Sean McHugh | Eclectic Autodidact: Falling out of love with fiction


A relationship that turns sour is one of the most unpleasant experiences. All the experiences that once brought joy no longer delight. The quirks that used to be adorable are now annoying. The flaws that were once easy to overlook are now glaringly apparent. In summation, I think my relationship with fiction is souring.

Among the books I read in the last year, non-fiction outnumbered fiction three to two, a ratio which has almost always been inverted in the past (this statistic excludes any works whose designation is arguable such as Icelandic sagas, folktales, or non-fiction written by fictional characters).

Scripted television is suffering, as well. The ability to watch five years of a show over the course of a week used to thrill me. But now, whenever I cast the eyes over a list of episodes yet to be watched, it doesn't feel like recreation. It feels like work. Like some kind of chore I have to accomplish, but maybe I'll do it while I'm cleaning or something. Some day, I'd really love to sit down and watch all of "The Wire." I hear it's really good and it sounds like I'd enjoy it, but there are so many episodes and I just don't have that kind of time to do that right now. Even when I do have the time, I find myself looking forward to podcasts with more anticipation than most TV shows.

In non-fiction, everything that makes fiction difficult becomes a strength. There are no plot holes, only mysteries. Historical figures who behave irrationally or inconsistently are fascinating or tragic figures, not poorly written characters. Difficult scientific concepts are challenging new avenues of learning instead of awkwardly inserted infodumps.

There's something more social about non-fiction as well. Fiction can be a shared experience, but only among those who are intimately familiar with the specific work. Trying to discuss a work of fiction with someone who hasn't read/watched it is, in the best case scenario, the most boring conversation ever. With non-fiction on the other hand you can discuss the work by simply explaining it or using it as supporting evidence in a broader conversation.

The problem I have is the mental and emotional commitment that fiction requires of a reader (or watcher). When deciding whether or not to open a new work, I visualize the amount of brain space I'm going to have to devote to caring about these characters, to understanding this new world, to recording the intricacies of the plot.

Part of that is my own problem of course. Once a work of fiction has entered my brain, it's usually stuck there for good. I still remember plots of shows and books I haven't touched since grade school and I am getting more and more hesitant to add to that collection. With non-fiction, every new fact can be added to an existing area of knowledge rather than having to carve out fresh space (Also, I know that I don't retain non-fiction as well, so I'll forget most of it and won't have to worry about taking up too much file storage).

But I shouldn't be too mature about this. This change of focus can't all be the result of personal growth and the shifting of priorities that comes with age. No, clearly this has to be the fault of the state of modern fiction, which is letting me down. I'm not going to complain about how there are no more good books and that the Golden Age of television has ended (I have doubts that it ever really existed), but I do think that the way we process fiction has changed and is hurting my ability to enjoy it.

There is a current trend, and I hope it's just a trend, where everything is over-reviewed. The easiest source of content for any website, blog, or video series is to review other content. And while a few are able to produce some genuine insight, the end result is that it's impossible to view fiction in any medium without analyzing it to death. Criticism, rather than appreciation, becomes the order of the day. Non-fiction largely escapes this net because all the analysis is part of the work itself so reviews can only really discuss if the information was accurate and presented well.

I still love fiction, but at the moment I'm not really in love with it anymore. Maybe we'll find our way back to each other again, but if not, I think I'm becoming OK with that.


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