Monday, December 6, 2010

Why Novels Matter

Recently I had occasion to change into my flannel jammies at bedtime, pour my cup of chamomile, and listen, breathless, as Meryl Streep read me a story - specifically The Velveteen Rabbit, the classic children's novel by Margery Williams.

I'd gotten a new iPhone, and, fascinated by all the amazing apps I could find for the thing, I ran across a free offer of a Meryl Streep/Velveteen Rabbit app - with music by George Winston, no less. (The app is no longer free, but you can still get it for $1.99. And if that's too much or you don't have an iPhone or iPad or other compatible devise, I've supplied the video at the end of this post.)

I remembered, nestling into my covers and pushing "play," that I had loved this book since I first discovered it at the age of fifteen. I'd forgotten, however, that the story always made me cry, and that it always made me want to be kind, to not have to be carefully kept.

Hmmm... I pondered. Wasn't fiction meant to entertain and not to teach a lesson? Well, the story did entertain. It swept me into its spell and by turns it charmed, troubled, angered, frightened and finally enchanted me... and at the same time made me a bit more willing to sacrifice my button eyes and whiskers if I could only be real one day.

I bring this up because I've noted a discrepancy between the non-fiction books and the novels that Christian readers seem to favor. Have you checked the titles out there? I'll name some in the comments if you like, but just mentioning them will stir controversy, because the publishers were brave, God bless them. These books call us to hard questions, harder answers, and at the end of them (in my opinion) new hope. And readers are buying the books, engaging the questions.

But would I get in too much trouble if I suggested that in the fiction these same readers buy, the questions tend to be... simpler? I've heard people say, more than once, "When I read a novel, I just want to escape."

Me too. When I read a story, I want to escape my own thoughts, my own ways of thinking, and try on someone else's for a change.

I once had a conversation with a friend about the reason fiction was good for the young teens in her class. "Fiction is all about empathy," I told her. "It helps us see things from other people's eyes."

And The Velveteen Rabbit fosters empathy in a way that Everyone Poops could never do. Okay, I know, the analogy is hardly fair, but... well, this is my blog post. The truth is that there are many non-fiction books that foster empathy, and my guess is that they do it, every time, by straying into the novelist's camp and telling a story.

Remember (if you can) any history book from your school days about World War II and Nazi Germany. Did that book come close to teaching you the truths you found in Anne Frank's Diary?

Let's try this exercise: Name a non-fiction book that has stirred you recently. What questions did that book ask you? Can you name a novel that explores the same questions? If not, say so, and maybe someone else can suggest a title.

I'll join in too. But you first. We love to read what you have to say.

Oh - and here's the promised video:

20 comments:

BK said...

I read far more non-fic than fic, so I can't name any novels for you. However, I will say I didn't need to read The Diary of Anne Frank to be stirred to empathy--my old textbooks did that too. And yes, I've been around for a while. 8-)

Patti Hill said...

We've all read textbook versions of facts and figures about war, but I don't remember a one of them. Here are the titles I do remember, All's Quiet on the Western Front, The Red Badge of Courage, Killer Angels, Of Gods and Generals, Gone With the Wind. I took far more and developed deep empathy for soldiers and their families through these stories. Every nonfiction book I've read that stirred me up used good storytelling techniques. Max Lucado is a master. His word pictures stay with me. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand is another. There is a relatively new genre called literary nonfiction that's all about telling a story while giving facts.

Lynn Dean said...

Love this post! I loved Velveteen Rabbit, and All's Quiet on the Western Front haunted me for days after I finished it. It sort of finished me, as good literature will. I'll have to think about other examples, and I will certainly check back to read comments for a list of meaningful stories and, I hope, more information about literary nonfiction. When I wrote a non-fiction homeschool history curriculum ten years ago, I incorporated many biographies and period fiction titles in the suggested readings for just this reason.

I would like to share an idea that someone special shared with me. We all enjoy entertainment, but there's a difference between amusement and recreation. Amusement (which comes from the Latin words 'a + muse' - 'not to think') lets us unplug our brains and simply escape. Recreation, on the other hand, re-creates us. We come away changed, refreshed, and a bit better for the experience.

Nicole said...

The only non-fiction I've read recently was a memoir: Mary E. DeMuth's In Thin Places. So well done, so meaningful and brave.

I rarely read non-fiction, have never enjoyed history.

Novels matter because we get inside others' skins and heads. Sometimes we love it and sometimes we hate it. To make us cry, laugh, gasp, react: what a privilege to write pieces to accomplish those things in a favorable way. To capture the hearts of readers, to take them on a journey . . . Yeah, that's meaningful, important even.

Nicole said...

(Forgive me, Mary: the memoir is Thin Places not In Thin Places.)

Hilarey said...

Great post!

Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

Nicole - loved your post. That is what reading fiction should be about. I am a firm believer that you should never do anything completely unplugged. Whether a tv show, movie or novel, I can be entertained while learning. Non-fiction doesn't do that for me as I just don't learn as well that way. (Ask my teachers from long ago. :-)

I have read a fiction book and gone a checked facts in non-fiction or on the computer, but it isn't quite what your asking.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

"Fiction is all about empathy" Katy, I think you defined why there seem to be more non-fiction books dealing with hard subjects than fiction. In non-fiction, you can be passionate about the subject and remain a bit at arm's length, but when you add the character who is bound up in the issue, you add a 'dangerous' element. The reader experiences what the character does and this makes it powerful - maybe a bit too much for publishers on certain topics. Fiction can change you.

Jan Cline said...

I read more non-fiction than fiction. I love the works of Ravi Zacharias and I've been stimulating my brain with Dr. Caroline Leaf's books. I grew up watching all the old classic movies like Jane Eyre and Rebecca and Imitation of Life. It's hard to find novels that tell stories that way anymore. I guess I like the simplistic style of storytelling. But non-fiction is my first love, because I prefer to learn - not just be entertained.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Empathy! That is it. Climbing inside our characters and living their lives.

I know Sharon's book, Every Good and Perfect Gift opened my eyes to a beautiful friendship and made me think on that topic. I've read great books on relationships but there really is something about watching a relationship thrive and struggle in a novel.

~ Wendy

Nikole Hahn said...

The Unknown Black Book: I wish I had read this in high school. I would have understood the terrible Halocaust better.

Megan Sayer said...

Interesting question! There have been some rather challenging books on my bedside table over the last year or so.

Dirt Poor is an account of a journalist's year-long undercover assignment working in the "unskilled" labour force. This raised big questions about how government policies have shifted the "rules" and expectations of work, how people considered "employed" for the sake of bolstering government statistics may be working as little as one shift a fortnight, with no benefits or overtime.

Funnily enough the novel that raises similar questions of the entrenched poverty of the working poor is John Grisham's The Painted House. He shows the story of tenant farmers, whose crop payment is barely enough to pay the rent on their property and provide their meagre expenses.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Thank you, Wendy. I appreciate the comment.

Megan Sayer said...

Well this post is certainly a "thinker".

I remember reading Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' On Death and Dying a few years ago, which was profound, but nowhere near as impacting as Peter Goldsworthy's haunting novella Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, about a family preparing for the imminent death of a child.

Yes, Debbie, fiction is sometimes more powerful than we can handle.

Kathleen Popa said...

BK, sounds like you had some great textbooks. Patti, there is something about experiencing an event in someone's day to day life that changes the way you see it, isn't there?

Lynn, I love that you say good literature finishes you, re-creates you. Yes. It adds something that wasn't there before, and not just a good idea, but a new way of seeing. It changes you from the inside out.

Chris, it's the difference between learning to use the bathroom (a good idea to be sure) and learning to love.

Nicole, The Unknown Black Book sounds interesting. And Thin Places is an amazing book. For those readers who never heard the term, thin places, it's an Irish idea, that "in-between" places, like the place where the shore becomes the land, or where the plane becomes the mountain, or where the child becomes the adult, that those places are "thin places" where the division between the spiritual and the physical realm is less defined. And in those places, anything can happen. Stories strike me as in-between, thin places - not factual, but real, in that the writer weaves them out of real experiences and emotions, and the reader, hopefully, experiences the story as real as she reads it.


Debbie, I think you nailed it. Non-fiction gives us distance. Fiction invades it. Powerful.

Jan, I love both. And I love all the hungry minds among our readers.

Wendy, I can tell you that Every Good and Perfect Gift wonderfully reflects Sharon's genius for friendship. It truly is a beautiful book, isn't it?

Megan, I looked for Dirt Poor (it really sounds good) and didn't find it. Is the title correct? Patti, can you tell us where to find it? (It would be so cool to walk into the bookstore and have Patti show me around.)

Okay, I said I would list a few nonfiction titles:

Lord Save Us From Your Followers by Dan Merchant. Please read this book. Please watch the movie. Please do both. The question on the front of the book reads, "Why is the gospel of love dividing America?" Do you know of any fiction book that explores the same question?

Some years back Mike Yaconelli wrote a book titled Dangerous Wonder that suggests we Christians have lost our sense of wonder and offers ways we might get it back. Easy enough to find novels that deal in wonder, but would Yaconelli say they'd a proper job of it? What do you think?

The back cover of Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola says "We know a lot about trying to be like Jesus, but very little about living by His indwelling life." Any novels about the indwelling life? Wouldn't you love to read one?

Kathleen Popa said...

BK, sounds like you had some great textbooks. Patti, there is something about experiencing an event in someone's day to day life that changes the way you see it, isn't there?

Lynn, I love that you say good literature finishes you, re-creates you. Yes. It adds something that wasn't there before, and not just a good idea, but a new way of seeing. It changes you from the inside out.

Chris, it's the difference between learning to use the bathroom (a good idea to be sure) and learning to love.

