On the Virtues and Pitfalls of Fiction

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Some time back I recall reading a post or a comment (I think it was at Video Meliora. . .) in which a person seemed to be coming around to the true importance of fiction in reading. There does tend to be a fairly strong divide between readers of fiction and readers of nonfiction with the former being mostly women and the latter being mostly men. I don't know if this divide has been documented or if it is merely anecdotal. Most of the men of my acquaintance seem to like fiction (at least some fiction) as much as nonfiction and most of the women seem to like some nonfiction as well as fiction. Be that as it may, there is a substantive difference between the two forms that does tend to give fiction pride of place in literature and in formation of a person.

Nonfiction tends to provide information. This can, but often does not, lead to formation of an individual. You read a book, you are informed, and you are or are not changed by the information. There are several difficulties with nonfiction. To wit:

(1) it is often anything but
(2) being factual it presents itself to the intellect as an object for consideration
(3) there is a tendency to argue with notions and theses with which we may be in disagreement.

This difficulties are sometimes part of the satisfaction and sometimes part of the frustration of reading nonfiction. Let's take a moment to consider these points.

(1) A while back I commented that when one finished a book by John Cornwell, which is supposedly nonfiction, one was immediately driven to seek out the primary sources from which it was derived and check all of them--essentially personally rewriting the book in an attempt to gain corroboration for the opinions disguised as fact and for the agenda disguised as narrative. Except for the field of mathematics (in which I am not so broadly read as in other fields) this is true of writers in all of the nonfiction fields, most particularly those in controversial fields. Who could read Dawkins without wanting to check every assertion made? What political history is not rife with sectarian feelings? How many economics books have no certain affection for a given economic system. Our reaction to these books is proportional to our liking of the ideas espoused in them. They may present facts, but they do so very subjectively and very selectively. This is of necessity because art is selective in its detail--but it leads to great complications of how to deal with the material. Whose view of Adams is the correct one? Of Washington? What does a history of the United States written in Great Britain read like? Which is closer to the historical fact? How many of Aquinas's givens do we accept as true and how many must we let pass simply to follow the argument? The list goes on and one. Nonfiction presents facts, but very rarely is it unmixed with opinions and even falsifications that put forward the agenda of the writer.

(2) Nonfiction presents itself to the intellect. The intellect for most of us is the gatekeeper. It effectively weeds out what we do not wish to consider or do not wish to believe. For example, some time back I reviewed a book by Barbara Ehrenreich titled Nickled and Dimed. Some of the response I received to that review was that Ehrenreich was a feminist, she was pro-abortion, she was this, she was that. Few of the comments that derided the book did so on the basis of what was presented there; rather they immediately went to Ms. Ehrenreich's other agendas. Not one of them reflected on the actual experiences recorded and revealed that Ms. Ehrenreich had falsified data, had claimed things that simply weren't true, etc. The intellect had effectively prohibited the commenters from engaging the central thesis of the work because it was uncomfortable--there is an entire class of people who work themselves literally to death simply to make ends meet. We'd prefer to keep our minimum wages low and with them our prices. To attack Ms. Ehrenreich's book on its own merits is one thing, but on the basis of her overall agenda is another entirely.

I will confess that I enjoy movies by actors who have not bombarded me with their political views. I find it difficult to watch a film with George Clooney or most of the Baldwin clan. This is simply because I have rejected their agenda and with it most of their art. It is a similar case of the intellect being the gatekeeper.

(3) Continuing with the intellect as gatekeeper--we have a tendency to reject out of hand anything that does not agree with our core agenda. This is why debate on issues like the Iraq war can be so rancorous--we simply don't listen. We sit and look as though we are listening, but the entire time we listen or read we are planning our response to the argument. This is why "fisking" is so popular. We disassemble an argument either according to logic or according to our own agendas and systematically dismantle anything that might get through the fortifications. (This leads me to wonder whether or not we might benefit from a less martial, more equable stance on both sides. It is difficult to attain in written media and we have a core resistance to it anyway--but what real harm is there in someone holding a different opinion than my own.)

Fiction, on the other hand, is entirely "opinion" or not fact. It slips in beneath the radar--this is both its strength and its danger. Depending upon the payload with which it slips in the results can be good or bad. For example, when I was younger, Tolkien slipped in below the radar with a tale of what was noble, good, and true. I didn't realize at that time, nor do I entirely buy at this time, how "religious" it was--but it was formative. I saw in the narrative, just as I saw in the Arturian legends, something that was good, and true and real. This percolated within below the radar. Well-written fiction will do that. It is one of the reasons why I rant and rave more against Philip Pullman than I do against Dan Brown. The true, serious, horrendous danger of fiction is fiction that moves us to emotion and makes us hunger for something. When we finish Pullman's book, the hunger is dark and deadly. Poorly written or idea-driven fiction on the other hand works largely in the same way as non-fiction--if we were inclined to think that way anyway, then we will be persuaded, otherwise we will reject the notion. Who has been substantively changed in their lives by Cricheton, Clancy, or Grisham. We may have been engaged and entertained, but we haven't really been moved.

