f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of “Why Bother?” – What Links the Books Readers Read?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Day 4 of “Why Bother?” – What Links the Books Readers Read?

Many in yesterday’s comments touched on today’s topic, so it might be worth a visit to check in with what others have said. I may echo or steal bits of what’s been spoken...thanks in advance.

The inference many have drawn from the illustration of the social isolate is that it isn’t just enough for people to want to be talking about imaginary world. They need to be imaginary worlds worth talking about. I believe the word used is “substantive.”

So the next question is: what is a substantive work of fiction?

According to Heath (and this is based on interviews with hundreds of readers) : the most defining characteristic of such a work is “unpredictability.” What’s interesting is that this characteristic actually models the readers’ lives. Most of the serious readers she interviewed had to deal with, in one form or another, personal unpredictability.

For that’s a surprise. It seems people with unpredictable lives would actually lean toward safer, more predictable books. Heath’s research points elsewhere. Two common comments were:

1. “…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.”

2. Substantive works of fiction are “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….Strong works of fiction are what refuse to give easy answers to the conflict, to paint things as black and white, good guys versus bad guys.”

The next immediate bit of interplay in the novel is fascinating to me. It seems highly indicative of a lot of things.

“And religions themselves are substantive works of fiction,” I [Franzen] said.

She nodded. “This is precisely what readers are saying: that reading good fiction is like reading a particularly rich section of a religious text. What religion and good fiction have in common is that the answers aren’t there, there isn’t closure. The language of literary works gives forth something different with each reading. But unpredictability doesn’t mean total relativism. Instead it highlights the persistence with which writers keep coming back to fundamental problems.”

This persistence, Heath concludes, is the link that binds readers—the sense of “having company in this great human enterprise.”

Writing and reading, in the end, for Heath and Franzen are about two things. They are about “not being alone.” And they’re also about “not hearing that there’s no way out—no point to existence. The point is in the continuity, in the persistence of the great conflicts.”

It is physically impossible to shake my head “Yes” and “No” at the same time but that’s what this portion of Franzen’s essay evokes from me. I think it makes a strong pointing finger to the heart of wheel-spinning postmodern thinking. But at the same time, there’s a humility there that resonates (with me at least)—a sense that all the answers may not be knowable and that sometimes asking the question is the best we’ve got.

So: to boil it down.

What is Christian fiction’s role?

To ask questions? (Following, Heath and Franzen’s model for “substantive” fiction.)

Or to provide answers? (Because merely self-identifying as Christian implies that we have some.)