1 Why do we read prose fiction?
Prose fiction, whether in the form of the novel or the short story, is unarguably the most popular and widely consumed literary genre. One only has to see the proliferation of bookstalls at railway stations and airports, for example, and the predominance of novels over other forms of writing made available in such locations to realise the appeal of fiction.
Take a few moments to think about Why we read fiction? What do we hope to gain from reading stories about imagined events that happen to imaginary people?
Robert DiYanni begins his impressively wide-ranging study Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and the Essay (1997) with the following assertion about why we read:
We read stories for pleasure; they entertain us. And we read them for profit; they enlighten us. Stories draw us into their imaginative worlds and engage us with the power of their invention. They provide us with more than the immediate interest of narrative – of something happening – and more than the pleasures of imagination: they enlarge our understanding of ourselves and deepen our appreciation of life.
Did your own answers to the question of why we read touch on any of the reasons DiYanni gives? I wouldn't be at all surprised if they did. It is, I think, true for all of us that there is an element of sheer escapism in our desire to read stories, to imaginatively engage with the incidents and events that befall the characters we read about. We often come to identify with these fictional characters, and think perhaps about how we would react and respond to the situations they find themselves in.
We can immerse ourselves in a fictional world in this way without necessarily applying a great deal of critical or intellectual effort, of course. But if fictional narratives are, as DiYanni puts it, to ‘enlarge our understanding of ourselves and deepen our appreciation of life,’ we need, perhaps, to read them in a more objective way, to subject them to a more critical scrutiny to see if they reinforce or challenge our existing ideas about the world around us. Close attention to the texts we read can only enhance our understanding, and this in turn can increase our pleasure in reading. In this course I will concentrate largely on introducing you to the various elements that make up a fictional narrative; the events that make up a story and how they are arranged (the plot); the perspectives from which stories can be narrated; the act of characterisation; the importance of setting, both in terms of time and place, and the actual language and style which writers adopt to tell their narratives. Above all, in what follows, and in your own readings of fictional narratives, I want to stress the importance of always keeping in mind the question of why you think writers use particular narrative strategies. There are an infinite number of ways in which stories can be told; the choices made by individual writers of individual texts are not randomly made. We need to think about why those choices might have been made. There is no single authoritative answer to such questions. How we read is dictated largely by the experiences and contexts we each of us bring to a particular text, and for that reason no two readings are likely to be the same, even though we may be applying the same critical processes to our reading.
We have spent some time in this introductory section thinking about why we read and, indeed, what we are reading when we read a fictional narrative. I want to conclude this section with a quotation from Ian Milligan. This, I think, encapsulates the discussion I have tried to instigate here and gives an illuminating analysis of our reasons for reading and the need to develop our critical faculties. Keep Milligan's words in mind as you proceed through the rest of this course.
Novels, then, are exciting machines (verbal machines) which transport their readers in space and time. They challenge us to meet the unfamiliar. They offer us a share in the pleasure of making because the designs they consist of are not simply there to be seen; they have to be understood, constructed, recreated by the reader out of the materials and according to the patterns which the fabric of their language contains – or conceals. When we become expert readers, we may begin to see some flaws in the workmanship or in the coherence of the design itself. But as beginning students our first task is to become aware of the pattern of meanings which can be discerned in the novel we are studying. It is only with practice and experience that we shall begin to see that the flood of books we call novels have features in common which allow us to group them together. Each novel has its own pattern, but as our experience widens we may begin to identify patterns running through the history of the form as a whole. These patterns cannot be assembled into a grand design, but the forms of fiction, the ways in which stories have been told, have their own history. An understanding of that historical pattern, haphazard and fragmentary as it may be, does give us some insight into the forms of life which literate societies have evolved in history, some awareness of their predominant interests, and of the myths and guiding principles which have sustained them.
(Milligan, 1983, pp. 7–8)