"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Or is it Just that Fiction is so Real?: A Summer Musing

July 10th, 2017 by

I’m always surprised to learn that there are people in the world who don’t like to read. Not only do they not read much: they don’t get that they shouldn’t interrupt me when I’m reading.

Most experience this—whether their interest is French cooking, mountain biking, big time wrestling, or knitting. Someone sees them doing their thing they like, and they look at them like they are wearing a Halloween mask in April. Really, they ask? That good, huh?

My reading doesn’t get interrupted very often. But when it does, it’s by people who seemed to learn in elementary school to think of reading or writing as punishment. Now they think I must have really fallen on hard times. He’s reading? Did his girlfriend break up with him? What’s he done wrong, or, Where did he go wrong? Next, he’ll be praying.

I’ve learned not to yell at people for this. The worst I might say is, “You should read this,” and hand the book to them. They glance over the cover.

Most intolerable are the people who read, but just not fiction. Instead, they only read what’s “real.”

“What,” I usually ask, “you mean, instructions for medication? Street Signs? Computer manuals? I mean, what are we talking about here?”

“You know,” they say. “Nonfiction. Self-help books.”

I usually leave this alone. At least they are reading books.

Many are the fiction writers who have responded to this, of course. “With fiction,” they say, “you lie in order to tell the truth.” There is, in other words, something real that requires telling the lie, the fiction. By projecting ourselves into imagined lives, we start to see our lives played out in a larger, more complicated scenario than we normally have access to. The Greek word for story, interestingly, is mythos, from which we have derived the English word for “myth,” a word usually used on the evening news as a synonym for “lie.” But fiction writers know and tell us that in our stories we find truths about what it means to be human or what the human condition may consist of. Never mind that a king named Oedipus may never have existed or solved the riddle of the Sphinx. His story leaves us contemplating his and our human condition.

There are many good people who will not read fiction. Whether it is because they have high standards for reality, because they don’t want to try to imagine other lives, or because they will only read books that affirm what they already believe, they don’t have time for it. These are all, I think, reasons that tell on us. Many are the Facebook memes recently that have advertised the values of reading fiction, not nonfiction, for developing empathy. And this is reason enough to read fiction. We might be in a position to love others. This squares well with the most important points of my theology.

But reasons one and three above, I think, are especially strange. We have high standards for reality? But is it that we fear that if we read a work of imagination, we will be lost to fantasy and the table will threaten to leave the floor? Is our sense of propriety that endangered? What are we resisting here?

But the third reason really gets me. Are we against being open to new ideas? I find this especially among people who teach theology, I’m afraid. They think of fiction mainly as a debased form of allegory. And when I talk to a theology person about a novel I’m reading, when they find that what I describe doesn’t fit any neat New Testament allegory, they dismiss it.

But theology is not just a formula. The best theologians, like the best fiction writers, are always embarking into their deepest senses of mystery, looking to discover things. What I find most interesting, is they don’t emerge from this mystery as heretics.

I have an example of this from a recent blog I wrote last month, which you can find here.

In either case, whether we don’t want our sense of reality, or our formulas upset, the “reality’ is that our sense of what is real only reaches about as far as our own vision–and what we’ve read. I suppose a good book on light particles or a History of the Third Reich might prove useful. But how helpful might an especially observant writer of fiction be, to add to or deepen our own “headlights” as we get to know characters in greater depth than we usually can in “real” life? It’s almost like the lights are going on a bit longer and brighter. A good novel can do this for us.

I doubt that I’ve convinced anyone to try reading fiction with these few scattered ideas. And I don’t want to forget that reading is first a pleasure. But it is also an invitation: Come, enjoy some of the richness that being alive holds out to us.

Posted in certainty, character development, creativity| 2 Comments


Comment by Emily on July 10, 2017 at 12:59 pm

I love this post on why we read and love to read and find people who don’t love to read dull, wearisome, and boring! Now you probably want to know what I am reading today. Lots of things. All at once. This includes Oliver Sack’s recent autobiography, Henry James “Art of Fiction,” and the YA book on suicide Thirteen Reasons Why. No explanation for why or how these books fit together. It’s summertime!

Comment by Tom on July 10, 2017 at 5:21 pm

I will try not to interrupt you with all that great reading, Emily. Thanks!

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