As 2020 draws to a close, there is a pre-echo of normalcy in the air, the possibility of a return to a glorious summer even as we head into what will certainly be a cloistered winter of discontents. But, despite the cautious optimism, we are in a state of conflict: a novel virus is ravaging our world, which feels increasingly divided, and we face a widespread crisis of meaning. Social media and misinformation are feeding on and exacerbating our political polarization and cultural despondency. At times like these, when facts are in short supply, I find myself renewing my longstanding faith in fiction.
I’m a believer in the novel—though, like Evelyn Waugh’s Mr Prendergast, I’ve had my Doubts. Humans are natural storytellers, and we cannot live without the tales we tell each other, we’re often told. But I know several people who rarely, if ever, read fiction, and they are, as much as anybody else, psychologically normal. We tell each other and ourselves stories in our daily lives: I am not convinced we need novels for that. And the other cliched benefits of novel reading—empathy, escape, enrichment—can be had through film, music and conversation—or needn’t be had at all.
Why should I care about Emma Bovary or Jim Dixon in the midst of political turmoil and pandemic? Why should I waste my time reading about provincial minutiae when there is so much to learn about the world? Teach me instead about the Broad Street cholera outbreak of 1854; about the inner workings of a cult; about the science of randomness. The castle of human knowledge is vast, and even a lifetime of reading is barely enough to know the details of a single cabinet. Who could possibly make time to think about the way Leopold Bloom and Gerty MacDowell observe each other?
And yet, even as I have these crises of faith during which I will go for months reading only non-fiction, certain phrases and scenes keep bubbling up to the surface of my thoughts. Take this description of a meal in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things:
Comrade Pillai finished his curd unhurriedly. He waggled his fingers over his plate. Kalyani brought water in a little stainless-steel container and poured it out for him. The leftover morsels of food in his plate (a dry red chili, and stiff angular brushes of sucked and spat-out drumsticks) rose and floated. She brought him a hand towel. He wiped his hands, belched his appreciation, and went to the door.
Or this, a few pages later: “In a while the rain slowed to a drizzle and then stopped. The breeze shook water from the trees and for a while it rained only under trees, where shelter had once been.”
There is nothing flashy about those lines; they are simply observations subtly painted with the gloss of subjective experience. This is what fiction does uniquely well, as Ian McEwan puts it: “annotating the microscopic lattice-work of consciousness, the small print of subjectivity.” It may not seem like much, but whenever I am craving a South Indian thali, I think of Arundhati Roy, Comrade Pillai, and Kalyani, and I let out an imaginary belch of appreciation.
There may be a solution here to our political polarization, our fractured information landscape, our social media echo chambers. And it doesn’t involve piles of data or competing facts.
Roger Ebert once said that movies are like a machine that generates empathy. Novels are like this as well—though, because of their format, they are better at generating cognitive empathy (the ability to model someone else’s mind) rather than the I feel what you feel variety. But empathy alone cannot save the world—in fact, as Paul Bloom argues in Against Empathy, it may be responsible for damaging it. Novels can do one better: they can generate understanding.
Nowadays most people’s reading diets consist largely of news, Twitter threads, Facebook rants and Instagram glamor shots, all of which serve to flatten the human condition. We seem to be reading—really reading—less. I am not declaring the death of the novel—that claim has its own bizarre eschatological history—but I do think that the way people read has become peculiar. It has taken on the hue of political commentary: we don’t fondle the details anymore, as Nabokov insisted, we crush them in a ritualized hammerschlag. Something is rotten in the soul of a society which reduces culture, with all its rich, intimate poetry, to mere politics. We become sinister bores: we lose our wit, our charm, our ironic glances, our sense of the fundamental absurdity of life. We lose our human understanding.
In his essay “The Human Infinity: Literature and Peace,” David Grossman writes:
A creative work represents, for me, the possibility of touching infinity. Not mathematical infinity or philosophical infinity, but human infinity. That is, the infinity of the human face. The infinite strings of a single heart, the infinity of an individual’s intellect and understanding, of her opinions, urges, illusions, of his smallness and greatness, her power to create, his power to destroy—the infinity of her configurations. Almost every idea that comes to my mind about the character I am writing opens me up to more and more human possibilities: to a lush garden of forking paths.
Humans are complicated apes; for all kinds of reasons, largely unknown to us, we are noble, brutish, courageous, depraved, each of us infinite in our outer and inner lives and in our counterlives. In the glimmer of the alternate consciousness that fiction shows us, we can comprehend, through invention rather than explication, something of our human infinity. So, what can we do to lower the temperature of our discourse, to treat each other as more than mere epithets, to take a break from hurling screeds into the black mirrors of our screens?
Get off social media and curl up with a good novel.