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The Good And Bad Of The Reading Experience

If fiction is a model for life which readers create in collaboration with writers, then it seems to me readers are being transformed by writers into whatever writers believe to be true.
| Aug 22, 2011 | No comments |

Reading can be a powerful experience, second only to living out adventures. Seeing them on the screen, big or little, doesn’t often do the same justice to events as does reading about them in a book.

I’ve believed this about reading for some time, and now there is a growing body of evidence, thanks to Dr. Keith Oatley and his colleagues who are studying the psychology of fiction, to validate this position.

But is it a good thing that reading affects us so strongly?

Of Dr. Oatley’s recent book on the subject, Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction, his publisher (Wiley-Blackwell) explains it deals with

the transformative power of fiction to enter and engage the mind into revealing profound insights about ourselves and those around us.

Transformative power. Profound insights.

I have to ask first, transforming us from what to what?

If fiction is, as I quoted last time from the publisher’s blurb, a model for life which readers create in collaboration with writers, then it seems to me readers are being transformed by writers into whatever writers believe to be true.

This concept has powerful ramifications for both readers and writers.

For writers, it challenges the notion that we do little more than reflect the real world. Rather, we are participating in shaping it. For example, writers of children’s literature who include characters with two mommys, as if this is normative behavior, are contributing to the creation of a world in which such would be normative.

It seems to me, however, that readers must be willing collaborators. If a writer offers a look at the world which the reader knows to be untrue, any transformation seems unlikely. If, however, the writer earns the reader’s trust and presents something plausible, even if it calls into question the reader’s views, then it seems transformation is a viable option.

For readers, then, the onus is on us to determine a writer’s trustworthiness regarding truth. Too often we make the determination based on the external effects a story has on us. Did it make us laugh? Were we so engaged we neglected chores? Did the ending cause us to tear up, even weep aloud?

Those are the “good” stories we want. We’ve lived an experience that has had a physical effect on us. But what does our emotional reaction to the story have to do with truth?

I can feel deeply about something, but those emotions have little to do with actuality. Ask anyone who has had an unrequited crush. The strong romantic feelings the person held were not a true indication of an actual love relationship.

So too with fiction. A moving story does not necessarily indicate the author is conveying truth.

If a reader cannot trust his emotional response to a story, then it seems he has these options: 1) let a writer influence him no matter what; 2) choose to read books written only by writers who have a high probability of telling the truth; 3) step away from the emotion of a story and look at it intellectually to determine if the writer is offering truth.

Which brings me to the second conclusion Dr. Oatley’s publisher stated: fiction gives us profound insights about the world and ourselves. How profound can those insights be if they are formed in collaboration with a false belief?

The reader, for example, finds in The Wizard of Oz, that Dorothy has had within her all along the ability to achieve what she wants — as have the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. In collaboration with the writer, the reader concludes that she is just like the characters, that she, too, has within herself all she needs. Good-bye Wizard, good-bye magic. She has simply to believe in herself.

Is that a profound insight, or a false one? Perhaps profoundly false.

The Wizard of Oz, I might point out, would in all likelihood fall into the category of books written by writers who have a high probability of telling the truth. Why? Because it has a veneer of respectability since it addresses such important traits as courage, heart, intellect, and love of family and home.

Besides, it has the appearance of good triumphing over evil, it has the absence of a number of qualities some find offensive, and it has a character many will feel for because she is willing to learn and is willing to help others along the way.

And yet, if the reader collaborates with the writer, the insights he gains will be profoundly false.

As I see it, reading should come with a surgeon general’s warning: this activity may be hazardous to your spiritual health. Either that or the Good Housekeeping seal of approval: this activity will build your spiritual muscles.

The choice between the two is the reader’s, and it hinges on whether or not he is willing to maintain a healthy skepticism, questioning the conclusions to which the author leads him.

There’s actually a word for that ability, though for some reason it has recently fallen into disrepute in some circles. The word is discernment.

