Why Write? Why Read?

Downloaded the Kindle edition of Victoria Mixon’s Art & Craft of Writing Fiction. Four bucks, why not? Came to a screeching halt at the end of Chapter 2, where she says this: “Readers read stories for two purposes: (1) to learn something they don’t already know about survival; (2) to be assured that life is actually worth surviving. No matter what you write, no matter how you approach it, no matter what you expect to gain by it, you can never afford to forget these two expectations. They are your reasons for what you do.”

I’m, like, “Whaaat?” She has no idea why I do what I do, and she has no right to tell me why I do what I do.

To my way of thinking, Mixon sounds awfully ponderous. Pompous, even. Can we talk for a minute about entertainment? I don’t know about anybody else, but I read fiction primarily in order to be entertained. To be diverted. To go somewhere else for an hour or two without leaving the comfort of my armchair.

Along the way, I may learn a bit about life in 19th century London or New York in the Roaring Twenties, but mainly I read fiction — or, for that matter, nonfiction — because it’s fun. It’s fun to deplore the disgusting bad guys and root for the virtuous good guys. It’s fun to read great sentences. It’s fun to find out what happens next.

To paraphrase, and rather ineptly, Tina Turner, what’s survival got to do with it?

I’ve also been dipping into A Story Is a Promise by a fellow named Bill Johnson. Johnson seems to be operating at a lower level of craft than Mixon, but his thesis has some of the same quality of pseudo-profundity. He begins by alluding to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (though without mentioning Maslow). He then asserts that people read and write stories in order to fulfill various needs:

For example, regardless of the outward appearances and realities of our lives, we are heroic. We have honor. We are brave. Or we’re fearful — but we have good reason to be. And God loves us. Or hates us and has cursed us, if that’s our story need. Because life can operate to remind us we aren’t heroic or courageous, or whatever need we desire to have validated, stories provide the shortest path for many people to meet their needs.

If we feel life is unjust, we can experience in stories a place where justice prevails. A place where redemption can be dramatically won, if our lives lack hope of redemption (or worse, if our redemption is out of our control). A place in which we can imagine ourselves courageously exploring new worlds, even if we’re too shy to say “hello” to our neighbors. Where our senses can be enlivened through thrilling experiences, albeit from a safe distance. Where true love conquers all.

The writer’s goal, in Johnson’s view, is to provide stories that fulfill those needs. He never mentions entertainment. So let’s ask, in what way exactly do the Discworld novels of Terry Pratchett allow us to feel brave? To feel that we have honor? To feel that justice will prevail? Okay, maybe there’s a little justice here or there in a Discworld book. But there’s also Death. Death is the only character (he’s an extremely thin guy with a permanent toothy grin, and he rides a horse named Binky) who is in every one of the Discworld books.

This is the point that Mixon misses too, in her own way. Life is not worth surviving, because none of us survive! I think it was Hank Williams who wrote a song that included the immortal (?!) line, “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”

There is no survival. And a novel is not going to fulfill any of your needs, not really. But there is such a thing as entertainment. Also amusement. Admiration, inspiration, and empathy are possible. Fiction can inspire the reader, though of course it’s no sin if it doesn’t. Does Terry Pratchett inspire anybody? I rather hope not; none of his characters is very admirable, possibly excepting Susan, who is Death’s granddaughter. (She’s adopted.) One might feel a twinge of empathy for poor Nobby Nobbs, but if one doesn’t, one’s appreciation of his plight will hardly be any the less.

What irks me is the idea that writers are supposed to aspire to these lofty goals — to fulfill the reader’s needs or to assure readers that life is worth living. I just want to tell stories. Good stories, well told. If somebody comes along afterward and says, “Oh, you’re fulfilling readers’ need for heroism,” that’s fine, but it’s none of my business.

I have enough trouble making sense of the plot; I don’t need to complicate my life by thinking I need to manipulate readers’ feelings or their perceptions of the world and their place in it. Shortly the world will be ending, folks — not the planet, of course, but civilization as we know it. All the stuff we so deeply value is temporary. Enjoy it while you can. Don’t complicate it by aspiring toward some trembling pinnacle of spiritual or interpersonal achievement, not unless you want to.

Aspiration is optional. Feel free to discard it without guilt; that’s my advice.

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