Spring is here and summer's on the way, so instead of being glued to always-troubling news and worrying about America's future day and night, it's time to refresh our spirits with natural sunlight and a good novel. Take a break from the whirlwind of real-world issues and delve into another world of fantasy and intriguing ideas to sharpen the mind and nourish the soul.
Unlike painting and sculpture, where aesthetics and content are perceived directly via physical images, literature is a cerebral art involving a purely conceptual transmission of values from the mind of a writer to the mind of a reader. Thus, it becomes an enchanting passage to the imagination using symbols — words — to communicate its content.
As readers of novels, we "see" interlocking scenes in our mind's eye. Gradually, as we navigate narrative, descriptions, characterizations, introspections, dialogues, metaphors, and events, we experience the "now" of the novel's progression and simultaneously evaluate the real-life questions inherent in its theme. Is this idea true? Is this situation relevant to all human beings or just a few? Or only me?
Are these characters understandable? Are they behaving morally or immorally, and why? Are their actions motivated by their value system? Is that value system rational and/or compatible with mine?
Like all artists, writers' value systems are consciously or intuitively imbued in their work because the creative process requires choices from overall theme to the tiniest details of time and place. Fiction also requires authors to attend to the internal lives — thoughts and emotions — of characters by infusing their individuality with ideas, utterances, and actions with values.
Good novels allow readers of all backgrounds and circumstance to "enter" imaginative settings with imagined people playing out imaginary scenarios, thus experiencing distilled versions of reality within mind-soul enriching artistic worlds. Serious, value-oriented fiction activates powerful emotional reactions from us if we relate passionately to fascinating places, meaningful events, and psychologically developed characters.
If we identify positively with certain characters, we can merge into their personalities and vicariously celebrate ourselves via their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Happy endings are satisfying for sure, but morally complicated stories can provide challenging and rewarding connections too. Rather than offer clearly articulated, immediate value-identification, they force us to push our own value system into high gear when evaluating the motivation of characters.
Only when we identify with a character's "character" and their value journey can we identify with them personally. So, judgment comes into play here as well.
Caveat: Although exceptions exist, historical novels are problematic because most authors adjust history to advance their story. It's one thing to set a story within an historical period — if it is accurate — but it is quite another to tamper with historical personages who actually lived out a real life during that period, so reading this type of fiction can warp true historical knowledge.
Mystery, adventure, Sci-Fi, and thriller novels usually provide clear-cut value choices—good guys versus bad guys, or man-woman versus nature, etc. — and captivate attention on an uncomplicated level. While valid and entertaining, such stories satisfy only surface value-identification because they rarely delve into deep fundamentals.
For this we must turn to Romanticism. First, we need to differentiate between Romanticism and "romance." Romance novels are based in Naturalism's character-and-event-driven school of writing rather than the Romantic theme-and-plot-driven school: an episodic narrative wound around certain characters as opposed to a purposeful plot and characters created to dramatize a serious underlying theme or idea.
Unlike what we might term the "naturalistic," Romance stories are heavily laced with emotionally manipulative pseudo-romanticism in the sense of being set in some exotic place with some exotic or "sexy" characters feeling lots of feelings.
Appealing largely to immature females, romance stories are usually about relationships rather than ideas, often adventure/ love/fantasy tales about women being "swept away" by their emotions and unable to control their desires or actions because of a male attraction —or by what they perceive to be a love that they can't or don't want to explain.
These "fluffs" appeal especially to those who view strong feelings and sexual desire as unpredictable appetites that come flashing unbidden out of some mystical space in the undecipherable blue, striking us with love or hate as randomly as lightning hits chance objects.
Conversely, serious Romantic novels are about heroes and heroines of high moral stature and lofty ideals, offering an opportunity to explore real-life conflicts that resolute individuals may confront and overcome. Suspense in this type of fiction comes from the thrill of experiencing a fictional character's choices.
The adventure of such stories is rooted in the limitless possibilities available to all of us in real life but selectively dramatized in a novel.
A "Romantic" love story, then, would by definition deal with primary values. It would show us not only what characters choose but also offer reasons for why they choose it. Because they are intentional and responsible for their thoughts and actions, the characters would by necessity be philosophically and psychologically motivated, so the events of the story would be plotted solely to dramatize a serious theme.
Even if certain characters behave illogically, the narrative would still unfold logically and in accordance with the interaction of characters, their implicit or explicit values, and their circumstances.
Serious, theme-based novels cause us to concentrate mentally, which hones our intellectual abilities; they cause us to expand our imagination, which stimulates our own creativity; they cause us to "visit" different locales, which informs us of new places and arouses our curiosity; they transport us to different time periods, which reminds us of history; and they cause us to analyze the psychology of characters, which expands our ability to analyze our own.
Entering the fictional world of a writer's imagination will stimulate our minds and cause us to learn and judge the merit of ideas. So, enter the world of "make believe" and enjoy a break from the tensions all around us in the real.
Here are some recommended novels: Alexandre Dumas ("The Lady of the Camellias" and "The Count of Monte Cristo"); Victor Hugo ("Ninety-Three," "The Toilers of the Sea," and "The Man Who Laughs"); Edmond Rostand ("Cyrano de Bergerac"); Baroness Orczy ("The Elusive Pimpernel"); Boris Pasternak ("Doctor Zhivago"); Mark Twain ("The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"); Ayn Rand ("The Fountainhead"); and Alexandra York ("CROSSPOINTS A Novel of Choice").
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. She is the author of "Crosspoints A Novel of Choice." Her most recent book is "Soul Celebrations and Spiritual Snacks." For more on Alexandra York — Go Here Now.
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