Why we need fiction to flourish

Novelist Belinda Seaward on the writer’s craft.

It seems crazy now, but I believed for years that the literary novel was on its last legs. I felt that it would be a matter of time before it was read by only an eccentric minority. That is readers like me: the kind of people who do not need the internet or the iPod to feed their souls; people who would live by candlelight if it weren’t so hazardous. Holed up in a cabin (or attic) somewhere, us diehard readers would feast on our fiction addiction in splendid isolation, leaving the rest of the world to digital seduction. The literary novel, we mistakenly believed, was a dying art-form and that gave it a special kind of romance.

I think we were just scared. We were worried that the technological age would sweep away everything we loved: all the old shabby things, especially books which were destined to become the one-eyed teddy bears of the play box – fondly remembered, but rarely picked up. Things were speeding up so quickly we thought we had no choice but to let go of anything that slowed us down.

It is true that we lost many slow pleasures: LPs and plays on television; films with intermissions; dial telephones. For those of us bought up on Dave Allen and Dixon of Dock Green, today’s fast shows seem a product of an alternative universe. Even the once innocently harmless Eurovision now warns viewers about strobe effects. But we were determined not to lose touch with books.

It is rather wonderful that we are still enthralled by fiction. We make special time for it: holidays, weekends, evenings, or when travelling. Many of us still really cherish a pool of time in which we surrender to literature. We moan when we haven’t been able to read.

One of my book-loving friends says this is because we enter into a relationship with fiction. We spend time getting to know characters and settings and emotionally invest in stories. To read a work of fiction properly requires some hard work on our part; for the time you are with a book you are almost married to it. You cannot read fiction passively and claim to have experienced it. You must feel the pain, the sorrow, the excitement, enchantment or fear. Perhaps right now in our world of mind-numbing choice, we need fiction that pierces our being more than ever: work that cuts through the noise and wakes us up; stories that remind us how incredible it is to witness another mind thinking and making decisions. When we read we put ourselves in intense imaginary situations we would never dream of in reality. This enriches us. It frees us. We may be late for work, held up again by train delays, but the book in our hand gives us a chance to become more than we are. We may be late, but we can still dream of wolves or kite runners or time travellers. We can wear other periods of time close to our skin as we drink our coffee or check our email. Powerful well-written narrative has the power to transform us, and not just for the moment.

Fiction is important to us because we have decided not to abandon it. We have kept our respect for it and we want to talk about it. Witness the world-wide phenomenon that is the reading group. We are hungry for new ideas, for new experiences and for change. Great fiction can often offer us this with minimum hassle. Is there a simpler way of changing your life than reading a book?

Books have slipped into the twenty-first century with grace. Many new literary titles look ravishing with their smooth almost edible packaging. Bookshops are elegant, streamlined places and libraries seem to have got brighter and better, too. I find myself quite taken with the idea that I can pick up a fine novel for the weekend in the supermarket. It seems to fit with the way we live now.

Books need to be visible. They need us to celebrate them and pass them on to others with words of encouragement or warning. They need, just as we need, to keep moving.

The beauty of the novel as an art form is that it is such a wide open space. A lot can happen. A good novel is always generous to its readers and we appreciate this and take books to our hearts. Each time we read a story that touches us we create something better for ourselves. In this way we enlarge ourselves. And that is what keeps me reading and writing: there is just so much to explore and discover.

Belinda Seaward’s novel Hotel Juliet is published by John Murray.

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This article appeared in Moot 01, June 2008.