A made-up waste of time

In a disturbing and far-reaching insight the composer of such pop hits as Wonderwall announced last week that reading fiction is a waste of time because it’s not real. He is currently reading about the Bay of Pigs and the nuclear stand off with the Soviet Union which is more gratifying to him because it really happened.

From time to time this shocking analysis of the essentially fraudulent nature of fiction, vis a vis fact, is uttered by sportsmen. Presumably sportswomen already know this and don’t need to talk about it. Sportsmen, on the other hand, like to tell the media that novels are not worth the time at all because they are all made up.

Such a delineated view of fiction and value is based on a simple dichotomy of the real compared to the invented. Empirical facts are better than the invented. It seems quite plausible in a basic calculus of efficiency. A person may gain something by learning things or else lose precious time by the distractions of another person’s imagination. There is also a sense of utility in which the fact may be used; it may achieve a result of some type that benefits the person. Such an economy of mental effort is not something that Keynes gave time to analyzing but Foucault liked to digress into that territory.

Dickens created a character who espoused the same view. Thomas Gradgrind from Hard Times ruthlessly pursued the learning of facts above anything else. His reason was that they could be more useful than anything imaginative. He was more a caricature as so often occurs in Dickens, but his logic and fiercely held opinion is evidently still strongly, and probably, widely held.

Why novels should be the butt of such harsh criticism and not painting, or poetry, or dance, sculpture, song lyrics, and especially rock lyrics, is not articulated. Perhaps it’s the effort to read a book with so many words that causes such indignation. All the arts, whether high or demotic are invented; to disparage one is to implicitly criticize all of them with the same fault. Shakespeare, Goethe, Moliere – a waste of time.

Where this simple minded view is hopelessly wrong is that many things that seem real are invented. Money is one. It’s created out of nothing and exists within a tactic social agreement and state sanction to be used. In a sense it’s not real. In financial markets rehypothecation is another where institutions reuse collateral pledged by clients as collateral for their own borrowing. These objects are transferable, transacted and useful.

Believing firmly in such an attitude means many nuances and layers are missed. Histories of Victorian England are fine but add Middlemarch to the reading list and a reader has a greater appreciation of nineteenth century social customs. Read Proust and contemporary views on the Dreyfus Affair and later life during the First World War are made more vivid. True, although Proust’s idea of vivid is more like nature-morte.

This perception on how to read novels and associated ideas may be missed by the writer of “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. In any case he shouldn’t be reading books, he still needs to finish a middle-grade guitar course chord book.

Guy Cranswick
20th October 2013

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