Growing up, fiction was always seen as something second-rate, leisurely, indulgent. There was nothing qualitatively useful about a Choose Your Own Adventure addiction or an embarrassingly drawn-out crush on Gilbert Blythe, and my parents knew it. “Too many books,” my mother would lament, terrified that her only daughter would be perpetually inept at long division. “Maybe you would be better at maths if you stopped reading so much.”
When she talked about books, however, an unspoken distinction persisted between books that were ‘bad’ and books that were ‘good’. ‘Good’ books were almost exclusively non-fiction: hefty encyclopaedias and nature glossaries thrust into my skinny arms for Christmas, a slim but unreadable volume on English grammar for my tenth birthday. It was the ‘bad’ books that kept me up until the early hours of the morning, using the dim light of my digital clock to illuminate each line. An unshakeable addiction to R. L. Stein, which gradually morphed into Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, caused my eyesight to plummet horrendously. My slim attention span in school became even slimmer. I even began to convince my classmates that our pale-skinned, suspiciously coffee-dependent (what was really in that cup, hmmm?) science teacher was analogous to the likes of Kurt Barlow in Salem’s Lot. When big fat Bs and Cs started to float at the top of my primary school reports, my father put his foot down. “No more,” he vowed, and hid the books I had yet to read inside a cupboard underneath the fish tank.
My family’s aversion to fiction is understandable. My grandmother was a biologist and my mother is a chemist. Both sides of my family have produced successful architects and engineers. Nobody dares to speak about my uncle, the failed artist, or my father, who gave up his studies in literature for pharmacy. In their eyes, the analysis of quantifiable, objective data could only heighten a kind of intelligence that applied to the ‘real world’, whilst a fixation on fantasy could not. Yet as I settled into the rat race of selective schooling, I could not shake the pressing urge to read and write outside the strictures of what I was being taught. When it was time to choose a degree, I kept up with theme of failing parental expectations and chose Arts.
Reading may have ruined the life my parents envisioned for me, but it has forced me to confront the utility of ‘bad’ books. If reading horror novels in my prepubescent years predisposed me to unreasonable flights of fancy, reading the likes of Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace and George Orwell demonstrated just how effortlessly literature becomes truth. When writers make sense of human experiences that are difficult to explain in other ways, they often engage with concealed or emerging social anxieties. Japanese sex robots? Philip K. Dick, 1968. Atomic bombs? H.G Wells, 1914. Really sensitive vampires? Stephenie Meyer, 2005. Sometimes, the very fiction of these texts seems to seep through and shape our reality.
I’m now finishing up my second year of an English major, and uncovering the truth in literature is still an elusive and complex process. I still love ‘bad’ books more than ‘good’ books, but they are no longer so morally loaded. In fact, when I opened my mother’s Kindle last week to see what she was reading, the screen noted she had completed 53 per cent of Catching Fire. Sounds pretty ‘bad’ to me.