Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Why Read Fiction

Quite some time ago, bookmarked a posting on the First Things blog because it reflected comments I'd heard from several other quite intelligent people my age that I've run across:
A few days ago our editor, Joseph Bottum, observed with a shake of his head that none of the many Junior Fellows at First Things in recent years reads novels with any regularity.

I had to confess I was no exception, thus perfecting his despair. “The dominant Western literary form for the past two hundred years” he said “but you all say, ‘Nope, we’re done with that.’”

Why is this? I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for my part, I just don’t get drawn into fictional narratives the way I did as a child.

I turned towards the philosophical and historic in my mid-teens, which gave me Plato’s kind of impatience with lying poets. At some point I found that I had to force myself to turn the next page because I really did not care in the least what happened to imaginary persons. The only narratives I now read with easy pleasure are travelogues, histories, and biographies, packed as they are with the red meat of the real.

But I’m making a good-faith effort to regain a taste for novels. I’ve started with Jane Austen, hoping that the goodly helping of edification will help me painlessly transition from my addiction to propositional truths to a healthy appreciation of the formal properties of a well-wrought story. I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and am now in the middle of Persuasion. She’s quite as wise, perceptive, and delightfully ironic as everyone says, but I’m still having the hardest time staying interested in the plot.
Now, I don't share Mr. McDaniel's hang up in this regard at all, though I do find that I don't read as much fiction as I used to as a teenager. But as I say, several good friends have surprised me by expressing similar opinions. Helene Hanff who wrote 84 Charing Cross Road and Q's Legacy, two of my favorite books about books, observes at one point in 84, "I never can get interested in things that didn't happen to people who never lived."

Some of this is, I think, simply a matter of personal taste. However I wonder if some of it also has to do with a modern idea of what fiction is. There are two contradictory ideas of fiction which I hear often:

1) I am the author and I have created this story, which is mine and is precisely what I say it is, for your entertainment. Read it and be diverted.

2) The author has created a text which does not necessarily have an inherent meaning. You as the reader must encounter this text and determine what it means to you.

Both of these, if one actually internalizes them, strike me as rather boring. If a story is simply something which a particular author thought up in wholly artificial fashion and presents to you for amusement, what exactly is the point? Why should I care that that author made up that particular sequence of unreal events? If the story does not have meaning in and of itself -- if meaning is something that I apply myself -- why should I care about the story? Clearly, anything worth knowing is already in my head, and reading the story is like staring at an uncarved block of stone and imagining a sculpture.

On the question of why we read and write fiction, the works of ancient authors like Homer and Virgil have always struck me as interesting. Both to some extent, I think, believed in the myths they were recording. (Virgil less so than Homer, and neither in a literal sense, perhaps.) Yet both knew they were making up the details of these stories as they went along. And their readers in the ancient world both knew that the stories they were hearing or reading had been composed by human authors, and also believed that they in some sense reflected real stories about the gods and heroes.

The key insight here, I think, is that worthwhile fiction describes something that is at root true -- indeed it shows reality in a more distilled fashion than actual observation -- even if the details are made up. When fiction ceases to be seen as describing something true, it ceases to be worth reading.


Myron said...

worthwhile fiction describes something that is at root true -- indeed it shows reality in a more distilled fashion than actual observation -- even if the details are made up.

I like it. I recall reading in Stephen King's "On Writing" (required reading for work) that his advice about describing a scene was to focus on one or two salient details. The rest, the reader can make up for themselves, and not be bored to death by a detailed blow-by-blow description of every scratch on the floor of a room.

What I like about fiction is that it allows you to speculate about how things might be different. My favorite novels (often science fiction) amount to one long thought experiment, teasing out the implications of a slight change in our world, or our view of it.

Plus, I learn stuff, if the fiction is well-researched. The key is to be realistic (while possibly bending one or two rules) without being confined by the requirement to be real. Not all fiction is pure fantasy :)

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

The bit about Plato's lying poets reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite films, in which one of the characters admits that he reads literary criticism instead of fiction: "That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it's all just made up by the author."

My suspicion, though, is that Mr. McDaniel is mistaken when he says he can't get drawn into fictional narratives. Unless he is atypical of his generation, he probably has seen a lot of movies and television, and has little problem getting drawn into fictional narratives when presented in those media. My hunch is that the main reason youngish people aren't interested in reading fiction much anymore is because their need for fiction is being satisfied via other means. And frankly, though I've nothing against the novel, I do think that film and television are just superior vehicles for presenting fictional narratives than is the printed page.

