What Is Fiction For? Exploring the Uses of Literature with Our Students

Pride and PrejudiceReading the New York Times Book Review section on Sunday, I (Clive) was reminded of the rather negative view of life frequently presented in “good literature.” In books reviewed, life was portrayed as hard to fathom, mainly painful, and ultimately tragic. Of one collection the reviewer said: “These stories know suffering, loneliness, lust, confinement, defeat.” (Lust was the one bright spot.)
This recalled my own education at school and university, where tragic literature was the good kind and comedy was mainly fluff. A “comic” life vision, emphasizing pleasure, happiness, and good relationships, was seen as shallow and naïve.
Certainly, some people find sad and violent books more entertaining than comedies; and a well written tragedy can be absorbing. But as Northrop Frye maintained, literature is supposed to educate as well as entertain. So we have to face the question: How well does tragic fiction educate about life? My view is that it helps, but a more balanced picture is needed.
Based on my own fiction choices, I’m coming to the conclusion that entertainment is a major purpose of fiction. You want something you can enjoy on a plane to offset the cramped conditions and bad food; or that you’re glad to read in the evening when you’re feeling tired. So I usually go for David Lodge, P. D. James, Jane Austen and the like, where there’s plenty of entertainment and a fairly positive worldview.
However, there’s no accounting for taste. The main thing is that we discuss the purpose of various types of fiction with our students, helping them figure out for themselves what to read, when, and why.

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