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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Sally Apokedak

Very nice post. I agree with it all. So I guess that means you get the Sally Apokedak Seal of Approval. For what it’s worth. 🙂 


Good message, Becky. Thank you. I believe I have fairly good discernment myself about what is true and not true in my reading. But I should probably have more discernment in what I suggest to others as good reading- just in-case their discernment muscles aren’t as conditioned as mine. Or at-least give a heads up, that although I enjoyed a story I had some moral conflicts with some of the messages. I recently had a friend do that for me on a book she saw on my To Read list. I appreciate her looking out for me, but I’ll likely read the book anyway.
Currently I haven’t been taking the Truth of a story as a deciding factor on what to read. I’ve only been concerning myself with what seems to be quality writing and story telling. I live in a fallen world and brush elbows with Godless people every day. Their existence does not offend me. I am grieved at times by their condition, but nothing in their lives is a personal insult to me. I can read about life- it just is what it is- and not feel I’ve been wronged because I don’t agree with an author or character’s point of view. I accept that as their honest perception of things- true or not- but I love to hear their stories anyway. I love to hear the stories of what conditions, and choices shaped them into the person they’ve become- not so much what they believe, but why they believe it. These things fascinate me.
I have to admit I tend to rationalize perspectives I don’t agree with as I read. Going with The Wizard of Oz example, I don’t flinch at the humanism in it. I accept that as the author’s perspective, and I believe there is a little truth in it. There is a lot to be said for will power. A person with want-to will accomplish a whole lot more than the person who lays in bed wishing or praying for good things to happen to them. So I read Dorthy, and yeah it’s humanistic self-determination- but I tend (as I think many do) to feel myself in the place of the POV character and so it isn’t just her or me, God is automatically included in the equation for me because I know God is with me, in me, created me, has great plans for me… God is part of the story because of who I am as I take the role of Dorothy in the story. I don’t buy the ‘I can do anything I choose to do’, but instead believe ‘I can do all things through God who gives me strength’. I know I can’t do it without God, but I also know God won’t do anything in my life without my participation. I have to act in faith to the best of my ability and trust that He will do the rest. Christians of faith should be able to accomplish so much more than the humanists, because they may live the Dorthy story with success as far as humanly possible, but we should be able to accomplish things that are humanly impossible- by faith in the one who is in me who is not myself.
Just some thoughts on the topic. Sorry if they aren’t completely relevant.

Betty Ann White

Stories have so much they can lend us, but they all must be filtered through the One True Story.
Also, make sure you are not confusing “The Wizard of Oz” book with the movie. The film emphasizes the idea that each of the characters already had those qualities within them. The book emphasizes the fact that, although the silver (not ruby) slippers could have taken Dorothy home whenever she wanted, the Scarecrow, Woodman and Lion would not have gotten what they needed if Dorothy hadn’t come. And not only did the Scarecrow become the wise new leader of Oz, but the Woodman became the loving leader of the Winkies, and the Lion became the true King of the Beasts, which none of them would have been able to do before their ordeals with the witch. So in a very fantastical way, the lessons could be “Trials lead to joy” or “Standing up to evil will strengthen me for greater things.” These lessons merely give us a glimmer of the biblical truth: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) But without the biblical model, the lesson of The Wizard of Oz might be twisted into “Be on the winning side so you can reap the rewards.”


Good thought-provoking here, Rebecca 🙂 Didn’t the Wizard of Oz have a hidden political message as well?

Very true, Patrick! I believe God calls us to balance everything as, “no thing is evil in and of itself” …it is what we do with it; the action that we take using ‘it’ as the launching board. 

And, Rebecca, one of the many reasons that I write, and am pursuing a career in it, (and the a reason that most of my friends write) is indeed to “change the world” and the “world view” of the hoped-for audience… I am guilty!

