Why Fiction?

In C.S. Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism, I found a thread of thought that was both engaging and insightful where he proposed a thought experiment involving literary criticism.

Lewis suggests that books should be judged by how they are read rather than how they are written, and that readers should approach any book they read for the first time without prejudgment. Any book that motivates a reader to want to reread it is then a work of art regardless of label or genre. The most succinct passages I found were those of his epilogue, which pretty much sum up the book:

In the course of my inquiry I have rejected the views that literature is to be valued (a) for telling us truths about life, (b) as an aid to culture. I have also said that, while we read, we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself.

The simplicity here makes much sense in that a book should just be seen as a book. He later poses this question to himself:

What then is the good of… occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person?

To which he answers:

…we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. … We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.

I can certainly identify with these sentiments. After all, reading fiction is about transposing myself into the shoes of the different characters and seeing the world through their eyes – whether it is the world governed by the laws of nature as we know them, or otherwise – and to experience the magical journey the writer wishes to impart through these characters.

Understanding characters
I do not approach a work of fiction with the expectation of learning a universal truth or discovering a new culture, nor do I read as a source of escapism. I read with attention and with the expectation of understanding the characters, their motives and their actions due to the obstacles facing them. Whatever I derive from this act of reading, should it happen to include a better understanding of a given culture or universal truth or a new perspective about human nature then this would only be an added value to my reading experience.

But reading for the joy and appreciation of reading, in itself, is a beautiful gift and when that gift happens to be a book that I deem ‘good’ by what is essentially mine to deem it as such, then I have one of the greatest gifts I could give myself. And yes, as Lewis says, I would certainly reread such a book.



10 thoughts on “Why Fiction?

  1. A great train of thoughts… Thank you!
    I find that many of us read fantasy or science fiction in order to find our own common psychology behind all the imagined settings… I do that. But I also like the exercise of my imaginative skills – I love to picture those surroundings, characters, costumes, smells, sounds… of others worlds. It is a wonderful form of getting a perspective. It reminds me of karate training – it is as if you spent two hours in middle ages! Amazing feeling!

  2. “I read with attention and with the expectation of understanding the characters, their motives and their actions due to the obstacles facing them.” Yes, yes, YES! 🙂

  3. What a beautiful written review! I agree with you and C.S. Lewis 99%! The 1 % is because, for me, there are those books that I love because although I perhaps didn’t “enjoy” them in the traditional sense of the word, they still challenged me in some sense, made me think about my world differently, taught me something. I wouldn’t reread them but I still love them (even if I don’t really like them!) 🙂

    Great post!

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