Jane Smiley is the author, most recently, of “Private Life,” a novel.
June 6, 2012
Types of novels come and go, but fiction possesses a perennial power to enlighten as well as to entertain. One reason for this is that reading any story or novel is a choice. The reader, even a child, is entirely free to love, like or detest any book, to read it 20 times or to throw it aside.
A work may only attract, never coerce. To read fiction is to do something voluntary and free, to exercise choice over and over each time the reader picks up a story or a novel. The ultimate effect of this freedom is freedom itself — freedom to contemplate the characters, themes and settings the work depicts, freedom to experience a variety of feelings, some strong, some entertaining, some ambiguous, freedom to make up one’s own mind, freedom to investigate one’s own experience and inner life.
Reading fiction is and always was about learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives.
The exploration of inner life is my other favorite virtue. A piece of fiction is an expression of its author’s inner life. Even when it depicts grand public events, it partakes of the author’s point of view (or points of view — most often divided up among the narrator and several characters with the author shadowing in the background).
The reader who is exposed to these inner lives cannot remain blind to his or her own: when readers in 18th century England were asked to contemplate whether Samuel Richardson’s Pamela should yield to her employer’s attempts to possess her, they found themselves identifying with her and asking related questions about their own choices. Reading fiction is and always was practice in empathy — learning to see the world through often quite alien perspectives, learning to understand how other people’s points of view reflect their experiences.
In our dangerous world, the freedom and empathy that fiction develops in its readers remain essential.
See online: An Exercise in Empathy