November 5, 2013, by Jon McGregor
What’s the point?
Plenty of people reacted with predictable horror to this recent interview with Noel Gallagher, in which he says, in summary, that “novels are a waste of f**king time”. (The interview is well worth reading, but it’s NSFW if you work somewhere that feels the need to put asterisks in f**king.)
Mostly, the interview is pretty funny. Noel is clearly a smart guy, and if he doesn’t want to read fiction I don’t see why anyone should be all that upset. But it does articulate a particular strain of thought, and it’s usually but not exclusively a thought articulated by men, that there is something irredeemably useless and impractical about reading fiction. That the time spent reading something that isn’t even true would have been better spent reading, say, a biography of Winston Churchill, or a Haynes Manual.
I get asked about this more often than you would expect basic manners to permit – ‘Isn’t your job essentially pointless and futile?’ not being something I’ve ever felt the need to ask anyone else – and it’s rarely a question I feel motivated to engage with. If you don’t like living in the country of fiction then I’m not stopping you going to live somewhere else, is more or less my feeling. (You’ll be missing out, I want to add, but also you’re standing between me and the bar so I’ll get back to you later.)
Of course, I do have reasons for reading and writing fiction, most of which are something to do with the ability of fiction to enlarge my sense of the world, to extend my capacity for empathy, to provide me with entertainment and the means to make a living. And I was recently cornered into finding a way of articulating this, when I arrived at a reading event in a secure environment (I’m not allowed to say which one, but it was VERY secure) to be told, by the very first questioner, that fiction was pointless. I’m not sure I quite succeeded there and then. I was rather wriggling under the spotlight, and trying to avoid the tendency of most answers to this question drifting towards the notion of Art-As-Medicine.
I’m still thinking about it. In the meantime, here’s the excellent Mark O’Connell addressing the question in a recent essay on Slate.com.
Read that, and I’ll get back to you.