Fiction and Pretext

I tend not to read realistic fiction.

For some reason, “family drama,” “high school angst,” or “coming of age” tales in the here-and-now don’t appeal. In general, that is; there are certainly exceptions.

Maybe it’s a lingering reluctance from the days when realistic fiction was elevated above “escapist” literature (“escapist” indicating a work with hints of fantasy, sci-fi, or other elements that are not immediately applicable to readers’ situation) and when realistic fiction had a strong bent toward exhorting readers toward conformity to social norms. (I hadn’t been born during this trend’s heyday, but surely the attitude of suspicion could be absorbed by osmosis?)

Maybe it has to do with hope. In some circles, apparently, for a tale to be realistic, it must be gritty and dark, and everybody must come to a sticky end. Which kinda contradicts one of the most beautiful defining characteristics of children’s literature, that no matter how difficult and unjust circumstances are, there is (often, not always) a ray of hope.

Or maybe it’s that I find historical novels, murder mysteries, fantasy (set in the present or in the past), sci-fi, legends, myths, oral- or fairy-tales and other works of distinctly non-realistic literature easier to relate to. After all, there’s no pressure to see myself in any of the characters when they aren’t in similar circumstances to my own – and so I find in them close companions and sometimes mirrors, if only in small aspects of their natures, of my own behaviour.

Or perhaps it simply has to do with pretext. A murder mystery is an excuse to study how people behave under great pressure, a breath of air which frees us from the frivolous inanity with which we are bombarded daily and holds out the gift of time, space, a reason to contemplate our own mortality. A murder mystery asks us to examine human ties, both for good and evil, and how close or meaningless our various relationships may be in the face of evil, and to consider what behaving decently under fire might look like.

A historical novel has the allure of the past. The past may be romanticized or made to seem harsher and less endurable than it really was. The scope may be vast or minute: an intricate weaving of those lives deemed significant, or the struggles and joys of the long-forgotten “small people.” A history may support the blusterings of empire or tell what the official texts omit; it may offer a revision of canon or seek to expand upon the lives of those in power, and the people behind those in power. A story set in the past has the advantage of being familiar – we all know what the past was like, or we think we do; an image, however blurred at the edges gives us the comforting impression that we know what it was like back then – and at the same time, bewitchingly exotic, because it is not the here and now, and people do not dress the same, the rules of society are different.

Fantasy – well, fantasy. The great “what if” of magic and Other creatures. Fantasy promises a land nothing like our own – but akin enough that we can understand, or at least pick up the dialect of this strange other place. Fantasy is an extended game of pretend, an utterly absorbing world that is cannot be, and yet is: invisible, yet real and no less powerful for its invisibility.

And sci-fi, the other half of the same question of “what if,” also full of extraordinary abilities and unknown life forms, but this game has the premise of unimaginably advanced technology, a slightly less arcane source of power, if no less extraordinary.

All of these genres – mystery, historical, fantasy, sci-fi, and realistic – contain tales of marvelous adventures and daring feats. I think the difference – in my mind, at least – is the pretext. Realistic novels don’t offer one, beyond the relationships and situations in the novels. Mystery tales offer those same relationships and situations, but add a purpose to reading: to find who did it. Stories set in the past call to the history buff in me: did you remember this era/battle/law/person which frames or is shaped by the story? Characters in fantasy and sci-fi may have the same problems of cruelty, discrimination, or a similar journey to adulthood as the characters in a realistic novel. The fantasy or sci-fi offers more pretext for reading about the same situations as I decipher an unfamiliar world and the situation besetting the protagonist at the same time.

Or maybe it is a question of hope, after all.