Monday, November 3, 2014

Why I read Fiction by Tom Bensley

Welcome all readers. Thanks for the patience as I write another novel. But, as I promised, I wanted to dive into the subject of why one should read fiction. As a writer, I continuously hear things like: why write fiction? Or I don't read, no time for that. Or that it is a dead form of the narrative. To tackle this, I invited everyone to put in their two cents about what it is that makes reading fiction worthwhile. To be fair, I meant something other than just reading it for entertainment, though perhaps that's a matter of my own prejudices. 

But I've decided to invite a person who can answer this question with much more insight than I could ever provide it. So without further ado, I present to you Tom Bensley on why he reads fiction (also to read more of the fascinating pieces check his mag out:

When I first thought about why I read serious fiction, I couldn’t articulate my answer. I’ve haven’t stopped reading fiction ever since I could read, but I couldn’t really say why. It was just something I always did. The first piece of serious fiction I ever read was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in high school. Reading that, I saw beyond the pure entertainment I got from the books I was reading, as I learned how to unpack themes and question the author’s intentions behind the text. It was the first time I’d ever considered how much work is put into writing a text and how much we as readers can get out of it. So when I considered that in relation to why anyone reads serious fiction, it wasn’t satisfying to say that we read it for a more mature, challenging form of enjoyment. I was definitely getting something more out of Shelley’s masterpiece. I was learning in a way that I never had before.

I wouldn’t say that the sole purpose of reading fiction is to learn, but literature is a unique teaching tool. When an author tells a story, the reader is given an opportunity to learn about an experience. For instance, in learning about a hospital, we could educate ourselves on its purpose, the way it is structured, who works in it, what the history is etc. This is all valuable, applicable information which makes us more knowledgeable about a place or a subject, but a fictional story that takes place in a hospital will give us something else. If we follow the story of a nurse, we might be given insight into the way she feels about the tasks she performs, how these tasks relate to her personal relationships, and why she is in this line of work in the first place. 

 Also, metaphor strengthens the author’s message and allows us as readers to interpret a familiar setting in a new way. Poetic and evocative language about how it feels to be in a hospital, not as yourself but as a character who works there, is allowing you to understand an experience you might never have. Conflict and drama draw us into that world and as a result we care about what goes on there. No matter how much knowledge we accumulate about an institution, a historical event or the tasks performed by a nurse (or any other worker), I feel that there is no more effective way to learn about experience and feeling unless you read fiction that the author has taken seriously and attempted to effectively communicate an experience to the reader. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath gives an account of the Dustbowl, but that account is rich with unforgettable material because we follow the Joad family’s trek across the country. Flannery O’Connor’s various accounts of the race and religion in the Deep South can force us to think about a place we might never go or a time we can only read about. We learn to think about more than we would ever have the chance to if we read good fiction, I think.

I guess the “purpose” of reading literature is really for the individual to decide, but thinking about it almost like a teaching tool for human experience felt right to me. Like, it’s one thing to learn about something, but learning about it in a way that allows you to feel the experience being communicated? There’s just no other way of achieving that. And I think it becomes very addicting, once you have that first epiphany with literature. To go back to Frankenstein, when the Creature first tells Frankenstein about what he’s had to go through ever since being forced into the world by unnatural means, he uses story to make his creator understand the torment he has been through, which in turn forces Frankenstein to reconsider his actions and his place in the world. I think good fiction, to any reader who takes it seriously, can create a similar effect. It allows us to take on board another experience and to use that to enrich our own experience in the world. What’s more rewarding than that?

Nelson: Thank you, Tom, for the truly insightful post.

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1 comment:

  1. Great points here. Fiction is truly a complex creation (the good kind should have some complexity, though not in its language), and I’m sure it’s needed in this world. And yet I still find myself having to defend it time and time again (and sometimes finding myself without words).
    Just read an essay by Le Guin, who tackles several aspects of the matter. There is no doubt that the woman is much smarter than I, and she tackles several streams of information while pondering the question of the narrative. Let me see if I grasped them: There are some good points she brings up, some of which I’ve never considered. One subject—and it seems more appropriate to file this under the banner of perspectives, even if that is an important part of how narratives are formed to begin with—is the matter of making connections between things. We’re all story tellers, and thus being stupid would be to not make enough connections between the things we see in life, while seeing too many connections in life would be considered insanity. And so it goes. In some ways this ties into the idea that I saw in Writing Madness: how people on the fringes, especially those who are creative, do seem to play with the idea of seeing more (perhaps that’s even the depth of a book, of which I speak so highly of) than what ordinary people can see, while at the same time this pushes them into a kind of madness (some of it from these connections, while another push is merely from social rejection weighing upon them) that isn’t necessarily controllable.
    Another point she made that stuck out for me was that imagination is one of the things that truly sets a person’s thinking a light. That brings me to what we think of as fiction (and my bread and butter, if not water and air). Many people have the idea that fiction muddies the water of reality. That it turns away from the true need of story telling (as some people would have it, some sort of non-fiction narrative) that was to point out the direction of the water or the lion. But I disagree (and if it ever was like that, it surely isn’t now). Fiction, even the in-depth kind I tout so much, is a kind of stretching of the imagination. I’m not of the opinion that it has to do this. But by allowing for a “what if” by allowing for other possibilities to materialize in the text, the reader is now allowed to think about more than just the clearness of reality. And in this manner they are allowed to see deeper into that reality. There is more neuroscience to this, I’m sure. But let’s chew on that for a few moments.


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