Nicole, The Unknown Black Book sounds interesting. And Thin Places is an amazing book. For those readers who never heard the term, thin places, it's an Irish idea, that "in-between" places, like the place where the shore becomes the land, or where the plane becomes the mountain, or where the child becomes the adult, that those places are "thin places" where the division between the spiritual and the physical realm is less defined. And in those places, anything can happen. Stories strike me as in-between, thin places - not factual, but real, in that the writer weaves them out of real experiences and emotions, and the reader, hopefully, experiences the story as real as she reads it.


Debbie, I think you nailed it. Non-fiction gives us distance. Fiction invades it. Powerful.

Jan, I love both. And I love all the hungry minds among our readers.

Wendy, I can tell you that Every Good and Perfect Gift wonderfully reflects Sharon's genius for friendship. It truly is a beautiful book, isn't it?

Megan, I looked for Dirt Poor (it really sounds good) and didn't find it. Is the title correct? Patti, can you tell us where to find it? (It would be so cool to walk into the bookstore and have Patti show me around.)

Okay, I said I would list a few nonfiction titles:

Lord Save Us From Your Followers by Dan Merchant. Please read this book. Please watch the movie. Please do both. The question on the front of the book reads, "Why is the gospel of love dividing America?" Do you know of any fiction book that explores the same question?

Some years back Mike Yaconelli wrote a book titled Dangerous Wonder that suggests we Christians have lost our sense of wonder and offers ways we might get it back. Easy enough to find novels that deal in wonder, but would Yaconelli say they'd a proper job of it? What do you think?

The back cover of Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola says "We know a lot about trying to be like Jesus, but very little about living by His indwelling life." Any novels about the indwelling life? Wouldn't you love to read one?

Kathleen Popa said...

BK, sounds like you had some great textbooks. Patti, there is something about experiencing an event in someone's day to day life that changes the way you see it, isn't there?

Lynn, I love that you say good literature finishes you, re-creates you. Yes. It adds something that wasn't there before, and not just a good idea, but a new way of seeing. It changes you from the inside out.

Chris, it's the difference between learning to use the bathroom (a good idea to be sure) and learning to love.

Nicole, The Unknown Black Book sounds interesting. And Thin Places is an amazing book. For those readers who never heard the term, thin places, it's an Irish idea, that "in-between" places, like the place where the shore becomes the land, or where the plane becomes the mountain, or where the child becomes the adult, that those places are "thin places" where the division between the spiritual and the physical realm is less defined. And in those places, anything can happen. Stories strike me as in-between, thin places - not factual, but real, in that the writer weaves them out of real experiences and emotions, and the reader, hopefully, experiences the story as real as she reads it.


Debbie, I think you nailed it. Non-fiction gives us distance. Fiction invades it. Powerful.

Kathleen Popa said...

Jan, I love both. And I love all the hungry minds among our readers.

Wendy, I can tell you that Every Good and Perfect Gift wonderfully reflects Sharon's genius for friendship. It truly is a beautiful book, isn't it?

Megan, I looked for Dirt Poor (it really sounds good) and didn't find it. Is the title correct? Patti, can you tell us where to find it? (It would be so cool to walk into the bookstore and have Patti show me around.)

Okay, I said I would list a few nonfiction titles:

Lord Save Us From Your Followers by Dan Merchant. Please read this book. Please watch the movie. Please do both. The question on the front of the book reads, "Why is the gospel of love dividing America?" Do you know of any fiction book that explores the same question?

Some years back Mike Yaconelli wrote a book titled Dangerous Wonder that suggests we Christians have lost our sense of wonder and offers ways we might get it back. Easy enough to find novels that deal in wonder, but would Yaconelli say they'd a proper job of it? What do you think?

The back cover of Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola says "We know a lot about trying to be like Jesus, but very little about living by His indwelling life." Any novels about the indwelling life? Wouldn't you love to read one?

Megan Sayer said...

Oops, sorry Kathleen, it was Dirt CHEAP: Life at the wrong end of the job market, by Elizabeth Wynhausen.

It's an Australian book, and according to the preface she copied the idea from an American journalist who did a similar thing, although I didn't make note of the American writer's name or book title sorry.

Ashten said...

I'm not sure you could call it fiction; because I think it's based truly on her life...but Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" pulled on my heart like no book had in a long time. I didn't read it until I was 22 years old. It gave me such a glimpse into the culture she grew up in and deepened my appreciation for diversity and compassion for others.
A fiction title that haunted my heart and challenged my attention to children in hard situations was the book "Tomato Girl" by Jayne Pupek (a book I picked up at Ollies because the cover was pretty...boy was I in for a shock!)...it was so horrible and made me angry and yet, I know children who have experienced similar trauma in their lives as the main character in that story experienced. There are so many families in need of love and care from others...I guess what makes a fiction story or...well...just STORY in general so effective is that it forces us to walk in the shoes of the person experiencing. It's not just details about it...it's the whole package...we get to walk where the person walked, emotions and all...not just hear about it fact by fact. That's powerful...and Jesus was a MASTER at this!