Why Do We Read Fiction?

Why do we read fiction?The New York Times ran a story a few days ago called The Next Big Thing in English, the premise being that, post-modernism having run its course (debatable, but we’ll leave it), lit departments across the English-speaking world have been casting about for the next big trend that will magically jolt this course of study back into relevance and prestige, reinstating all the lost funding and cachet that lit departments have suffered since the heyday of the 1970s.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the lamentable notion that literature, and the study thereof, is “irrelevant.” I could argue that lit departments nailed themselves into their own coffins on that count, by slathering on a sickening amount of opaque, pretentious, and often spurious analysis, inevitably sucking out all the life and joy of practically every Great Work so anointed…

…but that’s another topic for another day. My hassle today is with the article’s central question of why do we read fiction, and the answer it arrives at.

“Why do we read fiction? Why do we care so passionately about nonexistent characters? What underlying mental processes are activated when we read?

Ms. Zunshine is particularly interested in what cognitive scientists call the theory of mind, which involves one person’s ability to interpret another person’s mental state and to pinpoint the source of a particular piece of information in order to assess its validity.

You know who was AMAZING at this sort of writing? At examining all the missed cues and mistaken assumptions that too often derail human relationships? George Eliot.  But the article points instead to Jane Austen.

“Jane Austen’s novels are frequently constructed around mistaken interpretations. In “Emma” the eponymous heroine assumes Mr. Elton’s attentions signal a romantic interest in her friend Harriet, though he is actually intent on marrying Emma. She similarly misinterprets the behavior of Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightly, and misses the true objects of their affections.

Now, I have no quibble with Jane Austen; I love her books dearly. But Middlemarch actually makes me gasp out loud with the dead-on accuracy of its portrayal of the human mind; pages of internal dialogue often pass by during one short, fraught silence between two lovers. Eliot is (I think) unsurpassed at showing us how our habits of self-hypnosis and almost willful misinterpretation can warp our relationships and our lives.

It makes me crazy to watch Dorothea and Will consistently misinterpret each others’ motives, page after page, time after time, causing themselves and each other so much unnecessary pain. Because it makes me crazy to think that I do the same thing, every day. But I recognize myself in those misguided lovers every single time.

This is why I love Middlemarch so damn much — why I love any book! Great books don’t so much tell me something I don’t know about myself as they tell me that I am not alone in being like I am.

Great books tell me that people thought and felt and acted in exactly the same self-deluded, tragic, or wonderful ways as I think, feel, and act today. They take my personal experience and tell me how it relates to the universal; they cement my role as a member of the human race.

When I was going through a pretty rough patch in my internal life a few years back, I read tons and tons of biographies — of all the Great People I had ever admired — and what do you know, every single one of them had had bad times, black moods, pages ripped out of diaries or entire days marked with one big, black X.

Guys who have been carved into mountainsides had felt like failures for long stretches of their amazing lives; actual heroes who did actually heroic things had failed at everything they touched for decades, piling bankruptcies on top of bankruptcies, shame and debt dogging them for years before things turned around. And things usually turned around as a direct result of the strength of character that had been built during the years of trial, and the years of trial frequently caused these men and women to be frankly astonished by good fortune when it came.

Those books helped me enormously. And that’s just the non-fiction!  Fiction can be so much more powerful, because authors can let the story develop and progress in the way that it wants to, without all the inconvenient messiness of real life to get in the way of the tale it wants to tell.  Fiction, done well, does the same thing that those biographies did. It sends a thrill of recognition through my bones, makes the hair stand up on my arms with the sudden comprehension that the things I feel and do are A Thing, there’s a word for it, a category, a recognized phenomenon! It’s not just me, it’s not just my little corner of things. It’s all of us.  And other people have gone through this crap before and have come through — sometimes happily, sometimes tragically, sometime just with the usual battlescars of being human and alive.

I can only live my one life (also debatable, but we’ll leave it for now). Good fiction, and responsible biography, allows me to soak up some of the lessons of other people’s lives, to smile with recognition, recoil from a flame, aspire to greater things, or simply shrug with good humor and carry on.

That’s my answer to why I read fiction.  What’s yours?

Image by babblingdweeb

5 Thoughts.

  1. Wow, this is a HUGE topic and I love to read other people’s opinions. I, um, wrote a whole book about why I turn to fiction in hard times :), but it comes down to this: inside the world of books are both the things I need to learn and the passages I need to come closer to my own self and potential, and the books I love best in the world ideally contain both that insight and that education.

  2. Awesome post!! I loved hearing about how you used lives of people you admired to help you pick yourself up after a dark time. We’ve all heard the saying “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. I like to be able to discover more about famous people in history and how they dealt with their trials and tribulations. Whenever I start to doubt myself, I think back to someone I admire and what difficulties they encountered. And fiction, for that matter, is a parable for a lot of life’s lessons.
    Get on with your bad self!

  3. what i love about reading fiction (and memoirs) is that moment of recognition when i see myself clearly in the lives and minds of the characters, and discover something new about myself through them. it allows me to put my swirling plaguing thoughts to rest for awhile and live in someone else’s world, and then come back to reality refreshed and renewed and sometimes with a new understanding of life in this crazy world. i always am interested in people’s motivations and what makes us all tick. probably should have been a psych major…..

    but being an english major and librarian, i would agree that even when done well, over-analysis of what should be beloved literature does suck the joy out of the reading. i may be the only librarian on the planet who doesn’t enjoy book groups (except eggplantia of course) because i don’t want my experience of the book altered in any way.

    thanks for your insights. i guess i should go back and read middlemarch, which was one of those books i suffered through in english literature 101. or maybe i’ll just watch the masterpiece theatre version…. :)

  4. Thanks for your beautiful post, Beth, as this is a question I often ask myself (and that keeps on fascinating me – I love the idea that telling stories is something we humans take so seriously). I sometimes wonder whether a tiny part of my unconditional love for Jane Austen or the Brontë Sisters doesn’t come from the fact that, being french, I never heard of them at school (can you believe that?), and thus never had to over-analyze any of their books. Even though I sometimes managed to love some of the classical books I *had* to over-analyze at school, it was always painful. I’m so glad I discovered Jane Austen all by myself, at 17 or 18, simply because she was Paul Auster’s closest “neighbour” on my local public library!

    I think I already tried Middlemarch, and quickly gave up… I’ll give it another try :).

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