And the Clouds Burst Open: The End of My Fiction Drought
Trying to understand my own habits reminds me of trying to understand history. Of course, I’m a historian, so many of my habits already have something to do with historical investigation. Putting aside the occupational hazards for a moment, let me explain. Habits are cycles of behavior, circular chains of acts and periods of rest. Though they can feel automatic at times, you have to act, even if it’s without thinking, to maintain them. It would seem that habits are incredibly fragile cycles, but they are often incredibly difficult to dislodge. Often a habit will appear to be dragging the person by the chain rather than the other way around, like a person who gets stuck in a ferris wheel gone Final Destination. My points is that both habits and history can be described using categories of continuity and change.
Explaining history requires that you look at how a phenomenon began, always arising from a context that predated it, and how that phenomenon perpetuated itself. You can look at it, as I often like doing, as a kind of organism: what does it feed on to keep going, what kind of energy does it possess, what is its behavior, and how does is it affecting/being affected by its context? “Old habits die hard,” or so the saying goes, but why is that? It seems as though it becomes an extra-personal process, and whether it’s healthy or alienating has a lot to do with how we view it.
Many kinds of chemical addictions have often been personified as demonic beings pushing people into situations and behavior they would never have been involved in otherwise. Historical and geographical systems––interlocking in space and time––possess the same extra-personal and systemic quality. Does that mean we can write off capitalism as a highly destructive collective habit we’ve developed? Not precisely, but the analogy is useful if (and this is an elephantine “if”) you believe the solution to it is to radically change material conditions. Even after an undesirable habit is suppressed at last, its effects linger, etching scars on the body and mind.
Thinking in this vein, it’s curious to me why I stopped reading fiction after my second year in university. I had been a voracious reader of every sort of book before then, and never made a conscious resolution to read only nonfiction for nearly two and a half years. But my diet of Marxist theory, church history, geography, philosophy, and all the “nonfictional” subjects that predominated in my university’s academic library subtly pushed fiction out of my life. Once again, we can call upon the categories of continuity and change.
Before the drought, I read fiction for a variety of reasons. As a young adult, I read mainly science fiction and fantasy books, mainly for entertainment or because the book had a reputation as an “essential” read. Hence why I read so much Isaac Asimov in high school. Other than a few “unshakable” classics, however, my taste for fantasy dried up as I grew up. One reason was shallow: adult fantasy and sci-fi book covers are repulsive to look at. Skittish about sexual content (I was still a Calvinist back then), I rejected anything with T&A on the cover outright. Cheesy illustrations and gaudy font choices didn’t help matters either. High school English classes also imparted to me an appreciation for so-called literary fiction, so by my late teens I had gravitated toward reading canon books like Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, Haruki Murakami, William Faulkner, a smattering of modern masters like Paul Auster, etc. Occasionally I would invest my time in a book by China Miéville to satisfy my lingering hunger for genre fiction, but I stuck to a fairly austere regimen through my fourth year of secondary school and on into university.
Eventually, I gave up because I found nonfiction so much more worthy of my time. Other than a Russian literature class and a few historical novels we read in history classes, I stuck to the more sober and fact-based stacks in the library. Out with Joyce, in with Marx. Out with Miéville, in with Spinoza.
After graduating from my university, though, I started, without much conscious reason, heading back into fiction. My partner prodded me in this direction, turning me on to comics––a medium I rarely even touched before I was 20 or so. More improbably, I dove back into the long-neglected pool of speculative fiction. Nnedi Okorafor, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Jeff Vandermeer have all featured on my reading lists for the last couple of months. I plan to write about all of them in another post later, but I’m also hoping to get back into China Miéville, whose work I once planned to consume whole over a summer. I now recognize that not all of fantasy and sci-fi is tied up in toxic white male self-affirmation and cult-building. It’s not all reactionary crap, in other words, despite my lengthy experience with fan communities that drew me to the opposite conclusion. So here I am, one who scoffed at the idea that there could be transgressive genre fiction––despite being introduced to adult “weird” through a Marxist legal scholar!––biting the dust of my old dead words.
I don’t know how long this renewed interest will last, especially with all the transformations going on in my life in the near future. At the moment, though, it seems this break in the drought indicates a certain new maturity on my part, a recognition that fiction can serve the revolutionary mind just as well as theory, or even better depending on what you’re reading. Constructing a whole new world requires, first, the force of obliteration, which can be revolutionary as well as paranoid and reactionary. Fantasy and science fiction, fueled by visions of a better future rather than a dreamlike and ideological past, have won their place in my life.