Nancy Scott Hanway

Nicholas Nickleby

Fiction is dread

Nancy Scott Hanway5 Comments

Good fiction makes me really anxious. I can't stand worrying about characters, and I speed-read to reach parts of safety.  Sometimes I have to put books down and walk around the room to calm my nerves. My friend Debra said something once that I repeat often: "No actual human beings were harmed in the making of this novel." But I've never been able to separate fiction and reality very well. I was thinking about this because Cecil began listening to Nicholas Nickleby as he drove to Milkwaukee last week. He loved it, and he is now listening on headphones at night before bed. Nicholas Nickleby is one of my all-time favorite novels: big and juicy and comic, yet also about injustice and class. But I would have a hard time listening before bed, because I get infuriated with Ralph Nickleby, worried for Nicholas, angry for poor Smike. I would need to fast forward through those parts or I might start yelling at the book.

It doesn't make sense, of course. I know the ending, know that (spoiler alert!) Ralph gets punished, Nicholas triumphs, Smike dies of consumption with Nicholas by his side. (It's a 19th century novel!) The book won't change. When I was a little girl, I believed that books represented real worlds, and that a story could change when the book was closed, because the real people inside could change their fates. Is that where narrative worry comes from, from the thought that the story might change behind your back? Or is it just that our brains are hard-wired for anxiety-producing conflict?