The Fiction Spectrum

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The black digits blinked against the fluorescent orange background of our alarm clock. 1:30 a.m. All the bedroom lights were still on. Jonathan and I were sitting up and staring at each other across the rumpled down comforters. Our expressions were heavy, numb, the calm after a storm. For a moment we were absolutely quiet. My cat raised his head sleepily and eyed me as if to ask, "Are you done now? Can we all go to bed like normal people?"

Jonathan yawned and pressed his bookmark back between the pages of his book. I shook my head against the sleepiness and tried to remember how we got here, why we were up so late.

It had started as an ordinary Sunday night. I took my birth control pill while Jonathan refilled his nightstand water cup. He switched on the morning alarm and I peeled off my socks and tossed them into the dirty clothes bin. We eased under our blankets side by side, lamps on, books out. He is re-reading The Lord of the Rings; I'm working my way through Robert Wright's The Evolution of God.

This is, again, pretty typical: Jonathan swimming in a fantasy novel while I root around in a work of non-fiction. 

That's sort of what the debate was about. 
Jonathan says there's a spectrum that all fiction books fall onto. One to ten. And they are ranked by level of fictionness. Fictionality, if you will. How close they exist to truth and plausibility.

I don't disagree with this concept, exactly. But the discussion, which is one we've had multiple times in the ten years we've known each another, often devolves into a judgment of one another's reading habits. We're both avid readers; it's one of the things we find attractive about one another. Unfortunately, we're also both fairly competitive, a trait that isn't always so attractive.

Jon says I only read Type-1 or Type-2 books. Stories that are very, very close to real life. Books that don't require much (if any) suspension of disbelief when I begin to read them. When he states this "fact," I hear disdain in his voice. He claims there is no disdain, of course. He claims he is merely making an observation. I don't believe it. After all, one of the biggest fights we've ever had happened in roughly 2006 when he accused me of having a limited taste in books. 

Limited. Right.

He felt compelled to knock my reading habits that night because I had not ever read The Lord of the Rings (and it's possible that I also said, flippantly, that I probably never would because I didn't feel the need). How, he wondered, could I call myself an English major?

I'll admit that I don't have a taste for most science fiction or fantasy. I didn't read the Harry Potter series. I won't read Twilight. (Nothing against the Twi-hards out there, but I completed my vampire-obsessed phase at thirteen and moved on.) So, though I have enjoyed the work of Asimov, Bradbury, and LeGuin in the past, it's not something I seek out to entertain me today. 

Besides, how could he call my tastes limited? When his book choices all landed firmly between Type-9 and Type-10?

We walked out along the flat, manicured sidewalks of our Livermore neighborhood that evening in 2006, and I tried to explain that, what he felt about Tolkien's hobbits, elves, and dwarves, I felt about fiction written by authors who had a masterful understanding of the truth and nuance of real life. He thought I was missing out by not suffering the tortuous journey to Mordor with Frodo and Sam. I felt he was missing out by not suffering the disintegration of a marriage along with Frank and April Wheeler. 

And, I argued, my preferences "won" the necessity fight anyway because close-to-true stories can be cautionary or inspiring and affect the reader's approach to life. Learning how to survive the sting of a two-ton spider in a cave while trying to escape from orcs and goblins, on the other hand, doesn't have any real-world application. So there.

Without going into too many details, I'll just say that we walked away from that original argument without having resolved much, except possibly agreeing that I'd read more books than Jonathan had in his lifetime. (Nah nah nah.) And along the way, striving for an amicable ending, we reached a pact, as well. I said I would read The Lord of the Rings if Jonathan would read Pride & Prejudice.

He picked up my copy of Jane Austen's most famous book that very night. I shook in my boots. Until he gave up half-way through a few weeks later and moved onto Dune.

So, the debate rages on. Who is the more liberal, the more eclectic, the more voracious reader?

As we debated into the wee hours last night, we found it difficult to come up with example books for the theoretical spectrum. Without examples, neither of us could claim any kind of superiority. The old war strategy proved true. Cut off the troops' resources and they will eventually climb up out of their trenches and sit still and stare at each other across the barbed wire and shell-scarred earth. Trying to remember what made them enemies in the first place.

Finally, numb with fatigue, Jonathan reached out and took my hand and said, "I have great respect for you as a writer--"

"But not as a reader," I said, finding the one last hot kernel of principled indignation deep inside. Throwing it like a grenade.

"Let me finish," he said and pulled me closer. "I respect you as a writer AND a reader."

"Good. You should."

"I just don't respect you as a listener," he teased.

"Fine," I conceded, my head on his chest. "You're a better listener than me."

Exhausted, we slept. We fell asleep holding hands, something that is also common about our nighttime routine. 

Today I scoured out bookshelves for books that would fit in each of the slots along the spectrum. Here's what I came up with:

10) The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Pure fantasy. Protagonists include non-human species. Invented language, history, etc.

9) The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Human-based fantasy. Use of magic. Set on earth with some concept of separate dimensions.

8) The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffinegger
Human-based fantasy. The world and relationships are normal, but time travel impacts (causes) the storyline.

7) The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
Alternative-history involving a Jewish settlement in Alaska set up post-WWII.

6) The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Historical fiction account of the Klondike Gold Rush through the eyes of a canine protagonist.

5) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Classic fiction. Entirely human. Plausible relationships. Archaic manners and social norms.

4) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fictional account of a racially motivated crime and subsequent trial pre-Civil Rights Era Alabama.

3) Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Fictional account of the disintegration of an ordinary marriage in 1950s America.

2) Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
Fictionalized account of the life of Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Caroll) to write Alice in Wonderland.

1) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Fictionalized account of the real-life murders of a family in Kansas in 1959.

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This page contains a single entry by Audrey Camp published on December 19, 2011 4:41 PM.

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