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Why Read Fiction?

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   September 1, 2008   |  Type: Articles

Through the centuries the reading of fiction has been criticized by various Reformed thinkers. These critics have voiced three major concerns. First, they contend, the reading of fiction is a waste of time. The time taken to read a novel could be much better spent in Christian service or in pious reading that would be genuinely improving – like reading Evangelium. Second, fiction is fundamentally dishonest. It speaks of things that never actually happened as if they had. Time is better spent reading true biography or history. Third, fiction is too often morally corrupting. The people and situations depicted in fiction are often sinful and provide very bad examples to readers.

Such criticisms cannot be dismissed out of hand. Christians certainly must be careful and thoughtful about how they use their time and how they are influenced. Still, with all these caveats firmly in mind, I believe that a case can be made for reading fiction.

For help in this task we can turn to C.S. Lewis. While Lewis is today remembered best for his work as a Christian apologist and as an author of children’s books and science fiction, professionally he was an outstanding professor of literature. He presented a case for reading literature in his little book, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1961). In this book Lewis rejected much of modern literary criticism as missing the point of literature and indirectly offered an insightful defense of reading books which are not immediately or obviously edifying.

First, Lewis suggested that we read literature because it is enjoyable. He recognized that some Christian traditions questioned the legitimacy of doing anything simply for enjoyment, but Lewis rejected such a form of Christianity. God made many things in this world for our enjoyment, and we should receive them with thanksgiving. Psalm 104:15, 26 points to this truth: “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring food forth from the earth. . . .There go the great ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it” (ESV).

The enjoyment we can derive from reading is not only the joy of well-crafted words and ideas. It is not only the fascination of meeting new people, both attractive and appalling. It is also the wonder of seeing an author’s creative mind at work – creating as an expression of the image of God in human beings.

Second, Lewis argued that the value of reading literature was a way to experience many things that we would not otherwise experience. “We want to see with other eyes, imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own” (137). Lewis explains what it means to see with other eyes in these terms: “In reading imaginative work, I suggest, we should be much less concerned with altering our own opinions – though this of course is sometimes their effect – than with entering fully into the opinions, and therefore also the attitudes, feelings and total experience, of other men. Who in his ordinary senses would try to decide between the claims of materialism and theism by reading Lucretius and Dante? But who in his literary senses would not delightedly learn from them a great deal about what it is like to be a materialist or a theist?” (85-86). When we read well, we enter into new worlds: “A true lover of literature should be in one way like an honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates” (86).

Third, Lewis suggests that as we enjoy and experience good literature we will ourselves grow as human beings in the understanding of others. He writes: “[W]e seek an enlargement of our being” (137). We are changed by experiencing other minds, even where we largely reject their point of view. “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality….in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself” (140f).

While reading literature can be defended in its own terms, as Lewis does, it is appropriate in this place to note that literature also has a special usefulness for Christians. Learning to read literature will be an invaluable tool for reading the Bible. Learning to read well, that is, learning to listen to a text and notice the way in which its form contributes to its meaning, is necessary to good Bible reading. Reading is more than learning the alphabet and vocabulary. Good reading is understanding what an author is expressing. Christians must be good readers if they really want to understand the Bible. One reason that there are so many interpretations of Christianity is that many readers of the Bible do not know how to read.

If you are still not convinced of the value of fiction, let me suggest a book that may change your mind. It is not a novel or a Christian book.(1) The book I have in mind is the memoir of an Iranian woman who taught English literature at Iranian universities during the early years of the Muslim revolution against the Shah. Since the book is a historical memoir, you will not be reading fiction. You will learn from the inside what it is like to live in an Islamic republic.

This book – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (New York: Random House, 2004) – has many strengths. It shows how many different views existed among Iranians who opposed the Shah. It reflects the differences among Muslims on the relationship between their religion and politics. Most of all it demonstrates how great the pressures are upon women in Iran: the requirement to wear the veil in public, the prohibition against being alone with any man who was not a close relative, the difficulty of getting an education, the insistence that women were responsible for stimulating the lusts of men, and the subjection to morality squads. The picture of the lives of women in Iran is vivid, fascinating and horrifying. The book is well worth reading just for its insight into the totalitarian character of this Islamic republic.

