He made the rounds of the book fair, dragged here on a rainy day by his wife, no doubt. You could see the poor guy stopping by each table, examining the bright covers of historical novels, children’s books, chick lit, vampire sagas, young adult readers. A frown on his face.
“What do you have here?”
“These are my novels,” I said.
“Sorry, I don’t read fiction.”
Oh, He still read some, even books, but he liked the facts, definitely non-fiction. He liked it served straight-up, no agenda, no ax being ground in the background.
Retired engineer from New York, now 83, he read the Wall Street Journal religiously for the news, you know. No axes grinding away there, of course.
What do you say to a man in possession of all the facts? “I don’t want to argue with you, but sometimes you guys take liberties with the truth.”
Still, he shook my hand when I admitted my day job was as a business journalist, even with the mainstream liberal media, a step up, I suppose, from pure fictioneer.
We didn’t tread into the political, nor come to any blows. He knew he was in the South, where fighting words aren’t hard to find. Oh, he done his time with fiction back in school, read plenty of novels back then. At 83, he wanted efficiency, not folderol or tomfoolery.
And yes, I understood how he may have tired of fiction, the usual boy meets girl, good guys fighting bad guys, boy finding father figure, narrative arcs all done up in neat bows by the end, the tired plots recycled now by Hollywood comic books come to sad 3-D life on the big screen.
My retired engineer is no anomaly. He has a proud pedigree in his Puritan distrust of the lies that make up literature. Plato was ready to kick out the poets from his perfect society, if they weren’t going to pull their weight in the pursuit of higher Truths.
But the facts can get in the way, and in our time, often get rearranged to coincide with an idealogue’s particular agenda. No less a literature lover than Stalin explained, “The death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.”
Funny how totalitarian regimes made sure to imprison and execute the poets rather than the engineers.
So what to say to the guy who reads no novels, fancies no fictions other than his own assumptions? Good luck, buddy, and move along. That’s not what I’m after when I read or write a novel.
For me, fiction always aims beyond all those unfeeling facts and cold statistics, tells me things I don’t know, not the things I think I already know. I first was inspired to write by Thomas Wolfe, who nailed exactly how it felt like to grow up in a stifling small town, sensing “the buried life” underfoot with each step of the familiar sidewalk, or seeing the stone angels walk the streets of his town at night.
Or David Foster Wallace, not exactly a slacker when it came to the IQ department (here was a guy who did a treatise on infinity). DFW had it right: fiction is about “what it feels like to be a human being.”
I hope my retired engineer found himself a good book, telling himself all the stories he wants to hear.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.