My parents liked to read. There were tall, filled bookshelves in the living room. I got deeply involved with the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, then horse books. In boarding school bliss was weekend afternoons when every girl lay silently on her single bed, reading and eating candy freshly purchased from the tiny candy shop improvised by Sister Anthony on a card table.
By the time I was in my teens I had found home in books -- grown-up ones now, ones often purloined from the shelves in the living room. I read novels. I read fiction. That's where the art was then. And I promised myself that if I did anything with my life, I was going to find a way to become one of those magic people who could write fiction and create worlds that were more real to me than the ones presented anywhere else.
Forty years later, I don't read fiction anymore. At least, not contemporary fiction. The last novel I read was The God of Small Things back in the mid-nineties. And that was a helluva book to end on. I read it twice.
But I can't bear current fiction now. We have memoir now. We have broken through that barrier and someone can tell their story now directly and fully without the clothing of fiction.
When George Eliot was writing, or Jean Rhys, or Virginia -- the language of memoir that we have now did not exist. People had to put their memoir into fiction. And when you read good fiction from back then -- something I still do -- you can hear the writer's thinking bleeding through the story. I still read old fiction with enthusiasm. And I've been wondering why I like fiction in old books, but have no interest when it comes to the new fiction.
I pick up a new novel now, open it, and as soon as I read the first sentence -- about someone who does not exist -- I lose interest. There is nothing at stake.
I want the writer to be willing to show themselves as blatantly as possible on the page. I look hard for good contemporary memoir. When I am lucky and I come across it then I hardly put the book down until I am finished. I can't. The pleasure is too great.
But good memoir is hard to come by, and to fill the gap I have been returning to fiction from the 1940s and further back into the 19th century. I would still rather read a good current memoir. But these old books keep me going. I am grateful for them, rich and deep, the soil I came from.