Not everyone finds philosophy fun. I do, for whatever reason. More than that, I find it to answer a lot of why questions. (So maybe I never grew out of that little-kid stage when you ask your parents all the why questions: Why is the sky blue? Why do people have only two legs? Why is the ocean salty? Why are boys so noisy? Or whatever. 😉 )
After a couple recent internet discussions about fiction (see for example “Realistic Christian Behavior” by Sally Apokedak at Novel Rocket and “Thank you, Bethany House Publishers” by Mike Duran), I can’t help but think a lot of our diverse views hearken back to our philosophy of fiction.
It may surprise some to learn that fiction in the form of the novel hasn’t been around all that long. Of course it had roots in the oral tradition of storytelling and in the myths of various cultures, but not until the development of the printing press did fiction as we know it begin to take hold.
Those early myths and legends are important because the novel in its first endeavors seems to have adopted similar purposes. One of those appears to be to understand the world–natural and supernatural–and another, to invite the readers to mirror the virtues of the story heroes.
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the first English works of fiction, exemplifies both these purposes.
Another purpose is present, however, in works like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which served as both a reflection and critique of society.
These purposes seem at odds with one another. Are stories working to acculturate readers or are they serving to expose life and society for what it is?
Some stories appear to work toward both–showing some negative of society in order to assimilate readers into a competing ideology (think Avatar and The Da Vinci Code).
A more recent idea is that reading is primarily for self-growth:
Reading is self-mastery, because the self (and its affirmations) are held in check while the author (and his structures of thought) are fully attended to. True diversity in literature would be to read authors in circumstances as different from our own as possible, because we might then imagine ourselves as different than we are — not the creature of circumstances, but their master. Reading is fundamental, all right: to a person’s ethical development. … If reading is the key to self-mastery, fiction is the master key. Those like Hanson and Hitchens, who invite disagreement, are good too. But fiction demands that you either identify with the characters’ decisions or distance yourself from them, and this has a powerful effect. In doing so you shape your own moral experience. (“So Why Read (Fiction) Anymore?” by D. G. Myers)
Centuries earlier Aristotle introduced the explanation for fiction’s power.
As Aristotle pointed out in Poetics, “the historian speaks of what has happened, the poet of the kind of thing that can happen” (pp. 32-33). … And when Aristotle talks of poet, nowadays he might sooner have said fiction writer. So, as we enter a book, play, or film, in a fictional world of what could happen, we set aside our own immediate concerns. Often we take on the concerns of a protagonist. Always we enter a world that is somewhat different than our own. In a narrative world we can compare our own reactions, thoughts, and feelings, with those of the characters in a story. Thereby we can come to know better both ourselves and others.(“Why Read Fiction?: Why fiction is important in psychology” by Keith Oatley, Ph.D. in The Psychology of Fiction)
Interestingly, as we saw last year (see “The Psychological Study Of Creativity – Or, You Experience What You Read”), recent studies of the brain have shown that reading fiction does far more than what scholars once believed. It is, in fact, a form of simulation:
What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains [besides language regions] as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. … The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. … Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings. (“Your Brain on Fiction” By Annie Murphy Paul, emphasis mine)
Fiction is powerful, that’s clear. It allows us readers to enter into either a story that aims to bring us into alignment with society by challenging us to mimic the heroic protagonist or into one that aims to reflect and/or question our ideas of the way the world works.
A simple view of stories then is that some give readers an ideal to model and others give readers a reflection to critique.
I think this understanding of stories is at the heart of a lot of disagreements about novels in contemporary society, whether secular or Christian. For example, just last week here at Spec Faith, the question came up as to whether Christians ought to read horror. We frequently discuss whether or not we should expose ourselves to “gritty” stories about the garbage dump of life. Must we wallow in the mud, or can we choose instead to read stories that evoke truth and beauty?
A tangential issue that might help with that question is this: are truthful stories beautiful (artistic) simply because of their truth? Here’s another one: Can stories be considered truthful if they tell only one side of life, either hope or hell?
I tend to think that we readers position ourselves on one side or the other of the “what should we read” debates based on how we answer these questions. If we understand reading to be a mechanism by which we learn how to be or as a means for personal growth, then we probably want books that call us to godliness or at least to ethical behavior.
If on the other hand, we see reading as a reflection and critique of society, then we want stories that push our awareness of the world, including the seamy side of society.
So why (beyond escape) do you read?