By Glenn Packiam
I have always been a reader, but I haven't really been much of a fiction reader. At the risk of revealing my snobbery, I must confess that I used to think of fiction as a waste of time. I read for information. I want to learn! Who has time for silly stories?
Over the last few years, I've realized what a fool I've been for ignoring great stories. Here are just a few of the things I'm reminded of when I read good fiction:
The power of storytelling is not just in the story but in the telling. Not all fiction is created equal. Many stories rely on gimmicks and tricks, with more plot twists than a bubble gum blockbuster. No doubt, these stories are entertaining, but they will never be great. They acheive an emotional response by manipulating the reader not be truly letting him enter the story.
Take Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, which I only recently read. There's not much of a plot per se. An old man goes too far out to catch a fish too big and struggles with sharks and fatigue as he tries to make it home. But that's not it. The way Hemingway tells us the story makes us feel the cracking rope burn against our hands, taste the salty breeze on our parched lips, and rise up with the deterimination to conquer age and nature and all the criticisms of society.
Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich is, as you would guess a story of one day. Yet, that one day captures so beautifully all the agony and disappointment and hope of living in a Siberian concentration camp-- ordered by the country he had once fought for.
The lesson is simple: how we say something is every bit as important as what we are trying to say. How we do something matters as much as what it is we are trying to accomplish. This foolish pragmatism of having to learn something efficiently or communicate something directly robs us of the joy of life. And God's way of teaching us is usually not as direct as we'd like. Sometimes it takes 40 years of wandering to test our hearts and make us humble.
Every scene matters. Telling a story well means treating every scene with equal delicacy. Tolstoy in Anna Karenina transports us to elegant parties in Moscow and peasant farms in the countryside with equal deftness. Each scene is described in detail, making them believable and "feel-able".
Good fiction doesn't tell you that the journey matters as much the destination; it shows you why by making you present in every step. Good fiction makes us slow down. Ah, to live that way!
The best characters are people you know. (Or vice versa) In the movie, Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis character says that we "read to know that we are not alone." Some people object to reading saying that they choose to live in the "real world" instead or to write their "own stories." But good fiction creates characters that remind you of someone you know and helps you to see them more deeply and more truly.
Our temptation is to turn the people around us into caricatures...to say that Bob is just an accountant, or Susan simply a mom. Or worse, we peg people by one or two traits, ignoring a host of others. Jill is a "neat freak". John is a porn addict. But no one is only those things. Every person is complex. Good fiction makes us see the characters in 3D or HD or both. We see their confidence and the underlying insecurity. We see the noble impulses and their base cravings. We see the imago dei and the carnality of flesh. This is what good characters do: they remind you that every human being is a rich, beautiful mess.
Holding up a mirror is better than breaking a window. The best fiction, though, reminds you of yourself. It makes you come clean about your hidden thoughts or motives. It makes you admit your fears and face your demons. We are not as pure as we imagine. We are not as hopeless as we feel.
The beauty of good fiction is it makes us face ourselves without our being threatened by a confrontation. Think of Nathan the prophet telling David the King that he has sinned against God by sleeping with Bathsheba and murdering an innocent man. It was the power of a story that allowed Nathan to lead David to see his own guilt-- though David didn't know it until Nathan said "You are that man!" Jesus repeatedly used obscure stories that unwittingly made listeners feel a knot in their gut. The pinch of the "Good Samaritan" story wasn't that Jews needed to help the poor; they already did that...and Pharisees were famous for doing so. By making the hero of His story a person that Jews despised-- the Samaritan-- Jesus subversively made them recognize their own prejudice without calling them bigots and hypocrites. (He saved that speech for later!)
A story is subversive. Rather than throwing a brick through a window in anger, a story holds up a mirror and leads to you to the truth. One has to do with confrontation, the other with confession.
Over the last few years, I've seen myself in Tolstoy's Levin (Anna Karenina), Huckleberry Finn, Ryan in Rob Stennett's The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher, Eustace, Jill, and all four of the Pevensie kids in Narnia. I am like the Hemingway's Old Man who goes out too far and gets more than he can handle; I am like Tobias Wolff's narrator who wrestles with his cultural roots in Old School.
I've still got loads of catching up to do, but with every page I can feel my life getting broader, and slower, and richer, and more honest. And those are all good things.