Anonymous said...

I used to love reading novels, but not so much anymore. Same for other fictional media: movies and television. Fictional narratives have a "been there, done that" quality to them. Wasn't it said that there are only 17 plots, and everything else is just window dressing? Granted sometimes that window dressing (a unique setting, vivid characters, or particularly good writing style) can sway me to engage a novel or a movie. But on the whole, I feel that the truth that I'm seeking through the narrative is much better understood by engaging reality.

Anonymous said...

Great art of a particular form seems to flourish in particular places and times. Witness, for example, the great Dutch painters of the 17th century, or the German and Austrian composers of the 18th century, the British and American novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries -

and the great American filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Cinema is the dominant art form of our place and time. The question here shouldn't be novels vs. nonfiction books. It should be novels vs. films. I'll bet all of those non-novel-reading young people watch movies.


Anonymous said...

I'll bet all of those non-novel-reading young people watch movies.

Probably true, but isn't there a point in most adults' lives when they can't muster the desire to see Yet Another Movie About The Same Old Things? There was a commercial the other day for a new cop movie -- I can't recall the name -- that apparently features family members on the force pitted against each other over some sort of corruption. My wife rolled her eyes and said, "Haven't we seen this 1000 times before?"

I feel that way about most fictional narratives. Been there, done that. And to top it off, the underlying message of most films is grating to the Christian sensibility. "Be an individual! Truth is what you make it! If it feels right, do it! Live for today! Challenge authority!" Etc. etc.

Anonymous said...

I guess I must be in the minority among young people--I read more fiction than non-fiction.

The thing that a novel does that a movie cannot do is this: it allows the reader to experience the interior life of the character(s) in a way that films can't quite touch. Maybe that is why novels are now neglected--it seems to me that, as a culture, we neglect the interior life and cultivate exterior action (which films do more engagingly portray). And by interior life I do not mean primarily the action of the intellect, but also of the will. A good novel exercises the passions of the reader.

--Elizabeth B.

Foxfier said...

I do find that I don't read as much fiction as I used to as a teenager

Hehe, if I read as much fiction now as I did when I was a teen, I'd have no time for anything else. I was very bored in school. *grin*

That said... I've never really understood the two "ideas" of fiction that you mention: I see fiction as someone making a "world"-- sometimes as small as a life, sometimes as large as a universe.
There's usually several reasons for the world, entertainment being the most common, making a statement being another, letting you see from another view being a third.

I don't know, maybe this view is the reason that I love RPGs, fan fiction and such so much?

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I've come to prefer reading aloud to reading by myself. I finished Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance with Offspring #1 recently (in our house, you're only too old to be read to when you're in the cold, cold grave), and I enjoyed it far, far more than when I'd read it in college.

Being inside the narrative with another mind, and stepping outside as you go to discuss the text and the author, opens up the text in ways that reading alone doesn't. I've never loved Hawthorne so much. (And it was gratifying that O#1 went on to read more Hawthorne voluntarily; something that, as was pointed out above, is a luxury of time I don't share so much anymore.)

Brandon said...

Schlegel once said that novels are the Socratic dialogues of our time, and I think this is very true of extremely good novels, for precisely the reason you suggest (Mansfield Park, Middlemarch, Uncle Tom's Cabin, even Black Beauty, are all examples of great fiction that also involves great truth). I think the hard part about fiction, though, is that there is so much of it these days, and so much of that is not good at all. It takes a lot of effort and luck to find great fiction these days, if you don't simply stick to classics.

Anonymous said...

If a book is any good they'll make a movie of it. And the movie will be better. This is because movies are better than books.

You have to read books. Movies don't have to be read. You can just watch them.


I don't know how many times I've had to scold your mother (With her giant library of books) about this.

Anonymous said...

I positively love fiction. Love to read it, love to write it, love to daydream about it. But I read very little of it these days (and watch even less).

Why? Because it is so difficult to find something good. It is very easy to find a good gardening book. It is a pain in the rear to sift through piles of garbage in order to find a work of fiction that is both beautiful and true. (And I don't require anything extraordinary in the 'beauty' department -- if you can write not quite as poorly as I do, I'm thrilled.)

So I read gardening books. More efficient. And a type of fiction, too, really.