In a technological world of few words — Facebook, Twitter, texting, et al — real life socialization practices and personal interactions are becoming rare for individuals of all ages but especially among the young. Idea-based novels can help fill this void by allowing readers to view reality and a wide variety of people through another person's eyes, whether those of the author or one of their fictional characters.
Because literature is a conceptual transmission from the mind of a writer to the mind of a reader it becomes an enchanting passage to the imagination, a journey of ideas not only to what is but also to what could or might be. Good, plot-driven fiction weaves an underlying theme through the events of a story and the actions of the characters. The more universal and fundamental the theme, the greater the fiction.
As readers, we “see” interlocking scenes in our mind’s eye first; then heightened visions of all that is possible in our own lives are activated while we turn the pages of a physical book or swipe our fingers across an e-reader.
Gradually, as we navigate the narrative, descriptions, characterizations, introspections, dialogues, metaphors and dramatizations, we are stimulated to explore real-life questions: Is this idea true? How is truth determined? Is this situation relevant to all human beings or just a few? Or only me? Are these characters I’m meeting understandable? Are they behaving morally or immorally, and why? Are their actions motivated by their value system? Is that value system compatible with mine?
Because novels are conceptual in form, readers have an opportunity to examine the moral imagination directly. Every writer’s value system is consciously or unconsciously inherent in their work because the process of creating fiction requires constant choices of everything from overall theme to the tiniest detail of time and place.
Creative writing also requires an author to attend closely to the internal lives of fictional “made-up” individuals. How do they make up fictional human beings to render them believable? By infusing characters’ thoughts, utterances, and actions with values.
As readers we come to “know” fictional people largely the same way we learn to know real-life people: we discern their basic “character” by observing and listening to them, so reading novels can allow individuals of all backgrounds and circumstance to play out real life conflicts in an imaginative setting with imagined people.
Readers also can learn by example and “write” their own future by mentally picturing the outcome of personal choices to decide which are best and which should be rejected. Important side benefits of reading are learning to be alone and internally analyzing various life options, thus quieting the mind and activating creative thought rather than sitting around texting or chatting on a cell phone.
Lastly, reading serious fiction educates the emotions. Feelings can be conveyed productively and safely through characterization, offering examples to readers of how to deal constructively with emotions and “work them out” in real life. Meaningful novels can assist healthy emotional flowering and advance psychological growth, so parents should be sure their kids read fiction as well. Nice family “togetherness” can be enjoyed by parents and children reading the same books and then discussing them at dinner without the distraction of electronic devices on the table.
Advice? As a fiction writer myself, I can offer these thoughts from both a novelist’s and a reader’s point of view: To hone in on what kind of novels can be enjoyed for their own specific tales and simultaneously benefit personal, real-life choices, it’s best to explore different genres: mystery, romantic-suspense (not cheap romance fluff or erotica), literary, etc. to discover what type of fiction encourages your own imaginative processes to soar.
The question to ask is this: Did anything or anyone — events, ideas or characters — in this story add to or enrich my personal life? If the answer is “No,” then move on to another author, but first figure out why you don’t like this one, a fascinating task that can be immensely revelatory in gaining information about oneself. If the answer is “Yes,” then read everything written by your chosen author to see if their magic continues to stimulate yours.
The only fiction I suggest avoiding is the historical novel because reading in this area seldom adds to actual knowledge and stories in this category usually distort the facts of history to suit plot demands.
Most of all, read novels regularly. Thought-provoking ideas and actual improvements that make real life richer in our own lives can be stimulated by considering the behavior of fictional characters meeting complex problems of both the head and the heart. In well-written novels we get drama, dreams, conflicts, and possibilities galore, so delve into this world of “Let’s Pretend” and make of it what you will to enhance your own.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation. She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "The Innocent." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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