Nafisi’s memoir is not only a remembrance of life in Iran, however. She tells her story by focusing on a secret reading group that she formed with several of her female students. These students came from different backgrounds and had different attitudes toward the revolution and Islam. What united them was a common interest in English literature. We get to know these women as we see them reflecting on various works of literature.

Many may feel that novels by Vladimir Nabokov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen would be completely irrelevant to women living in Iran under the ayatollahs – or at best would offer escape from the world in which they lived. But in fact these women found the novels to be a source of liberating and profound insight into themselves and their world. In discussing Nabokov’s UI, they recognized: “What Nabokov captured was the texture of life in a totalitarian society, where you are completely alone in an illusory world full of false promises, where you can no longer differentiate between your savior and your executioner” (23). In discussing Nabokov’s notorious novel Lolita, the women discovered the ambiguity of life and of literature. How should the young girl Lolita be evaluated in relation to the older man in her life, Humbert Humbert? “Thus another Lolita emerges that reaches beyond the caricature of the vulgar insensitive minx, although she is that, too. A hurt, lonely girl, deprived of her childhood, orphaned and with no refuge” (43).

On reflection we may be able to understand the relevance of Nabokov to these women since he too was the son of revolution. But what of Fitzgerald and his The Great Gatsby, the quintessential novel of the jazz age in America? Or James and his novels of American innocence in decadent Europe? Or especially Austen and her novels of English country mores? But professor and students learn an amazing amount about themselves and life from these novels.

Nafsi teaches how much a Muslim extremist could have learned from Fitzgerald: “I could have told him to learn from Gatsby, from the lonely, isolated Gatsby, who also tried to retrieve his past and give flesh and blood to a fancy, a dream that was never meant to be more than a dream. He was killed, left at the bottom of the swimming pool, as lonely in death as in life” (114f).

From Henry James’ Washington Square, they learn the extraordinary courage of which an ordinary woman is capable:

“As she is shunned by her father, manipulated by her aunt and finally deserted by her suitor, Catherine Sloper learns, painfully, to stand up to each and every one of them – not in their way but in her own, quietly and humbly….She surprises them with her every act. In each of these instances her actions arise not from a desire for revenge but from a sense of propriety and dignity, to use two outmoded terms much favored by Jamesian protagonists” (225).

With Austen, in the first place they did have “fun” (258) which was both vital and also perhaps somewhat escapist. But Austen was much more than that. The women in Pride and Prejudice were revolutionary: “These women, genteel and beautiful, are the rebels who say no to the choices made by silly mothers, incompetent fathers (there are seldom any wise fathers in Austen’s novels) and the rigidly orthodox society. They risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship, and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose” (307).

Nafsi expands on the democratic impulse in Austen:

“One of the wonderful things about Pride and Prejudice is the variety of voices it embodies. There are so many different forms of dialogue: between several people, between two people, internal dialogue and dialogue through letters. All tensions are created and resolved through dialogue. Austen’s ability to create such multivocality, such diverse voices and intonations in relation and in confrontation within a cohesive structure, is one of the best examples of the democratic aspect of the novel….All we needed was to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative. This was where Austen’s danger lay” (268).

It is also where her pleasure and power lay: “And even with the book closed, the voices do not stop – there are echoes and reverberations that seem to leap off the page and mischievously leave the novel tingling in our ears” (269).

Each of the novels which the women read illumined a different aspect of human life for them. But Nafsi insists that all good novels serve one great purpose: they develop empathy in us for others: “Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels – the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains. Not seeing them means denying their existence” (132). Surely empathy is a virtue that Christians need to cultivate. Empathy is not approval or the abandonment of ethical or doctrinal standards. It is a sensitive understanding of the condition of other human beings.

The reading of novels should be enjoyable. But it is also profitable. Learning to read novels well will make us better readers of the Bible and more empathetic human beings. Read a novel. If you do not know where to begin, begin with one of those that moved and helped those remarkable women in Iran.


1 For an excellent Christian book on this subject, see Leland Ryken, Windows to the World, Literature in Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985)[back to text] .

First published in Evangelium, Vol. 4, Issue 3.

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