Why People Read Serious Novels

franzen3Posting on novelist Jonathan Franzen yesterday prompted me to re-read his famous ‘Harper’s Article‘ on the increasing irrelevance of the great novel in contemporary society.

After sparking significant debate, he slightly revised the article and included it in his 2001 collection How to be Alone which, ironically, I first read on my honeymoon.

In it, he makes some salient points about why many people read serious novels, drawing on research by Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist and Professor of English at Stanford University. Heath conducted an empirical study on people who read “substantive works of fiction” and has made some interesting conclusions:

She says that for a person to sustain an interest in literature, two things must be in place:

1. The habit of reading must have been “heavily modelled” when he or she was young. i.e. one or both parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same.

2. The person must have found a person with whom they can share their interest, a peer at school or Uni.

But then Franzen notes that he doesn’t fit this category – neither of his parents were fiction readers at all, to which Heath replies,

‘Yes, there’s a second kind of reader. There’s the social isolate – the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. What happens is they take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can’t share with the people around you – because it’s imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. They they aren’t present, they become your community’.

Franzen then draws an important distinction between a displaced sociability and an anti-sociability. These readers don’t become impossibly poor socially, indeed they can be hyper-social, ‘It’s just that at some point you’ll begin to feel a gnawing, almost remorseful need to be alone and do some reading – to reconnect with that community’.

Heath also names the defining feature of substantial fiction: unpredictability. She found that the vast majority of serious readers have had to deal, one way or another, with personal unpredictability,

‘Therapists and ministers who counsel troubled people tend to read the hard stuff. So do people whose lives haven’t followed the course they expected to… especially women whose lives has turned out to be radically different to their mothers’.

how-be-alone-jonathan-franzen-hardcover-cover-artFranzen later re-phrases this trait as tragic realism.  He suggest we are drawn to the darkness & unpredictability of life presented through the form of the articulate beauty & clarity of literature.  This ‘formal aesthetic rendering of the human plight can be… redemptive‘.

He’s quick to note that it does not make readers ‘better‘ or ‘healthier’ or ‘sicker’ than others, but notes that readers generally feel reading ‘makes them a better person’.  Not in a self-help way, but rather:

“Reading serious literature impinges on the embedded circumstances in people’s lives in such a way that they have to deal with them. And, in so dealing, they come to see themselves as deeper and more capable of handling their inability to have a totally predictable life”

That’s fascinating – and most interestingly – it reflected that readers saw quality fiction as:

“…the only places where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically

She actually describes it as akin to a religious experience. But it’s the reliable pattern of literature’s form that readers hold on to, the continuity of the quest, which shows that life that existence has meaning.

They rely on the things that great novels have in common, the persistent continuity of the great themes & conflicts; and particularly providing the experience of being alone but not lonely – ‘of having company in this great human enterprise’. 

“Again and again readers told me “Reading enables me to maintain a sense of something substantive – my ethical integrity, my intellectual integrity. It’s more than this ‘weighty book’. Reading that book gives me substance”‘

I find this resonating with me personally, and made me reflect on how we all long in different ways, and seek to satisfy that deep, personal longing. And also how that longing is so connected to our sense of identity: who we are and where we belong.

The Christian view is that this longing is ultimately for God. The Bible speaks so beautifully of God allotting the times and places of our life so that we “should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us..”

In terms of reading, it also reminds me how the Bible, in revealing God through Jesus Christ, never speaks simplistically of the brutality and beauty of human existence.

To read the Old Testament, or the Gospels of Jesus, is to read more than a hint of tragic realism. It speaks of life plainly and truthfully. But then, uniquely, it offers genuine hope, well beyond a cathartic connection.

Even as Franzen then quotes Flannery O’Conner (a Christian) saying boldly:

“People without hope not only don’t write novels, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage”

And who elsewhere provocatively suggested:

“When you leave a man alone with his Bible and the Holy Ghost inspires him, he’s going to be a Catholic one way or another, even though he knows nothing about the visible church. His kind of Christianity may not be socially desirable, but it will be real in the sight of God”

Catholic or not, we’ll see. But ‘real in the sight of God’ – that’s closer than one may think.