If that were not the case, I’d be only writing in a private journal. But then, how many journal writers, deep down, hope to be heard one day? Most.

I think it an interesting idea however, to put in the Prologue:

Discern at your own level.”

Hahah! I might do that!



Chawna Schroeder

I enjoyed the post, Becky, and found it encouraging to again see someone else I trust coming to the same conclusion I’ve tried to teach so often: the practical need to discern, and the need to practice discern. Thank you for this post.

Kessie Carroll
Kessie Carroll

I’m trying to figure out exactly what you mean by ‘Truth’. Are we talking the moral of the story? The author’s worldview? Or what is true to the characters within the context of the story?
If you’re talking worldview, then I totally understand and agree. I always read with an eye toward sniffing out the author’s worldview. Phil Pullman’s Dark Materials is positively frothing with hatred toward God and religion, so much so that by the third book, it’s verging on the ridiculous.
Whereas Diana Wynne Jones, with her multiple words, occasional  appearances from gods and other non-human beings, and loads of magic, is respectful of all of the above. She rejected Jesus, but her books seem open to the idea of a Supreme Being, and she never slams anyone or conversely promotes her own viewpoints as The One True Way. I think that’s why I enjoy her books so much.
Now, if we were talking about the ‘truth’ inside the story, that’d be a whole other ball of wax. Like, in the Dragonlance books, the pantheon of gods is what is ‘true’ for that universe. But I don’t think the writers are trying to say that’s true anywhere except in the story. They’re just writing good stories.

John Weaver
John Weaver

  I have mixed feelings here. I don’t think that “collaborating” with an author’s worldview, even if non-Christian, necessarily leads us to accept the “false.”. Indeed, some secular authors’ worldviews can be more truly Christian than the fluff that comes out of CBA fiction. Take Kafka’s The Trial, for instance (particularly the “Cathedral” scene). Kafka leads us to far more profound meditations on God than is possible through reading Tim Lahaye.
I think you overly credit how much books can morally affect people . . . which is not to say they can’t, just that they don’t do so nearly as often as you think. But then again, a non-stop diet of spiritually poisonous material (pornography, for instance) will definitely hurt people’s faith and their compassion for others.


Sounds a bit like a child that could pass for a Marilyn Manson look-alike responding to his father’s criticism of his music tastes “But, Dad, I just like the sounds. It’s not having any effect on my life”. But it does. It affects him more deeply and pervasively than he will ever realize.
We can all throw our opinions around and slap each other with them all we want, but if Dr. Oatley has done research then I believe that’s a bit better than my subjective experience of not perceiving the changes in my thinking after each dose of media I consume.

“In a song I sing along and right or wrong
the concept sticks I get my fix
and I become a part of the glorious
propaganda machine that hates me” -Blackball One More Sucker



A very interesting discussion. I really enjoyed reading through and seeing the different perspectives.


Thank you for the profound and insightful article. I enjoyed it.


Hi Rebecca 🙂

I think sometimes writer’s do change views of the readers without even meaning to.

All writers should know that being well-read doesn’t hurt. And even a measure more, we need to be very confident in ourselves, i.e. where we are in life, and how we stand before our Maker. If we lack, we will not be able to discern the work of other writers; and if that is the case, we surely will not be able to discern what WE want to say.

It is a huge world out there, and depending upon where the driving forces be, a series of articles, poems, or any book or movie could cause a revolution in the right direction, or in the wrong direction.

Several times, (I can relate with Kessie and Dark Materials) I have read a book or article that did have a creative way of saying something profound, yet, I missed it.
Once I was told, I went back and re-read and realized what the author was driving at.
I had to be told by someone, because spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually, I was not there.

Whatever  Baum meant to stir up with his writing of the Wizard of Oz, he was successful in the “stirring up” part. It is important for the movie-only audience to realize that in the book, there are silver slippers as well as ruby. And Teosophy soon gained a rolling engine.

Thanks again!