The Addiction to Fiction

Have you ever wondered about the nature of fiction?

Reality is what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears, feel with our hands, taste with our mouth and smell with our nose.  Fiction is the way we fool our senses into thinking we’re perceiving another reality, one that isn’t there, but one we want to temporarily inhabit.  Fiction is our effort to create virtual realities without computers, using just the power of our minds, or the illusion of television/movie screens.

From amoebas to chimpanzees, we’re probably the only creature on Earth that spend so much time rejecting reality.  Why?  Have we evolve more brain power than we need to live, so we use the excess to imagine?  Or is sitting around in trees eating grubs just not enough to keep our brains busy?  We created civilization after civilization trying to find the right alternative to nature, but we’re never happy.  We always want more.

Or did our addiction to fiction start with “Once upon a time” when were were so very little?

I have met people who lived their lives without fiction, but they were usually graduate students from Asian countries whose ambitions didn’t allow for them to waste time on books, movies, television, comics and video games.  Busy people, especially those who go on to make billions, usually don’t waste time with fiction.  Which makes me wonder if I hadn’t had my lifelong addiction to fiction if I would have been busier, more creative and productive?  Or is it, if we don’t find exciting lives to live, we read about them instead?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not regretting my addiction.  I am not trying to talk myself into going cold turkey.  I am too far gone to ever contemplate giving up my addiction.

I want to understand the nature of fiction so I can seek more powerful fictional highs. 

Most bookworms are beer drinkers and marijuana tokers, merely satisfied with using one genre their entire life.  I’m not sure any mystery or science fiction novel ever gets beyond the buzz of beer or the high of grass – for the real opium and heroin level highs you have to move on to literary writers.  And that’s so hilarious, because the most addictive fiction, the hardest of the hard stuff, are those books that get the closest to writing about reality.

Television and movies are more like crack highs that become all consuming.  Which makes video games the crystal meth of fiction.

I like to rationalize that fiction represents the greatest form of communication.  In real life we can listen to each other chatter on for minutes at a time at most, but when we read a book, some of those communiqués last for thirty or forty hours.  How many people would listen to their friends if they talked as long as Tolstoy, Proust or even Stephen King?  And is Anna Karenina or War and Peace escapism, or capsule summaries of 19th century life?

JWH – 11/18/13 

4 Responses

  1. I’ve always liked the idea that fiction allows us to escape “to” something rather than “from” something. It isn’t so much that the day-to-day part of like sucks and I need to experience something else, it is more of the idea that instead of merely leading one life in my allotted time, I can lead several. That to me is a big part of what entertainment is. I enjoy having real-life adventures. Heck, life truly is an adventure if you are willing to see it as such. But no matter how adventurous my life could be, even given limitless resources, there are some adventures I cannot experience and that is where science fiction and fantasy, in all its forms, provides something to escape to: the past, the future, a world in which knights exist, a planet far from our own. But even general fiction can be an interesting “escape”, and adventure I can have while not using up the time, energy and resources it would take to have a similar adventure in real life.

    I’m all for advocating for real adventures, but I cannot have one every day…but I can in fiction. It is addicting, you are so correct.

    I think the reason I enjoy the James S. A. Corey stories, and the shorts in Jonathan Strahan’s Edge of Infinity, is that although they are wildly impractical and as fictional as going to some far away galaxy (referencing a conversation currently being had on the Classic Science Fiction Book Club forums), they “feel” more like a reality that “could” happen…or better stated they are what we thought would be in reach in our lifetime, but since they are not, isn’t it fun to actually live those adventures now through fiction?

    I found this article today that you may have already read that only somewhat touches on your points here, but nevertheless as I read it I had that “this is something Jim might enjoy reading” feeling and so I am passing it along:

    http://www.aeonmagazine.com/oceanic-feeling/does-fantasy-offer-escapism-or-escape/

    • Carl, that is a powerful essay. I’m going to need some time to study it. But my favorite quote was “The world is not made out of atoms. It is made of the stories we tell about atoms.” That is both wrong and right at the same time. Very Zen!

      You might like to read:

      http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-storytelling-animal/201205/fiction-addiction

      This is from Psychology Today and it suggests books are like a life simulator where we can practice living through various scenarios. They claim that readers are more empathetic than non-readers.

      Of course, this hypothesis begs the question: why are so many people practicing for violent situations?

      • I will check it out, thanks.

        I generally think violent entertainment in any form is largely a cathartic experience. I believe we all want to feel that we can triumph, can win, etc. against all odds and one of the easiest ways to portray that is in an A vs. B scenario. Not sure why victory over another vs. living together in harmony is so cathartic, but then there you go…fodder for another lengthy comment if I don’t get control of myself. :)

  2. Jim, I think that everyone lives his life with fiction. I don’t think that there are any exceptions (except, perhaps, for people whose brains are so damaged they can’t think at all).

    It’s fiction which sets us apart from other animals. We have the ability to imagine what isn’t true, and that’s a powerful, powerful ability. You don’t have to read books or watch movies. That’s just entertainment, and if you don’t have the time or the interest for such things, that doesn’t mean anything.

    But fiction can be something as simple as imagining the results of an action before we do it. It might be evident when we imagine various results from different actions, or even when we ‘see’ where we’d like to be in the future (planning, in other words).

    Sure, it’s more obvious in the myths and stories which have been a part of human societies since we first became human. But IMHO, it’s all part of the same thing. The ability to do fiction is what sets us apart from other animals (although, even then, some other species probably have a rudimentary ability which is the precursor of fiction).

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