light, was there with him. He got her back. Somehow he got a second chance to create a beautiful life together. And, haven’t we all wanted a second chance at some point in life?
British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing said, “There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of the truth.” And Tim O’Brien, author of Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried echoes those sentiments when he said, “That's what fiction is for. It's for getting at the truth when the truth isn't sufficient for the truth.” It’s that certain paragraph of magical prose that makes all of the other words up to that point worth it. Before we even realize it, the tears are half-way down our cheeks and we are stirred — beyond our intellectuality and discriminating mind — into a ‘truth’ awakened in places that we didn’t know existed instantly transformed into the illuminated space of necessity.
“Good fiction’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” -David Foster Wallace
My wife and I used to read passages of books to each other. I remember one particular time after finishing a book, I went back and started reading the last couple of pages to her because I was so touched by the story and the writing. But, I couldn’t even get through the words. Before I knew it, I was weeping and sobbing and a complete mess. The character was a young boy talking about losing his father and how he missed him so much and how he needed him now more than ever when he was hurting the most and felt so alone in the world without his love and guidance. It was just too much for me to transmit intelligible sounds to the words on the page. I thought of my own children and being taken away from them too soon. I thought of myself as a young child. I was that little boy. It was me losing my own father in a story that wasn’t mine. But, the story was mine, as it is yours. As it is my own father’s too, who’s alive and well as he - hopefully - reads this. I humbly gave up trying to read and handed the book over to my more resolute wife to bring some strength and grounded-ness to this mini book-reading that had quickly ‘gone off the rails’. She read aloud from where I left off. But her unwavering confidence quickly evaporated as she discovered that her story was also written in those pages. We cried together over those words. Words of a story that, before we read it, didn’t belong to us. But now it did. Our truths helplessly exposed.
As I reflect on the story of my wife and me, I must confess, the book we were reading was actually not fiction, but a memoir. But, remember, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
“Off the point at Topanga Beach I stared into the eye of a distant wave. Somewhere in the oval opening I grasped what Dad had always tried to make me see. There is more to life than just surviving it. Inside each turbulence there is a calm - a sliver of light buried in the darkness.”
The stories are there for all of us — in every language and circumstance — to connect us deeply to the truths in us that don’t have a name or a label — long forgotten, not yet imagined, or unseen under the noses of our everyday lives. And they will arrive unannounced as the feeling of discovery before we are able to see what is discovered.