“How Is a Person Supposed to Read Fiction?”
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
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. But if you begin a novel with the attitude that you intend to critique the world that the author is setting before you, your chances of enjoying that story are poor. Mr. Lewis wanted us always to open our minds to the world that is being shown us in a story.
As a reader myself, I have found that if I decide to stop reading a novel before I have read very far, it is rarely, if ever, because I have not given the author a chance to present her or his world to me. It is either because I find that I do not care for the main characters – am not “pulling for them” to succeed, possibly do not even like them – or that the language or the situations presented are disgusting.
One of the pre-publication readers of my latest novel in the Rebecca Series, A Fearful Thing, wrote (while she was still in mid-story) that this story was not the sort of novel she usually read. By that she meant that international intrigue, threats of violence, and narrow escapes by the main characters were not usually included in what she was accustomed to reading.
When she finished the book and wrote her comments (which you may see on the back cover of A Fearful Thing, over her name, Jennifer Andrade), she wrote in a quite different vein from others who have offered written comments about books in the series. “… the real surprise was the tenderness and beautiful way the characters interacted with each other, weaving a thread of respect and kindness within the group that quickly included others without hesitation or prejudice. I felt a connection with the group and am happy I was a part of their story…”
Ms. Andrade’s observations were refreshing, focused on something other than the primary issues raised in the book, and other than the trajectory of the plot.
When my first novel, The Face of the Enemy, was completed – that is, 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 punctuation and sentence clarity, 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 answer to the title question 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 right there with her?”
She was fixated on the fact that a woman drove a difficult vehicle when a man was available to drive instead. She could not accept the “world” that was being presented to her in that story and in all the Rebecca novels: an accomplished female athlete, fresh from the international women’s tennis circuit, with extensive experience driving this type of difficult-to-handle vehicle… far more prepared to drive that car than her brother.
If you or I hope to enjoy fiction, we will give each story a chance by accepting the story’s world and trying it on for size. If we eventually find it a poor fit, we can stop. But, if we have truly accepted the world that is offered, we are more likely to stop, if we do, for reasons having to do with not caring for the main characters or being repelled by scenes or language.
We will have given the story an honest chance.
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