On the other hand, who has read Pride and Prejudice and not experienced something of an entirely different world--a better, more noble, more courteous, more considerate world. These kinds of fictions sneak in under the radar, as I have said, and they affect our formation, our core being. I am convinced that this is one of the reasons that Jesus told parables. What could He have said in a parable that He could not equally well told us straight out. In fact, He does tell us most of it straight out--for those who are more moved by fact than by fiction. But who among us remembers the entire last supper portion of the book of John (almost from chapter 14 on) compared with the parable of the sower and the seed, or the prodigal son. Jesus knew that fiction (and poetry with is also artifice) got in below the radar and worked on the human spirit.

Yes, the intellect can still operate as gatekeeper and keep the fiction at a distance so that it does not work any harm--but it is more difficult than when one faces facts.

One final point about fiction is that it is the eternal now. Whenever you pick up the book Elizabeth Bennett is fencing with Mr. Darcy. Whenever you pick up the book Jane Eyre is engaging Mr. Rochester. Whenever you pick up the book, Mr. Bilbo Baggins is about to celebrate his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence. It is changeless--if has not already happened, it happens in the here and now. In that sense, fiction resembles heaven. It is the expreience of the here and now always. It is living with full knowledge of all that happens but experiencing it outside of time over and over again.

Fiction has its serious dangers--bad fiction, by which I mean well-written fiction with a strongly negative agenda can form as easily as good fiction. Because these things touch the heart, they are harder to uproot and weed out than is nonfiction which can be battled with proper facts and good reasoning. But fiction also has its virtues in that we are invited to a more intimate conversation. In the best fiction and poetry, we are transformed. I think particularly of the story of Jonah, which is utterly transformative in its telling, whether one accepts it as fiction or as fact--the least one could say of it is that it is like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Gore Vidal's America series--it is "faction." And it changes us utterly if we encounter it on the level of fiction. A certain truth about God is made substantive and complete when we internalize this story.

Fiction can be an experience of heaven in a way that nonfiction often cannot. Nonfiction can delineate heaven and argue its attributes. It can claim to know how many angels there are and what their ranks are and what precisely each is inclined to do, but it cannot really tell me how to talk to an angel.

For me, fiction has consistently provided a keener insight and a more lasting impression of the things that really matter. Certainly, nonfiction has done so in the form of the Bible, but there we get into another discussion entirely--one that I hope to formulate and articulate soon--how the Bible, while factual uses what we view as fictional devices to bypass much of our resistance.

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Beautifully stated, Steven. One can fly away on gossamer wings and reflect on the poetry in one's heart that gives so much pleasure. Is it sinful to get so much pleasure from this? Do we make idols of ourselves in so doing? Must our spirits always be confined according to Church doctrine? Is it dangerous for our souls? According to the writings in the Philokalia the demons are always lurking to devour us when our doors are slightly ajar.

Interesting stuff. You defended fiction well in this non-fictional piece. I'm a bit wary, because there are certain non-fictional stories which dwarf, in importance, any story anyone could conceive. In the bible, of course and you acknowledge that by putting it in a separate category - the Resurrection, for example, without which of course St. Paul tells us everything is in vain. We are willing to stake our lives on what we believe is non-fictional data, not on fictional data.

Since in history there is always an objective truth (i.e. something either happened or did not happen) then there are more objective views of history and less, just as there are better doctors and worse doctors as there is an objective truth in medicine. We seek good doctors and good historians while recognizing that on this earth we're never going to find perfection. History is flawed, as you point out, but it has its utilitarian uses, since those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Perhaps fiction gets under our guard because if it's any good it's entirely non-utilitarian (sermon tracts or books with agendas never become classics). We let our guard down because we aren't reading it for self-improvement (or to prevent being doomed to repeat some catastrophe, or to acquire knowledge) but simply for pleasure. (Ironically, two of the best Catholic fiction writers in the past half-century were both inveterate readers of Aquinas - Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor.)

With the DaVinci Code, there is a blend of fact and fiction that gives people who are already inclined to want to believe Jesus was married to think that "fact" actually occurred. And if they do, that obviously has serious consequences.

Something in all this reminds me of something I read on Leo Wong's blog. He wrote: "Sin brings sufferings. It is not usually the sinner who suffers." In other words, the sinner might well feel he is doing the right thing. Noble feelings, the sort often inspired by fiction, are less important than the objective truth. I've read rabid NARAL supporters who are huge fans of Tolkien's books.

Have mercy. Sorry for being so long-winded there.

Dear Psalm 41,

That is the pitfall of attachment to ANYTHING. If a work of literature inspires us to think about God, it is good insofaras it does so.

Ithink anything that promotes prayer is good as far as it does that. Anything that takes us away from prayer is bad in so far as it does that.

Poetry and literature can both foster prayer. I suppose even non-fiction can do so, though I suspect because of its natural thorniness, it may be less likely to. However, surely Interior Castles or St Thomas's commentaries on Scripture would be likely to foster a closeness with God?

So, in sum--yes, you have pinpointed one of the pitfalls of literature--becoming wrapped up in it to the exclusion of God.



AMEN! I can't imagine a life without fiction. One must have balance after all.

Nice post! Generally agree. Am only commenting because you're confusing Barbara Nicolosi (awesome Catholic Hollywood person) with Barbara Ehrenreich (author of _Nickel and Dimed_).

Horn-blowing: My friend Emmy Chang reviewed N&D for Crisis magazine,



Dear Ms. Tushnet,

Thank you. I will fix that post haste. After my teaching support stint this evening.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 28, 2005 9:15 AM.

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