Fight for Fiction: The Formative Power of Story

Posted on March 12, 2014 by Katherine Ruch

(Image by Amanda Cleary Eastep--children's author)

The Common Core that many states have recently instituted in our schools is controversial.  Along with many literature proponents, I am deeply concerned at the replacement of 50% of the fiction and poetry with technical and non-fiction reading.  This other reading is non-fiction from science, math, etc. Already our students do not read enough literature, and since schools have been trying to attract children to reading by offering inferior literature that presents immediate pleasure, the body of great literature to which a student is exposed, has been steadily shrinking.  Now it has just shrunk more. 

To accommodate these new standards, teachers will be able to give only samplings of novels or plays as texts to be dissected (which is one way to learn...but only one).  The rare full book that a student will read will be selected how?  and by whom?  I taught high school literature and found it a constant battle with time to give the students a real education in literature.  And now, if I understand the new standards, literature will not be linked to any period of history, will not fall into a broader arc of ideas being shaped and formed in a culture in a certain place at a certain time.  Children will be writing more (and reading their own writing instead of great writing), which on the surface looks good, but historically does not make better writers. Children have been writing more in school than ever before and their writing is getting worse.  It is not about writing more;  it is about reading more good writing and then writing carefully. 

It is not that I do not think that our children should not be reading good writing wherever it is found. Good non-fiction reading is important.  My concern is that we are reducing our educational theory to a utilitarian perspective, teaching to the tests, the jobs, and the statistics.  We are making a work force. We are not making persons.

This brings me once again to my tired tirade that defends literature, especially fiction.  Good literature is a true teacher.  Through it we meet people of such different places, persuasions, life situations, and time periods than we could ever meet in one lifetime.  We are exposed to the incarnation of all the vices and the virtues, and our imaginations take on living forms of what it means to be good, forgiving, loving in the face of hatred, faithful against all odds or, on the other hand, miserly, despairing, trapped in secrets. We gain empathy and also a capacity to imagine something that is not, so that we can work toward change.  We can capture through picture and story the human heart in ways it cannot be otherwise understood so that it sheds light on the intricate movements of our own souls.  A people bereft of literature is a people that does not know itself or how it fits into the story of the whole world.

It is through reading Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton that I grasped the trap of adultery and how the human heart falls into its own holes, and I became better equipped to pray for those who grieve their own sexual falls.  It is through Lord of the Rings that I populated and Christianized my imagination with images of true community, faithfulness in the small difficult tasks that leads to true heroism, the immediacy of the battle arrayed against the good, the corruption that comes from imagining oneself the lonely savior, the ultimate victory of hope, and on and on.  Even as I list those things they sound lofty and instructive but not alive like they are when encountered in the characters of the book.

After reading for years, we begin to identify archetypes (models or patterns), repeated themes, and the world begins to form a network of connections across time and space.  We all share these archetypes of "the journey," "the hero who must suffer," "the protected garden," "the birth," "the antagonist."

How can such reading shape our expectations of life and of common human experience?  Just recently, my children commented on how all foreign fairytales about kings and princes follow a pattern.  The first two sons are power hungry and lacking in love;  the third son, of whom nothing great is expected is the virtuous one.  They all have some quest, and on the quest, the one who responds to the needs of the dwarf or the little old lady or the injured animal (who in actuality is a person of magical powers who knows how to help them complete the quest) is the one who gets the aid and accomplishes the quest and wins the love of some desirable princess, a kingdom to be ruled and, finally, the recognition of the distant father.  (And this is always the youngest son or the unexpected hero).

What does this pattern tell us of the world's understanding of the arc of true story?  The hero is not necessarily the expected one who even postures as the hero.  The true hero is the one who is unselfish, responsive to the needs of others even at the expense of his own comfort, the one willing to persevere in hardship, open to help when his limitations prevent his success, and respectful of authority and the small.  In the end, contrary to what would be expected, this is the hero that wins love, true authority and responsibility.  This is a universal truth embodied in a simple fairy tale that children imbibe and eventually find it has shaped their expectation of a true hero.

It was this very understanding of the centrality of one myth or one true story of which all other stories are echoes and ripples that led C.S. Lewis to understand that Jesus is the true story.  Tolkien helped him see that Jesus is the myth that came true, so to speak, and that is why so many cultures and times have had threads of this story woven into their imaginations.  He is the central story.  All other good story and literature can draw us into the true story, and make room in us for all truth and ultimate truth.

Another gift that good literature gives us is distance.  We read a story that mirrors our world, and we can see it more clearly.  Or we can process through story something that is too weighty in real life. Many people have found the power of story to be healing because they are able to experience similar life circumstances or characters at a distance that can be managed.  Therapists of children who have suffered trauma use story to help children process their own lives.  Our encounter with evil in a story (as long as it is clearly portrayed as evil) helps us deal with evil in the world with some distance.  A dragon is not going to show up on our front door, but temptation is, greed is, and we learn how to deal with such darkness (like the knight does) by facing into fear, developing courage, and persevering. Story can also expose us to experience beyond our own that will better enable us to empathize with others whose experience we will never share in real life. Where historical facts can tell us what happened in a labor camp, a story shows us what it does to the human person.

I believe that a rich imagination shaped by memorable story that embodies the true, the good, and the beautiful equips me to live out the virtues (hopefully) in my real life story.  Of course, what is dark is also made clear, and when distance is provided through story, we can often see more clearly the darkness in ourselves and our world, and choose to name it and walk away from it. Jesus did this for us in the parables.  He chose story to unfold what was in a person's heart and to show his listeners what it meant to love or forgive.  How many times do I find that my children can SEE their own actions more clearly if they see them embodied in a character in a story.  A simple comment like, "Don't be an Eeyore," is immediately understood by my children.

One day my husband and I were walking down a street in Brazil and saw a man lying in the middle of the sidewalk.  He did not appear to be sleeping off a drunken stupor but had fallen and was unconscious.  People were walking by, looking, and avoiding.  How I wanted to pass on and not entangle myself in what could be hours of care when we were in a new city to have a relaxing day as tourists.  But just that morning we had read the story of the Good Samaritan and knew we didn't want to be those people that passed by.  We tried to call the police.  They were not interested.  Then we realized a hospital was across the street;  so we planned to try and carry him.  We could tell he had wet himself all over, and we knew we were trying to avoid touching him.  Just as we picked him up, a man stopped in his pick-up truck to help us, and the story unfolds from there.  But it was the story of the Good Samaritan that motivated me in a moment of decision to be the one that would sacrifice in the moment and not be the religious one that had better things to do.

As we look to the future of our country's education, we must fight for good fiction and good literature of all kinds to be central to the formation of our children.  Make sure your own children are immersed in good story and not just reading literature to learn how to analyze language.  Our worlds must be larger than our own experience, and our imaginations must be rich to help us live full and meaningful lives. To that end, I hope to have regular book suggestions and "reviews" that offer suggestions for books that expand and engage the whole person.

 (Feel free to send your suggestions, as I am always reading.)