I realize I may have scared off half our readers with a title like “The Discipline Of Reading Fiction,” but it introduces the subject I want to explore better than anything else I could think of. The problem is that “discipline” seems antithetical to “fiction.” Above all else, we’re told with some frequency, that fiction is for entertainment. So why would you ever need discipline or to cultivate discipline in reading it?
At quick look at novels we regard as classics reveals that fiction has a long history of being something more than entertainment. There’s no indication that the writers of old saw themselves as entertainers. Rather, they had something to say to their culture and chose a medium that showed what they wanted to say rather than laying it out through didactic prose.
Today, however, because our culture screams for something to fill the void of meaningless, to jar people into feeling alive again, our cry has become, “Entertain me!”
In fact, the best stories–even from those writers of old who wrote to show that they believed in hell (Dante) or the fall of Man (Milton) or Man’s struggle against God (Melville), or whatever–do entertain. They show admirably well, but they also make us feel.
“Feel” is what our culture is looking for. Consequently, we want our fiction to be thrilling–giving us the sense of riding a roller coaster or bungee jumping off a bridge. Or we’re looking for it to be fear-inducing, pushing us to the edge with suspense and evil. Perhaps we read to vicariously conquer, enjoying power and control and victory. Then again, we might read to bask in the bliss of romance–the excitement of new love, the thrill of relational intimacy.
Whatever the sought-for emotion–though I suspect most of us don’t analyze what emotion we’re after–we are most content with our fiction if it successfully brings us within the grip of those feelings.
The problem is, feelings are ephemeral. I can read a book that makes me laugh out loud, then within a day pick up another one that pushes me to despair.
In fact, that’s where many of us are in regard to our reading–simply riding the tide of emotion from one story to the next. Some of us prefer one emotion over another, so we seek out books in a particular genre that feed on the feelings we prefer. Others of us enjoy experiencing the gamut, or one particular emotion in the winter, another in the spring, and so forth.
When we evaluate books, the chief question we ask is, Did I like it? Generally if we respond favorably, we’ll say we couldn’t put the book down or that it was a page turner. If we respond negatively, it’s often because we couldn’t get into it or we lost interest. In other words, we evaluate fiction based on how it affected us, how well it entertained us.
Writers, then, who want readers to like their books begin to write more and more to generate those passing emotions. In essence, the process spirals away from fiction actually saying something, but also from readers actually looking for what it is the author might be saying.
Readers get inoculated by “fun” fiction, and no longer approach stories as vehicles of ideas, shown not told. When we as Christians do look for meaning, we are primarily looking for a Christ figure and a picture of redemption. We rarely dig deeper.
I came face to face with my own deficiency in this area on Sunday when my pastor, Mike Erre, made a reference to Lord of the Rings. He was talking about idols, particularly about what Psalm 115:8 reveals–that we become like the thing we worship. (He has defined worship as that which we value highly above all else–hence, all people worship, even atheists). The Lord of the Rings reference was this: “The ring is the most brilliant depiction of idol worship” as Smeagol went from an upright being into one crouched over, rounded, if you will, traveling on hands and feet, and closed in on himself, valuing only his precious.
I see that. Now.
I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. But why not? I’d have to say, because I wasn’t looking. I had rather glibly considered the ring a representation of sin, but never thought more deeply, never made the connections and parallels to the idolatry that might exist in my own life, never asked what was shaping me into its own image.
So, what if we started reading with an eye toward more than a quick jolt of emotion? What if we started digging around in our fiction and looking for priceless treasure that reflects truths from Scripture?
Perhaps we’ll need to retrain our reading habits. Instead of inhaling, like the teen who scarfs down his burger and fries without even tasting them, we may need to slow down, intentionally. We may need to think about the story, re-read passages, discuss them with friends, compare the ideas we discover with what the Bible says.
Some readers are undoubtedly complaining that fiction today doesn’t demand this kind of thoughtful treatment–it’s either too shallow or too preachy. I think that’s true more often than I wish. But think about why. If readers come to fiction looking for a thrill ride, why would writers put in thought-provoking material? Wouldn’t they expect readers to hate those books, looking instead for the next Twilight? On the other hand, if a writer is intent upon saying something to readers who aren’t mining stories for truth, he may feel the only way to get his ideas across is to state them obviously and often–which, of course, may come across as preachy.
I believe there’s a synergy between writers and readers. However, it seems to me writers are getting the bulk of the blame for poor fiction, especially in Christian fiction. But we readers ought to bear our portion of the responsibility. And we can change. We can approach reading with our minds as much as with our emotions. We can intentionally look for something more than what pulls at our heartstrings.
Of course, reading in this way requires a measure of discipline. But worthwhile things usually do.