I know this is going to sound like I’m contradicting myself. At first, I made sure to say that it wasn’t fiction’s role to teach. Seriously, who likes reading didactic fiction?
And now, here I am suggesting to you that Aristotle suggests, however subtly, something different.
But it’s not really a contradiction. It’s a question of style, of course, and of understanding.
Aristotle believed that poetry imitates life – and we are going to extend that to all arts, and then specifically to literature. Art imitates life. Not as a photographer takes a picture. Or as a stenographer records in a court room. Rather, the artist sees something – a scene, an incident – strips it of the messy life that surrounds it, and then shows us the end result. No uncertainty. No ifs or what fors. Just, what it will be. What it could be.
Or even, what ought to be.
This is why for example, when we read a book like “Where She Went,” it falls flat. It’s a book portraying people as they merely are, and not as they “ought” to be. We are a reporter following behind Adam, recording the minutiae of one evening in New York. Indeed! The title is precise. The book tells us merely – where she went.
We know nothing of what the characters – or the situation – ought to be. And what’s worse, it doesn’t matter.
Here is where we need to proceed with caution. Here I am telling you the book fails because it doesn’t tell us how characters ought to be. But wouldn’t telling us how characters ought to be, be a didactic lecture and make us want to gouge our own eyes out?
Hopefully not! And here is the subtly.
Morality – especially Catholic morality – isn’t an ideal with facts jumping off the page to prove it. No! Morality for us is “freedom for excellence.” It’s not a ven diagram of which step is proper to take next.
And this is the balance. We don’t want characters to follow a series of if/then statements on the proper way to behave. But when we are reading literature, we are witnessing the re-enactment of a character’s life. The character moves from the beginning of the story to the end, following a path that he has no choice but to follow. And we watch this path with the aim, however nuanced, to criticize his life (and therefore ours) on a moral basis.
What do we observe in Where She Went? Should they get back to together? Should the tour separately? Who cares?
But in If I Stay, it is different. We watch as Mia questions. Is it right to choose to die? And if that is a choice, what is the ultimate answer to that question? We watch Mia live through the agony of these questions – questions very much relevent to the world in which we live. And while she agonizes we observe, we analyze, and we probe her actions; weigh them against our beliefs. We don’t have to agree. But we are invested.
This happens implicitly as we turn the page of a good book.
It doesn’t happen at all in those lesser books. And they fall flat.
So, no. We aren’t asking the book to teach us, per se. But we are at least asking that it say something. Anything. Even if it’s amoral. It’s what engages us in the book.
I think this is true even for those “candy” books, we like to plow right through. No actions of importance, no interest. We have to care that a character does something. Else, why do it? And then, why read the book?
Modern literature isn’t all tripe. And this is one way we mine for gold. Don’t you think?