Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Fiction Theory

One of my recent theories arose from a combination of my experiences in therapy and something I read for the book group at the yoga center.

I was talking in session about how the road I was traveling in therapy often seemed epic to me—I’ve got sirens, I’ve got monsters, I’ve got shoals and gales, and somehow the tattered boat sails onward.

Somehow, it’s difficult to convey the drama to other people. First, there’s no real reason why they should care. Second, the truth about oneself is so often embarrassing and unpleasant. And third, the journey is so full of particulars.

For me, having two friends for dinner might be the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. For you, it might be effortless. There’s so much context to understand.

On the other hand, whatever the particulars, the trip that is epic for me is entirely ordinary. It’s the nature of life to be striving at something. Whatever I’m doing is only one version of what every other person on this planet is doing.

So: how to reconcile these two things, the greatness and the insignificance, the uniqueness and the universality?

Enter a thought stirred up by a book I read with the group at the yoga center, namely The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, a book by the noted psychiatrist Robert Coles. Per Houghton Mifflin, it’s “a study of how listening to stories promotes learning and self-discovery.”

Coles talks about how a handful of provocative texts, by writers from Tolstoy to Tillie Olsen, are received by a wide group of readers—children, patients, doctors in training.

No matter their background, readers were likely to identify with some aspect of character or plot. As they explored these connections in conversation, they often experienced a deepening of compassion or startling insights about themselves or their families or their work.

With a slight tweak, this became the basis for my new theory, namely: that fiction exists because it provides us with a set of particulars that can be widely shared.

A fiction provides us with the details of various lives and events, and we happily pore through them to find the underlying lessons. We can do this in the company of other people, and we can share our discoveries.

We may develop a broader sense of empathy than we might have imagined. Isn’t one of the hallmarks of great literature supposed to be that we can all see that the story is universal, even when we’ve never experienced such circumstances?

Fiction may also exist because it provides a vehicle that allows us to go through the process of sorting through the particulars of human experience in a manageable way. What we are doing as we read and think about what we’ve just absorbed is a microcosm of what we do at every moment of our lives.

We are trying to decode the narrative. We are trying to make sense of it all.

Perhaps fiction’s virtue lines not only in its content but the fact that it creates the space for people of all varieties to share in the same experience of seeking understanding.

People who love to read probably have no need of an elaborate philosophical pretext to justify reading a novel, but I was excited. I decided I might want to start a book group to read fiction. And then we would go through this process of finding the universal in the particulars of our chosen story together.

A few weeks later, a handful of people came over for supper, and at the end of all the evening, someone remarked: “That was like a book group, except no one had to read the book!”

At which point I remembered what book groups are often like. Some participants have read the book, others have read half of it, and others didn’t have time to start. People make various insightful remarks, but the conversation fragments, and before long nobody is talking about the book.

Oh, well. There is a difference, I thought, between an idea about connecting and the actuality of connecting, and maybe this is still a divide I have yet to cross. Which isn’t to say that one couldn’t connect in a book group, even if it isn’t actually about the book.

1 comment:

Joan said...

As someone whose day job in comic books is all about fiction, I'd argue that it's not just fiction we find comfort in, but, as Coles titled it, stories. So that would include nonfiction, which oddly enough is what I read to relax. As long as it's a lived experience, as long as it's got a narrative, it helps me make sense of things.