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  • Writer's pictureWalker Buckalew

“How Is a Person Supposed to Read Fiction?”

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How Is a Person Supposed to Read Fiction?

When my first novel was completed – when it was still just a manuscript – it moved from the managing editor’s desk to the desk of a young copy editor. A definition for “copy editing” reads like this: copy editing is the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free from error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.

While this particular copy editor was superb at discovering and correcting small points of grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure, she sometimes went well beyond her copy-editing function.

And not in a good way.

There were times, in fact, when she revealed that she had a poor understanding of the question posed by the title of this blog post, “How Is a Person Supposed to Read Fiction?” For example, early in that first novel, Rebecca, the main character, gets behind the wheel of a borrowed sports car, which is a complicated vehicle to drive. It is especially complicated under the circumstances she is about to face: being pursued by people with guns who are themselves driving large, fast vehicles. “Why,” wrote the copy editor, “is Rebecca driving the sports car when her brother is with her? He drove the family car that same morning.”

(Never mind that Rebecca is an accomplished athlete, as the readers would know by then, with experience driving this type of difficult-to-handle vehicle. And never mind that the “family car” is a simple-to-drive, automatic-transmission sedan that Rebecca’s brother had driven carefully and slowly to a luncheon appointment with their parents.)

For another example, later in that same manuscript, Rebecca, now on foot, takes the point position as she, Detective Sidney Belton, and Matthew Clark start out on a hard, fast trek at night along the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales, seeking to get in position to prevent a murder scheduled to take place in just hours. “Why,” wrote the copy editor, “is Rebecca leading these two men, when one of them is a detective and the other just got out of the Navy?”

(Never mind that Rebecca is young, strong, and in superb physical condition, while the detective is a physically impaired middle-aged man, and Matthew Clark has just spent five years onboard US Navy warships, one of the more difficult environments in which to maintain a high level of fitness.)

From these two examples, do you see the young copy editor’s problem? Aside from forgetting what copy editing is supposed to mean and not mean, and despite the fact that she was a woman herself, she had a prejudice against strong women who at times might take leadership positions over men, even when the reasons for that would be obvious to most readers, men and women alike. Bringing that or any other prejudice to your reading of a novel is certain to spoil the fiction experience for you.

C. S. Lewis told his readers and his correspondents repeatedly that, when you read fiction, you will not have a good experience unless you mentally grant the author the right to create a world for you, a world in which you may experience something altogether wonderful. Not everyone learns how to do this. If you can learn it, you will open yourself to what may become informative, thrilling, and even inspirational experiences in the world of fiction.

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