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Scary Title Alert: The Discipline Of Reading Fiction

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.
| Feb 11, 2013 | No comments |

Paradise-LostI 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.

bungee jumping“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.

The_One_True_RingI 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.

Oh, wow!

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.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Kessie Carroll

When I learned about worldviews in high school, it changed the way I read. Now when I read a book, I pay attention for clues as to the author’s worldview. Every book has it, no matter how shallow or how fast-paced. It can be as something as simple as the hero’s motivation for saving his brother. Or it can be something as blatant as the scene in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when the whale falling through space muses on its own existence, and ultimate meaninglessness.
I don’t know if everybody reads that way, but I always have, and it’s just as entertaining as the story itself.
Christian fiction troubles me more than atheist rantings or Hindu piffle–because Christians should know their own theology. And the fact that they write it so poorly is cause for alarm.
A hundred years ago, they did. Elizabeth Goudge writes the most wonderful pictures of different believers and how they handle their faith. In Green Dolphin Street (which primarily deals with the settlement of New Zealand–and what happens when a man writes home for a bride and gets her sister instead), there’s a character who doesn’t believe in souls or God. Yet he has the power to heal people by laying his hands on them. This puts him in a quandary that eventually leads to him accepting Christ.


It amuses me, because Milton is totes an Arian heretic and most people don’t know that. I love Paradise Lost for LOTS of reasons.
LOTR *Is* fun. But you’re right, there’s also depth there. It’s not like fun and depth have always been at odds in publishing–there’s an amazing amount of depth and thought to Burrough’s A Princess of Mars and others, and those were a step above trash fiction in the eyes of the elite… but to the common boy growing up, these things were Fun. 
One gets tired of people being challenged to see really really simple connections and just shrug and say “I don’t get it” even though they never tried to. At all.

Paul Lee

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.

I like this, because it makes readers out to be more than junkies or lab rats, funding writers’ serious work while wasting our own lives away on frivolous entertainment.  If that is even remotely true, then we have a big problem, because it makes authors’ work less meaningful as well.
It’s hard to concentrate and think through the real meanings of stories, but it is very rewarding.  I think this goes for other media besides prose fiction, too.  Some of the funnest experiences of my life have involved roleplaying on multiplayer online games, but those fun experiences are few and far between in such games, because it requires all people involved to exercise great discipline in order to work together to make an adventure unfold.  So, I believe that discipline ultimately does not work against fun.  Real discipline is the only way to experience real adventure.  Adventures are uncomfortable things, and we can’t expect to share them without some serious commitment.
This post gives me hope that my life might not be altogether meaningless.

R. L. Copple

Good points, Becky. A lot to chew on there.
I would suggest a balanced approach when it comes to entertainment vs. message/meaning.
One, entertainment is not without value in and of itself. It is a stress reliever, which we need from time to time. It makes us more efficient and productive. If not overdone, providing entertainment is a worthy goal and ministry in and of itself for even a Christian author. It can and is overused and abused in our world, but that doesn’t equate to convicting the value of entertainment as an unworthy goal anymore than someone shooting children means guns are evil and need to be ditched. I think we can judge the abuse of entertainment without devaluing it as a worthy goal in and of itself.
Two, as a Christian, I want my stories to have meaning, that in some way, whether overt or subtle, point the reader to truths about God. I’ve always said one of my goals in my stories is to introduce the reader to new perspectives through my stories. Fiction has the opportunity to do that in a way non-fiction can’t. Through experiencing a character’s world, the reader gets to experience that world from that point of view.  This is one of the main reasons I write fiction, because it can do that so well. I’m actually hitting on that topic today, linking back to my recent article here: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/CopplesCreations/~3/p2mgYb-b-d4/
Three, while #2 is true, a primary goal on the practical stage still has to be to entertain. Like it or not, if your story is boring, few will read that “message.” When a reader picks  up a work of fiction, it is primarily to be entertained. If you fail there, you fail at conveying your message and meaning to all but a handful.
The key appears to be to keep entertainment as a compliment to message, and not allow message to override entertainment. Keep them in balance. When one overrides the other, that’s when a book goes wrong. When theology and meaning are sacrificed to entertaining people, and when boredom defines “fiction with a message.”

Lex Keating

There are two ways to look at this dilemma: through the lens of a reader, or through the lens of a writer. Because, let’s face it, a lot of us have read enough that we have started thinking “I could have written that. Better.”

Snots, aren’t we? 🙂

But as a reader, I must consider the concept of “Garbage in, garbage out.” If I read fiction just to have something to read, regardless of quality, the level at which I think will change. Even if I didn’t want to write, this would have a profound impact on my worldview, my ability to communicate my thoughts, and how my theology plays out in real life. Reading fiction that has a poorly articulated philosophical base reduces my ability to construct my own. And, never forget, even if I’m only reading something for entertainment, it will still impact the way I think.

So that is something I need to consider, whether I am picking up a book with poor morals, or a book with poorly executed theology. As a demographic, we tend to excuse a poorly executed work of fiction as long as the story contains the elements we idolize. Whether those are surface Christian morals or spec fic flags. Yes, I said idolize.

I face this with a friend and fellow writer, who values imagination above ideology. “Avatar” touched her feelings, so it didn’t matter that (among other things) the story elevates each thing in nature as having a soul of equal value to a person’s. Peer pressure eventually changed the way she talked about the story, but that tendency to elevate creativity over competence is a subtle danger. The quality of the stories we lift up says a lot about where we draw the line between the pursuit of excellence and the tickling of ears.

As a writer, I have to face the question of “What underlying things do I communicate?” If I am always taking away from a story some ideas on faith or thought or (heaven forfend) the assumption that the fiction has facts, then what am I sending out in a story? Weighing the communicated theology (which I certainly *hope* reflects my own!) is something fewer and fewer writers are doing. Even in the Christian market. One part of the spectrum may be closely inspected, but big gaps are left elsewhere.

Which says to me that we’re not as concerned about quality as we are about quantity. Oh, dear. And here I wanted to grow up to be discriminating. Maybe if I read another book, I’ll feel better about myself…

Martin LaBar

“If readers come to fiction looking for a thrill ride, why would writers put in thought-provoking material?”
Good job. Thanks for doing this!