Appreciating Fiction

Dan Green critizes Nigel Beale’s seeming stance on the role of fiction, manifest in Nigel’s suggestion that “the essential question to ask” of fictional characters is “is this fictitious entity relevant to me and my life?” A lot of Nigel’s statements in his post and his follow-up commentary have my eye-brows raised, too, but I think his comment on “lifeness” as a function of literature harbours an important point. He writes:

So, ‘lifeness’ I think is a function of the degree to which readers can relate their lives to the lives of those depicted in fiction.

“Lifeness” is in fact a crucial step in the reader’s development towards appreciating fiction. Generally, the first stage of reading apprecation concerns “unconscious delight” — suspense, beauty, heroism, action, what have you. Next follows, you guessed it, “lifeness”:

Toward the beginning of adolescence and moving through adolescence, readers are concerned with having vicarious experiences along with seeing themselves in the literature they read […] At this point readers seek situations that parallel their own life situations and issues. Readers also identify with characters in the story; they can test new roles, new feelings and new responses to challenges through reading experiences. (Bushman and Haas, Using Young Adult Literature in the English Classroom, 22)

In the final stages of appreciation, the reader widens the perspective to philosophical and social problems, and finally, at the last stage, shifts attention to the level of aesthetic delight and matters such as style, structure, subtlety, harmony, etc.

What is crucial, though, is the fact that higher stages of appreciation do not replace lower ones. Rather, each new stage incorporates the preceding one, which results in a “birthday cake” of reading appreciation:

Birthday Cake

This means that Nigel’s emphasis on “lifeness” and Dan’s emphasis on the novel “as a form of literary art” are both part and parcel of a reader’s appreciation, even though one tends to be developed later than the other. Therefore, in our evaluation, discussion and appreciaton of fiction, lifeness can and should play as much a part as aesthetic delight. Or in other words: You can have your cake and eat it, too.


9 Responses to “Appreciating Fiction”

  1. November 17, 2008 at 6:36 pm

    In assuming recognition of a quality (lifeness), we beg the most important question related to representing “reality.” What is this “reality” that we claim to already know? The “reality” we recognize and think we are relating to is simply the fiction we carry around in our heads, a partly collective and partly subjective phantasmagoria, a necessary but highly unstable fiction protecting us from a reality, always Other, always greater and incommensurate with those portions we’ve managed to domesticate. If literature deems this its proper subject or the definition of its limits, what we’ll get will be the Reality Chickens of commercial fiction… Reality Chicken factories safely caged laying our breakfast eggs on command.

  2. November 17, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    I’m sympathetic to the idea that reality is yet another fiction, but “lifeness” as defined here — namely as a vicarious experience — hasn’t much to do with reality, but merely with the reader identifying with the piece of fiction. Whether he or she identifies this fiction with reality, or with his or her own “phantasmagoria”, as you put it, is irrelevant in this case. The point is that the experience of fiction holding up a mirror to oneself is an important stage in a reader’s development and something that remains a strong influence on the reader’s appreciation of works of fiction throughout his or her reading life.
    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. November 18, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Happy to have found your site. Have much on here I want to come back to.

  4. November 18, 2008 at 7:10 am

    Dan Green debating with Nigel Beale? Two infamous bloggers duking it out! What a treat!

  5. November 19, 2008 at 12:22 am

    Beale’s “lifeness” reminds me of the signature concept of another great critic, Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness.”

  6. November 19, 2008 at 2:26 am

    I like what you say in this post, however, I see the importance of character lying in its capacity to connect the reader to the progression of the story…the more one cares, or is interested in a character, the more engaged one is in the novel. Great novels engage their readers… I would therefore, as you do, place appreciation of this ability along side consideration of philosophical and social problems, and aesthetic delight and style, structure, subtlety, harmony, etc.

  7. November 19, 2008 at 6:51 am

    Thank you all for the comments.
    Edmond: drawing a comparison to “truthiness” strikes me as rather clever, really. After all, a lot of appreciation stems from gut-reactions, and when a novel gets at our guts, we tend to replace an “objective” appreciation of the novel (whatever that is) with all sorts of subjective impressions and values we project into the novel but are hardly there.
    Nigel: You make a good point, but as soon as we are starting to talk about “greatness”, one would have to be careful to distinguish the novel that engages because characters and plot (and the way they are presented and embedded) represent an archetypal human experience from the novel that engages you simply because it reminds you of a personal experience. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but they are very different in that the former ought to be more easily justified and objectified in terms of greatness than the other.

  8. November 19, 2008 at 8:07 am

    To test Nigel Beale’s extraordinary idea that readers relate personally to characters in novels, one might ask him what characters he himself identifies with. How about Polonius? Or since he likes Flaubert so much, Bouvard and/or Pecuchet?

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