I recently had the opportunity to sit and listen to a reading and talk given by a respected small-press editor, Kate Gale of Red Hen Press. She was charming but she said something that was rather upsetting. She said that there are few people who read. Of those few, even fewer read literary fiction. Fewer than those read literary short stories. And even fewer still read poetry. As a poet, I was understandably saddened, but it got me thinking about why this was.
There are the obvious reasons, like most people are interested in entertainment rather than philosophical or metaphysical concerns, so they reach for a mass-market novel that reads more like an action film than a literary novel. The more popular novels of Dan Brown come to mind. Sure, they’re entertaining, but there isn’t a whole lot going on beneath the surface. Reading these novels is all well and good, but it doesn’t get to the heart of why one should read novels in the first place.
The reason one should read novels, or at least in my opinion, is to have their perception of the world altered, if even for only an hour or two. The popularity of novels that do this stokes my optimism about the state of fiction in the United States and in the world at large. Although they may be ultimately less popular than the latest Tom Cruise film, literary fiction, and novels in particular are still widely read.
One of the most talented writers who fits in this category, and my personal favorite, is Japanese novelist, non-fiction writer, and translator Haruki Murakami. Unlike most popular fiction, Murakami’s novels leave the reader with more questions than answers. He seems to understand that the novel is not about constructing a problem and delivering the answer over several hundred pages. There really isn’t much I care to say about Murakami’s work other than that it’s a very personal experience and one that must be had, preferably multiple times, to fully understand. That being said, I discovered this interesting documentary about Murakami’s work as well as Murakami himself. If you’ve read Murakami, you’ll appreciate it for what it is and if you have not read his work, you’ll likely develop an interest. Either way, I find myself feeling more optimistic when I think about the popular success of a literary novelist such as Murakami. Maybe there’s hope for poets after all.