Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Truth in Fiction: Are You Reading Well?

A friend of mine came up to me recently and asked, “So, what are you reading these days?”
That is a good question to ask anyone in today’s culture where so many people simply prefer to watch television than open a book.  The average American above 15 years old spends 2.7 hours a day watching TV – which accounts for about half of a person’s daily leisure time – according to the latest American Time Use Survey Summary released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
The amount of time spent reading varied greatly by age group, but young adults ages 15-19 averaged 6 minutes per weekend day. Ouch.
However, the point I want to make is not that people should read more – clearly an understatement in today’s society.
The question I want to probe today is this: What are we learning from what we read? In other words, are we reading well? For those of us who are writers, I add another question: Are we writing well?
The answer to those two questions may be more closely connected than you may think.
I like what Neil Postman says in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. While making the argument that the written word always carries meaning, he makes this statement: “A written sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said.”
I see a two-fold responsibility in Postman’s statement. First, the author is responsible for saying something, and second, the reader is responsible for understanding the message conveyed.
Of course, every writer has something to say. As Postman says, “It is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence.” So yes, every writer has an object – and a bias – in writing.
With that in mind, the reader should approach books with critical questions. What message is the writer conveying? Is the writer consistent in conveying that message? Is that message developed effectively and convincingly? In other words, the reader should be actively reading.
Perhaps you are wondering, “Ok, so I get how a nonfiction writer conveys truth, but what about a fiction writer? Don’t fiction authors just write make-believe stories?”
I would argue that the “make-believe” holds a unique power of its own. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”
The power of fiction is that it uses the vehicle of our imaginations and actively involves us in the drama. We suffer through the protagonist’s mistakes, exult when the hero vanquishes the villain, or feel wronged when justice is not served.
Here’s another way to look at what we can learn from “make believe”: Fiction can depict human nature so well that in reading it, we discover something about ourselves in the process.
So I argue that truth is waiting to be found in fiction. Do you have to be a Christian writer to communicate truth? I’d like to leave you with that question to think about for next time.
Of course, there are bad fiction novels – bad either because they are written poorly or because they don’t say anything worthwhile.
Good or bad, we learn from what we read. So I ask you again: Are you reading well?

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