Written & Spoken Word

What Good are Novels?

Peter Brooks' book Seduced by Story

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What Good are Novels?

Author:  Jim Stokely

Sources: Peter Brooks, Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative, New York, N.Y.: New York Review of Books, 2022, and Ann Patchett, These Precious Days, New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins, 2021

I go through alternating phases of preferring fiction to non-fiction and vice versa.  When the events of the world – good and bad and all degrees in between – seem to loom over the future of our species, I find myself turning to non-fiction. “What good is fiction?” I ask, when all I want is truth regarding past, present and future.  As Ann Patchett reminds us in her essay “These Precious Days”:

"How other people live is pretty much all I think about.  Curiosity is the rock upon which fiction is built.  But for all the times people have wanted to tell me their story because they think it would make a wonderful novel, it pretty much never works out.  People are not characters, no matter how often we tell them they are; conversations are not dialogue; and the actions of our days don’t add up to a plot.  In life, time runs along in its sameness, but in fiction time is condensed – one action springboards into another, greater action.  Cause and effect are so much clearer in novels than in life." (Patchett, pp. 231-2)

So why do I always veer at some point to privileging “untrue” fiction?  Peter Brooks, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University, has given me my answer:

"The novel at its most powerful offers us our best understanding of what it means to live, to have lived, to construct a life…The literary character is both alive and no one, the image used by our consciousness…That we can talk about Dorothea Brooke [see Mary Ann Evans’ Middlemarch] or Eugène de Rastignac [see Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot] beyond the boundaries of the pages we have read is testimony not so much to our wish that we could have invited them to dinner with us as to our need to reimagine our own existences through their eyes." (Brooks, pp. 77, 90)

In other words, I as one human being am limited to a particular childhood and pair of parents, a particular country of birth as primary influence, a particular century (or portions of at most two centuries), etc.  Even more stringently, I am limited to my single psyche.  So I need writers of novels and short stories to show me other families, other countries, other time periods in order “to discover in the space of a couple of hours what it would take us years to learn in life.” (Brooks, page 82) I can then visit the early Industrial Revolution and see its effects on human beings in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times.  I can feel the tragedy of colonization in Africa through Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  And I can get a sense of what it takes for a woman to survive and prevail in the coal country of the Southern mountains by reading Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies.

Peter Brooks observes: “The novel is seen to call on us, and teach us, to understand what is going on in the minds of others…one must use fictions always with the awareness of their fictionality.  They are the ‘as if’ constructions of reality that we need, that we have to use creatively in order not to die of the chaos of reality…We have fictions in order not to die of the forlornness of our condition in the world.” (Brooks, pp. 86, 113, 119)

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