Occasionally, usually after reading something mediocre, I will get incredibly annoyed and slip into a zone where I can completely understand the thought process of people who don’t like “literature” at all. Because fiction can seem completely irritating as a concept: there are so many zillions of minor events occurring in every house in every city in every country that it gets ridiculous to even consider the numbers of novels that have tried, ever-awkwardly, to crystallize something important out of the great big world of human experience.
And so many bad ones too–think of how many floundering paperbacks exist with only a Powells.com blurb to bolster them, some back-cover bullshit reading something like, “Maine is a deadly place with a big secret. In Flapper McBoyle’s astonishing sophomore novel, we meet Alice, a single mother coming home for the first time in ten years only to discover that the midwife who delivered her holds the key to the entire town’s past” etc.–and it’s like, WHO CARES?!?!?!?! Who CARES about all these little stories! Stop describing things that don’t exist!
Well, it’s a good thing that there are so many legitimately tremendous writers out there. Zadie Smith is a talent for sure, and On Beauty is wonderful. It’s an academic satire novel, which is a genre that has lately become underdeveloped. And it is so good and naturally empathetic and honest that all of a sudden, reading fiction seems to make perfect sense. You realize the very simple reason you started liking to read books the first place, back when you were a kid–fiction is the thing that, above all other forms, allows you to understand what it is to be another person. And that ability and privilege is funny, eye-opening, humbling, and necessary. If more conservative people read books, we’d have universal health care in America like that.