Posted in Books, writing

Painful Reality: When Fiction is Just a Construct

You never really think about your relationship with books being anything too unusual.  I mean, it’s painfully clear if you’re a reader that not everyone is a reader, and that you’re a bit different if you’re a book lover.  That’s made obvious early and often by the popular people over the years.

[Image: A white woman’s arms (the body is in shadow), open an large old book. Dust flies out of the book in the shape of a heart.]
What I’m talking about is that deeper relationship with books that is a lot closer to obsession.

In my case, I began reading before I was speaking all that much, and was the kind of baby who would escape my crib to go find the books (or toys; I woke up at night a lot and would get myself out of bed to where the action was).  One time, I threw all the books I could find into my crib and cried because, while I had mastered getting out of the crib, getting back in wasn’t possible.  I needed those books.

My mother doesn’t per-se remember teaching me to read.  I just figured it out.

Side note: reading early has nothing to do with reading ability or intelligence, and late readers catch up.  The teacher in me needs to tell you that.

But I digress.

The point I am making is that my relationship with books was different from my relationship with people.  At night, books and the odd toy could comfort me, but people were unnecessary.

I had books whenever I needed them.

Well, almost whenever.

I remember one recess when I’d brought a child’s version of The Wizard of Oz out on the playground and the student teacher took it away from me.

“Recess is for playing, not reading,” she told me.

“Bitch,” I say to her today.  My last principal had that rule, too.  It’s full of shit that rule.  You play what you like at recess is my motto, and if you like reading, that’s what you play.

But again, I digress.

I used to be so concerned about the wrapper of the book that I couldn’t bear to discard a worn-out book, but working for Half Price Books taught me that recycling books made new books and between that and library school, I learned how to recycle a book without looking back.

Unlearning that rule was no big deal.

But the very hardest rule to unlearn is one that I still am struggling to learn, even though now at least I know and understand it.

I’m talking about the idea that the world in a novel is fictional.

Non-readers are laughing at me now and thinking, “Of course a book isn’t real.  That’s fiction.”

I know that.

I know the difference between fiction and reality, thank you very much.  Though I have a cousin who I believe to be Autistic and her mother says she doesn’t know the difference.  She does.  She just prefers the fictional world since it makes more sense.

To write convincing fiction, authors must create a world that makes sense.  They can only take shortcuts if the readers are already familiar with some of the world’s conventions.  For example, J. K. Rowling does not go into elaborate detail about the muggle world because the assumption is that we all know what she means when she’s talking about the muggle world, once we learn that muggle means non-magic and ordinary.  We can then fill in what it’s like to live at Hermoine’s house when she’s not at school with whatever we’d like and Rowling is convinced we can do that because we understand the conventions of the ordinary household.  She need only give us a few hints to know that it’s not like Harry’s house so it’s not that bad at all, just not magic.

I have a theory that the care with which authors of Science-Fiction and Fantasy work to build their worlds is part of the reason many of us like science-fiction and fantasy (and sometimes historical fiction, for the same reasons).  The more the author assumes we don’t understand the world and explains it, the more we feel like we get it; it’s the kind of care we wish our parents knew to do for us in real life because we can’t make the assumptions neurotypicals do about society.  Well, that and these types of books put us on a level playing field with neurotypicals; they don’t understand the world either unless they read the book and unpack what the author has said in the book about the book’s world.

In theatre classes in college, I learned that acting is an imitation of an action, and that all art is really an imitation of something.  It’s holding up a mirror.  Even paintings by Dali or works by Edgar Allan Poe are art, it’s just that the parts of the world they’re showing us are the parts we don’t like to look at, so to speak.

So, if fiction is a mirror to the world, why the heck is it always distorted?

What do I mean by this?

I prefer children’s and YA writing.  I read middle grade and young adult books almost exclusively, and usually only hit the “adult” shelves for the classics or the odd author who is really just that darned good that I’ll make the crossover.  I’ve heard this is common for us Autistics, because we appreciate how authors for children and teens don’t get lost in long passageways of description and focus on the story.  Besides that, they do try to make characters’ motives a bit clearer, which we appreciate.

I’ve appreciated it so much over the years, I’ve marveled at, looking back, how many conventions I’ve picked up from books, especially school stories like the Ramona Quimby books, which are realistic fiction much of which takes place within the context of the school world.

See, there aren’t many books for children and teens that cover the real world.

Now you know why I work in schools: I have a set of manuals covering this experience.

But I don’t really, and about two years ago, around the time I realized I was Autistic, I realized that part of why I didn’t like literary criticism beyond the more traditional “author’s intent” or maybe “reader’s response” criticism was because it meant that I would have to recognize that the mirror held up to society by fiction is always distorted.  Once I realized that, I realized that, dammit, when I reread one of my favorite Joan Lowery Nixon mysteries, Whispers From the Dead, I realized, “Dang, no teen talks like this EVER.”

I realized, then, something that had bothered me for about three years had an explanation.  The Alice McKinley series, one of my favorite go-tos for what it feels like to be a girl, is, in fact, clearly the voice of a grandmother in the body of a teen girl.  The reason Alice sold was that initially the contrast wasn’t so bad, as it was common for children’s books in the 70’s and 80’s to have a mom-like voice guiding them (even the edgy books…read old Judy Blume and you’ll see what I mean) but as the story progressed, and time marched on, the only readers had read and loved her previous books and just wanted to know what happened to Alice and Patrick.  It is no longer possible to publish a children’s book that sounds so overtly like mom or grandma.

And yet…

And yet every book is a representation of the author’s view of childhood or what it’s like to be a teenager unless the author is a child or teen when writing.  This almost never happens in terms of actual publication, so almost every last flipping book is a distorted mirror of society, the society the author wants to see (good or bad).

Every book is someone’s parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc. writing his or her own view of childhood.

Autistics may well see where I’m going with this.

If, in fact, as many of us have, we used children’s and YA literature not just because within the walls of the book world everything made sense (unlike the “real” world) but because through this world we could learn social skills that we’d use in the real world to “pass” as a bit more neurotypical, and if those skills were, in fact, based on a distorted version of reality some adult thought up, no wonder they never were as effective as they should have been.  We were becoming Beverly Cleary’s idea of childhood, which is great if we run into Ramona Quimby, but since she’s never been on the playground with us, well…

This is the problem with literary criticism, I think, for me.  It’s not that I don’t want to explore different facets of looking at a book, but it’s like the person who just loves animals but never, ever would want to be a veterinarian because you have to open them up and see inside (or put them to sleep)…looking deeper at these novels means that I have to recognize that fiction doesn’t merely mean an imitation of an action; it means a distorted one, and that my whole life, trying to act like characters from novels, explains why I’ve never been successful at fitting in.

And also why I weirdly get along better with people older than me (grandmas) and teenagers.

The world moves too fast for neurotypicals, but faster still, for Autistics.  I think about how much books helped me to be at least recognizably a kid (even if I was a grandma’s version of a kid), and wonder how people do things today.  It reminds me of how I think about looking for work, and how we used to look in newspapers for this information, and now, most jobs are posted online, and other than in education, where we are slow to move and there are SYSTEMS for this (so we have central websites that post teaching jobs that are easy to learn about), how the heck does someone else do this looking-for-work thing?  What other things did I learn about how to live my life are no longer accurate, but I can’t find the rules, in print, somewhere, to explain them to me?

And how many of the rules that I did learn and internalize weren’t rules at all, but someone’s grandma’s idea of the rules?





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