Why We Read

First published on 5th January, 2014 in The Star

madman

The mad men we’ve dated make excellent fodder for fiction.

ONCE upon a time I bought several books (Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed among others) for a man whom I believed was in love with me. He immediately gave them to another girl, pretending that he had spent hours deciding on the perfect reading material for her. As it turned out, he was practically illiterate anyway. And cheap.

The above paragraph is from a short story I am writing. Fiction? Of course! Or is it? Even when you make up every detail in a story, no matter how fantastic the plot and how crazy the characters, readers will insist that you’ve based it all on your life or yourself.

Does it matter if a story is fiction or based on fact? Readers seem to experience a voyeuristic thrill when they believe what they’re reading is about people who exist/existed, and actual events. It’s like reading a private journal, or eavesdropping on an intimate conversation. The pleasure is in being privy to something personal and “secret”. Thus, if you think you’re reading a thinly disguised account of my affair with a sociopath, it might give you a greater kick than if you believe it’s just something I cobbled together in a creative writing workshop. Readers tend not to think, “Wow, what an imagination! Cor, what a great style! She has such a way with words. Those metaphors!” They are much more vampirish in their predilections: “Oooo, what was she doing with that psycho! Isn’t it mad how she never suspected a thing? She must have been blinded by love – imagine, a mother of three behaving like a love-lorn teenager!”

Someone once said to me that true stories are the only kind that we should take seriously. Fiction is frivolous. Invented people and lives are a waste of time. So, no, Winnie the Pooh for his son. No Sang Kanchil. No The Hobbit. In his opinion, The Diary of Anne Frank is worth the time and energy, but Number the Stars isn’t. I haven’t seen him for years so I’m not sure what sort of reading life his son ended up having.

This same person also feels that we can truly benefit only from hard facts, or specific advice tailored to particular topics. Self-help books do so well in this country probably because most Malaysians feel this way about what they read.

But fiction teaches its readers things too. Granted the covers of novels won’t tell you that they’re going to help you win friends and influence people; or make your first million; or raise a genius child. Fiction is a lot more subtle than that. In a way, it allows us to learn from experience because if you’ve read a well-written novel you’ll know how completely involved you get in the characters’ lives, how much you feel for them and with them. Reading fiction is a way of living different lives, experiencing a myriad of emotions. It can be a safe way of living dangerously. It can offer risk-free practice in handling difficult and painful situations.

I’ve always believed that empathy requires imagination, and reading, I feel, helps fine-tune the imagination. It’s like a guidebook to knowing what to do, and what to feel, but you learn unconsciously, just as you do from real life.

If you read my short story about a woman who has a disastrous relationship with a pathological liar, you might learn to be wary of charming men who seem a little too good to be true. You might also learn that women who’ve been cheated don’t need to be told that “every cloud has a silver lining” and other clichés by their friends. And you might discover that some women will choose to let men treat them like dirt and will end up telling themselves more lies than these useless excuses for men did in the first place. Or … you might learn nothing at all, and simply enjoy my way with words, my elegant style, my dry wit. Does it matter if it really happened? If you like to think it did, if it gives you a kick believing I was dating a mad man, hey, go ahead and knock yourself out. Ultimately, it’s about enjoying yourself. Pleasure is the ultimate aim, in my opinion, whether you’re reading fiction … or non-fiction.

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