Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.
One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.
Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.
Posted in Books, Higher Education, Literature, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged 100 Must-Read Novels about Religion, Annie Proulx, BookRiot, fiction, Goodreads, Literature, Neil Gaiman, Teresa Preston, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Shipping News
Fiction is a framework to approach reality. People are drawn to stories because they help us to make sense of a bewildering world which wasn’t, in reality, custom made for us. Marta Figlerowicz’s Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character explores the types of characters that modern novelists are taught to avoid. She points out, however, that they occur in great novels beginning from the early stages of the category up through fairly contemporary classics. The flat protagonist, in short, isn’t believable. I’m not enough of a literary critic to judge her examples, but I have been thinking of one such character that occurs in popular culture all the time—the personification of evil. In my reading on writing I’ve learned this is to be avoided. Nobody is pure evil. Popular media begs to differ.
Being of working class sensibilities I can’t separate myself from the lowbrow crowd, I’m afraid. My fascination with Sleepy Hollow is pretty obvious on this blog. One of the recurring themes in the series is the antagonist that is indeed pure evil. Whether it’s Moloch, Death, Pandora, or the Hidden One, those who are evil represent the dark side of humanity, or the universe. They glory in destruction. Of course, in late Judaism and early Christianity this was a role taken by the Devil. As a child I was taught that it was wrong to feel sorry for Satan. This clashed in my head with the idea of forgiveness and with the love of all. Could God not love his (and he was masculine) own enemy? How could we hope to do the same, then?
In the most ancient of religions, as far as we know, evil wasn’t personified. Yes, evil happened, but it was simply part of the matrix of being. Some gods tended toward good while others tended the other direction, but a being of pure evil doesn’t seem to have existed. Even Tiamat loved her children, at least until they killed her consort. The stark black-and-white world of monotheism can’t explain evil without an divine enemy. A flat protagonist, to be sure, but one you can always count on to do the wrong thing. The closest we come to that in real life is the Republican Party. Insidious, sneaky, using every possible loophole to shove their agenda through, they are the perfect flat protagonists. No, I’m not inclined to believe in the Devil. Or at least I wasn’t until November of 2016.
In this world of rational materialism, people still turn to fiction. Some prefer it in the form of movies, television, or internet, but those of us “old school” like our fiction in print. No matter how we take it, fiction appeals to that part of us that makes us human—our range of emotions. This became clear to me in The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. As a typical human, I spend a good part of my mental energy trying to make sense of things. Our social existence can be quite confusing and isn’t always rational. If you doubt this, read the headlines. Keith Oatley offers insight into psychology, or mental life in general, with this little book. We read stories because we like to find ourselves caught up in emotions. Successful writers can draw us into the fictional world not with reason, but with feeling. We seek emotional satisfaction and what we can’t do in fact, we can in fiction.
This aspect of human existence also plays into religious texts. Those of us raised to read sacred texts literally lose a lot of what they have to offer. Fact may tell us what to believe, but fiction helps us learn to feel. Thinking, as many cognitive scientists now believe, incorporates both rational and emotional information. Reality, in other words, isn’t purely reasonable. We interpret things. We interpret with our guts as much as with our heads. This combination of different ways of understanding the world—and the society—around us blends into a distinctly human milieu. We can’t reason our way out of emotions. They are who we are.
While teaching full-time I found myself turning to novels to recover from all the research I was doing. Reading only non-fiction (which, I suppose, is what The Passionate Muse might be) can lead to a lopsided view of life. I’ve had colleagues tell me that fiction is for others—non-academics, those who don’t have the weight of the intellectual world upon their shoulders all the time. Interestingly, since I’ve allowed myself to read more fiction I’ve discovered that the wisdom embedded in stories often surpasses that of erudite monographs. Scholarly literature, of course, has its place. Still, it leaves room on the plate for desert as well. Oatley builds his academic study around a fictional story he wrote to show what he wanted to tell. The rational meets the imaginative. I feel more human already.