While I admire the enthusiasm for reading fiction found in an editorial published on March 20, 2014 by College senior Ross Fogg, there are some points made about the “why?” of reading fiction that are questionable and disturbing.
Why read fiction? The day we can provide a practical and specific answer to this question is the day fiction’s power dies. The solitary act of reading fiction is useless for day-to-day social utility and political action: and it is all the better, all the more worthwhile, all the more profound and life-changing for its uselessness in these areas. Subjugating literary fiction to Dale Carnegie-esque self-help and leftist anti-establishment polemic is myopic and stupid, and if this attitude is adopted among our generation, we will have dealt literature its death-blow.
Certainly there are a myriad of positive attributes to be gained from reading fiction, as well as a myriad of skills required to read fiction. However, these positive attributes and requisite skills, even if empirically provable, should not be answers to the question of why we should read. It is a fallacy to presume that if one reads a book and it produces a kind of effect, then every book should be read for the purpose of obtaining that effect.
Authors of fiction write, thankfully, for different reasons other than to increase their readers’ emotional intelligence or to advocate political causes. Each one of those skills and positive attributes, taken separately, is better accomplished through other means. It’s no difficult feat to imagine a thousand different and better ways of increasing social awareness, political change and emotional intelligence than reading fiction. One can immerse oneself in new and varied, real social situations, for instance, or advocate political change, or read factual nonfiction works on social and political situations.
Literary critic Harold Bloom in his book How To Read And Why, agreeing with the positions of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Francis Bacon and Samuel Johnson, asserts that he is “wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.”
Additionally, for every specific attribute we attempt to associate with reading, there is somewhere a great work, well worth reading, in which the desired attribute is not to be found.
Besides, even if our ultimate goal is to aggrandize emotional intelligence, empathy or social change from literary fiction, when we adopt these goals as we read, we paradoxically cannot even reap these things from fiction as effectively. We remain mired in assumption or selfishness, unwilling to be imaginative and enter into a world not of our own creation.
We get from books what we put into them, and when we lead our minds into the pages of a book with the sole expectation and goal of gleaning a sense of community or challenging the status quo or applying an author’s political perspective, we have severely reduced the actual power and purpose of fiction
When we approach fiction with these things instead of an all-encompassing pleasure and imagination, we fail to reap fiction’s best rewards. Virginia Woolf writes in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” that “we must not squander our powers [of reading], helplessly and ignorantly … [we] say that … we should separate [books] and take from each [book] what it is right that each should give us … yet few people ask from books what books can give us.”
What can books give us? What is the power and purpose of fiction? One thing is at least certain: we are allotted immense freedom and imagination with fiction-reading, too much to constrict ourselves with specific reasons.
Reading fiction should above all be pleasurable: we should not be driven to read reluctantly, as a puritanical joyless mechanism for the sake of improving ourselves and our societies. What is literary fiction if not decided by the production of empathy, the diversity of a viewpoint or the destruction and replacement of sociopolitical narratives. When fiction is held to these narrow and transient standards the results are ludicrous.
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s hilarious parody of this nearsighted literary criticism in his novel Bend Sinister, whose Professor Hamm has discovered the so-called “The Real Plot of Hamlet”, where, “The author of Hamlet has created the tragedy of the masses and thus has founded the sovereignty of society over the individual … the real hero is of course Fortinbras,” unfortunately rings all too familiar.
Writers and readers of literary fiction should not be confronted with the clamoring criticism of social justice activists or pursuers of a mystic human “oneness” but instead with, as Woolf again so eloquently puts it, “another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading.”
How can reading be loved? Art can be loved, and fiction, to put it simply, is art. Social condition, political theory, philosophical inquiry are all reasons, themes and motivations used to create art, from Middle English writer Will Langland to 20th century novelist David Foster Wallace, medieval Italian poet Boccaccio to contemporary poet Tao Lin.
But we err when we take these influences and torture them into evaluations. We err when we look at the social conditions behind art and evaluate art based on them. We err unforgivably when we evaluate art based on what is politically useful rather than what is artistically worthy. Art is more. Art is a transcendent pleasure, a kind of pleasure we barely even come close to capturing with our word for it: sublimity.
Ancient Greek literary critic Longinus famously describes sublimity as “grandeur [that] produces ecstasy … the combination of wonder and astonishment” that “exert(s) invincible power and force and get(s) the better of the hearer … tears everything up like a whirlwind.”
Ancient Greek philosopher Plato reaches to describe it as well when ancient Greek philosopher Socrates speaks in Phaedrus of “manic art” bestowed by the Muses: “madness, which comes from god” that “takes hold upon a gentle and pure soul, arouses it and inspires it to songs and other poetry.”
Sublimity is the irrational and inexpressible awe we feel, of something so beyond yet so in tune within us. When gazing at a mountain for example, or at the stars above in the night sky, when looking at a painting, or when being absorbed into a novel.
Sublimity does not come close to providing a specific and practical answer for why we should read fiction, nor should it. But sublimity as Longinus writes “contains much food for reflection, is difficult or rather impossible to resist and makes a strong and ineffaceable impression on the memory.” This is something worth reading (and writing) fiction for. It’s why I, and many I know, read, and it’s something anyone can get behind and yearn for.
Great fiction in its artistic value and sublimity transcends the capricious and ephemeral notions of what is politically correct, what requires social change, whether we should be community-driven or selfish. This is exactly why the greatest fictional works strike with such brilliant lightning our hearts and our societies – their beauty and sublimity make up their social value, not the other way around.
Sublimity’s is the great pleasure of the beyond, the boundless wonder and joy of being immersed in worlds wrought by the pen of an author; even one a thousand miles or years away, transcends even what is human and how we should live. It is high time to consider that maybe we are not really brought closer together with the latest movement for social change, a current reactionary devotion to abstract “community” or navel-gazing about the human condition.
Perhaps what brings us closest together as humans, from the earliest Neanderthal to the modern fiction reader, is our shared awe and wonder of the stars above us.
– By Daniel Hanfelt