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Why Do We Read Fiction?

In 1962, Robert Penn Warren published a piece in the Saturday Evening Post   entitled "Why Do We Read Fiction?" Over the years since then, many students have encountered the piece as it has appeared, reprinted, in collections and textbooks -- especially, perhaps, in the 4th (and subsequent?) edition(s) of the classic reference An Approach to Literature by Cleanth Brooks, John Thibaut Purser, and Robert Penn Warren himself.

In that textbook, following Warren's six-and-a-half-page answer to what is called a "question of general theoretical interest," there appears a set of six separate exercises for the student. The first assignment is to "Break the essay into its main parts, and summarize the argument under each part."

Okay, teach: Here goes ....

Warren starts simple, with a thesis statement that summarizes in the language of the obvious; the non-scholar need go no further.

"Why do we read fiction? The answer is simple. We read it because we like it. And we like it because fiction, as an image of life, stimulates and gratifies our interest in life."

He then suggests a story's conflict is the main attraction, because it is exciting and because it reflects the conflicts the reader has in her own life -- but with a crucial difference: The fictional conflict offers a well-defined resolution.

"A story is not merely an image of life, but of life in motion ... facing a problem, a conflict."

"We are in suspense about the story in fiction because we are in suspense about another story ... -- the story of our own life as we live it."

"Even when we read, as we say, to 'escape', we seek to escape not from life but to life, to a life more satisfying than our own drab version. .... In this sense, then, fiction painlessly makes up for the defects of reality."

Once it has attracted the attention and engaged the interest, successful fiction encourages the reader to take part: to "identify" with the character(s) and role-play their activities, while simultaneously maintaining a separate perspective as an observer.

"In other words, to enter into that publicly available daydream which fiction is .... The more sophisticated reader plays a deep double game with himself; one part of him is identified with a character ... while another part holds aloof to respond, interpret and judge."

This dual perspective -- evaluation and empathy, being both observer and observed -- conditions the reader to reconsider her own life in the same fashion, and helps to establish the intellectual distance necessary to view oneself and one's own actions objectively.

"Play when we are children, and fiction when we are grown up, lead us, through role-taking, to an awareness of others [and thus] to an awareness of ourselves; it leads us, in fact, to the creation of the self. ... the ringmaster self, the official self. ... All our submerged selves, the old desires and possibilities, are lurking deep in us ... our entering into the fictional process helps to redefine this dominant self .... fiction 'brings us back into our own presence' -- the presence in which we must make our final terms with life and death.

Indeed, fiction makes such self-assessment easier; because the author has "boiled down" life's experience to a relevant set of consequential occurrences. Thus simplified, the fictional story makes it possible for the reader to weigh action against consequence, and make judgments about value.

"[I]n the process of imaginative enactment ... the image that fiction presents is purged of the distractions, confusions and accidents of ordinary life. We can now gaze at the inner logic of things. ... One of our deepest cravings is to find logic in experience. ... [F]iction shows ... a logical structure which implies a meaning. ... [A]s readers, we have the more difficult freedom that permits us to contemplate the consequences of action and the judgment that may be passed on it. For judgment, even punishment, is the end of the logic we perceive. In our own personal lives, as we well know from our endless secret monologues of extenuation and alibi, we long to escape from judgment; but here, where the price tag is only that of imaginative involvement, we can accept judgment."

At last, the fiction ends; but, for the reader, life goes on.

"... in the successful piece of fiction ... we feel, in the end, some sense of reconciliation with the world and with ourselves. And this process of moving through conflict to reconciliation is an echo of our own life process."

"If fiction begins in daydream ... it ends, if it is good fiction and we are good readers, by returning us to the world and to ourselves. It reconciles us with reality."

Yet along the way -- through fictional conflict, resolution, and judgment -- the reader has been convinced that this story, in which she has found echoes of her own life and story, is important ... with the unavoidable implication that the reader's own life and struggle is important, too.

"The style of a writer represents his stance toward experience ..."

"Everything there [in the work of fiction] ... is formed by a human mind into ... an expressive whole, a speaking pattern, a form. And in recognizing and participating in this form, we find a gratification, though often an unconscious one, as fundamental as any .... the shaping of experience to satisfy ... our deepest need -- the need of feeling our life to be, in itself, significant."

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