Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why Read Fiction?

Flannery O'Connor once famously declared "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."  She shouted through her grotesque characters; she scrawled on the walls with red paint. Her writing had profound moral purpose and she was willing, as we say in the south, "to knock you upside the head" to get her point across.  When the narcissistic grandmother in "A Good Man is Hard to Find" recognizes the common humanity of the "Misfit" he shoots her.  "She would have been a good women," he comments memorably, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." The Misfit here provides an entirely new meaning for the Christian expectation to "die daily." By such bizarre characters and circumstances O'Connor intended to give her readers a new angle of vision of the world.  Nihilism, narcissism, and hedonism had nearly deafened and blinded her contemporaries and only the most stark words and gruesome gestures could get through to them.  She intended her stories to call into question the moral vision, or lack thereof, of her readers.

This is the key value of reading fiction--to gain a new angle of vision.  I am particularly drawn to authors like O'Connor whose moral vision permeates their work.  And yet, the best of these writers are neither preachy nor didactic.  They let the story engage you, confuse you, and even frustrate you.  They make you work.  Over the last couple of days I have been reading the short stories of Wendell Berry.  His approach is gentler and more conventional than O'Connors.  But like hers, his stories contain a searing moral vision.   They speak to loss and sorrow and ruin, but are full of hope and love.  Stories like "Watch with Me" and "Pray Without Ceasing" linger in memory every bit as much as "A Good Man is Hard to Find" (perhaps the finest short story ever written by an American).  Both Berry and O'Connor force the reader to step back and question the conventional wisdom of western society.

Wallace Stegner is another American author with a powerful moral vision.  Stegner taught Berry and several other highly regarded 20th century novelists.  His Angle of Repose is one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.  I would include contemporary authors like Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), Marilynne Robinson (Gilead), and David James Duncan (The Brothers K) in this class of writers.  With some hesitation I would also include Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang) whose moral vision is, shall we say, somewhat different than the others.  Nevertheless Abbey was a strong critic of the corruptions of American  and western society.  In spite of their wide differences, his work was admired by Wendell Berry.  Nearly all of these writers are gifted essayists as well as novelists.  Berry (with some hesitations), Hanson, and Robinson are clearly Christians.  The others (with the possible exception of Duncan) are not.  But all draw from the deep well of Christian critique of modern failures.

I encourage students to read fiction not only to learn how to hear and tell stories, but to stand outside of their own conventional angles of vision in hopes they will see what they have missed.  Living in the seductions of the western world we are all hard of hearing and almost blind.  Contemporary fiction, like the parables of Jesus, forces is to look at the world anew.

1 comment:

  1. Amen, Jay. Thanks for this essay in praise of contemporary literature as a resource for encouragement, provocation and challenge. I might add these 3 titles to your list: "Peace Like a River," by Leif Enger (I've just downloaded to my new Kindle (gift for anniversary/Christmas/ birthday!) a 2008 Time Magazine top 5 novel by him - "So Brave, Young and Handsome") and two by an author new to me this year - Stephanie Kallos - "Broken for You" and "Sing Them Home." Of these 2, Enger is a Christian, Kallos a convert to Judaism, I believe. Loved this quote by Enger in an online interview from six years ago: "Whom would you say has more credibility: the man who pounds on the table insisting his story is true, or the one who, having the reputation of honesty, frees his listeners to decide for themselves?" This is what a good preacher or teacher does, to - at least in my book. Blessings on this new writing foray and thanks for signing on. Diana Trautwein