Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"A Thicket--No! A Forest--of Wood"

Recently I returned to James Wood's How Fiction Works, a book best consumed in small, mindful bites with lots of time left in between. In a chapter called "Sympathy and Complexity," Wood relates the story of a chief in police in a rough area of Mexico City called Neza, who assigned his officers a reading list, comprised entirely of fictional works, in order to help them to become "better citizens":

"[The reading list included] Don Quixote, Juan Rulfo's beautiful novella Pedro Paramo, Octavio Paz's essay on Mexican culture, The Labyrinth of Solitude, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and works by Carlos Fuentes, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Agatha Christie, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Neza's chief of police, Jorge Amador, believes that reading fiction will enrich his officers in at least three ways.

'First, by allowing them to acquire a wider vocabulary...Next, by granting officers the opportunity to acquire experience by proxy...Finally, Amador claims, there is an ethical benefit. "Risking your life to save other people's lives and property requires deep convictions. Literature can enhance those deep convictions by allowing readers to discover lives lived with similar commitment. We hope that contact with literature will make our police officers more committed to the values they have pledged to defend.'

How quaintly antique this sounds. Nowadays, the cult of authenticity asserts that nothing is more worldly--more in the world--than police work; thousands of movies and television shows bow to this dogma. The idea that the police might as much or more reality from their armchairs, with their noses in novels, no doubt strikes many as heretically paradoxical."

This passage affirms a concern of mine that people--especially people of my generation--are largely turning away from invented narrative in favor of so-called "real stories": personal memoir, reality television, or even what one might call liberal journalism (e.g. Michael Pollan or Tracy Kidder). There's nothing wrong with any of this, of course (except for, arguably, reality television); the problem occurs when we begin to believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that only "real stories" have anything to teach us about reality.

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