I recently read The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief by James Wood. I enjoyed it quite a bit even as I disagreed with some of his emphases and tone. In fact I would recommend it over his more recent book How Fiction Works (which I discussed last year).
In particular, I like that he focuses heavily on actual examples pulled from works of literature by great authors. Yes, sometimes the prose swelters, sometimes things are dismissed with a casual tone that doesn’t convince and the continual hammering insistence on realism sometimes get tiring, but on the whole it was a good reading experience. He’s especially good with the author’s he loves, writing mash notes to their work that are lovely and specific and do what good literary criticism does: makes you want to read (or re-read) the author’s work.
And in returning to the foreword, I found an interesting passage that relates to the whole issue of agency and fiction which I raised last week. After quoting Thomas Mann’s assertion that fiction is “always a matter of the ‘not quite'”, he writes:
Fiction, being the game of not quite, is the place of not-quite-belief. Precisely what is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction. In religion, a belief that is only “as if” is either a prelude to a loss of faith, or an instance of bad faith (in both sense of the phrase). If religion is true, one must believe. And if one chooses not to believe, one’s choice is marked under the category of a refusal, and is thus never really free: it is the duress of a recoil. Once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free. In fiction, by contrast, one is always free to choose not to believe, and this very freedom, this shadow of doubt, is what helps to constitute fiction’s reality. Furthermore, even when one is believing fiction, one is “not quite” believing, one is believing “as if.” (One can always close the book, go outside, and kick a stone.) Fiction asks us to judge its reality; religion asserts its reality. And this is all a way of saying that fiction is a special realm of freedom. (xiv)
Now Wood goes on to say a lot more, and he does not privilege fiction over religion, per se. In fact, he explores and warns against the substitution of fiction for religion. But this passage in particular raises some questions for me: is fiction a special realm of freedom? Is that realm different for LDS than for other readers, and if so, how? And is the choice to believe when it comes to fiction really, truly free?
I hope to say more about this later, but a major reason I privilege and attempt to propagate narrative discourse, esp. narrative discourse with literary elements, is because I see it as a complement and a foil to religious discourse; whereas, I see self-help and socio-psychological and business discourse as attempting to supplant or zombie religious discourse. In always being “not quite” literary discourse aka narrative aka stories can create a realm in which to explore (and entertain and instruct) without necessarily making hard truth claims. Now, of course, there still are tensions, especially for those who begin to view religion as “not quite” (and Wood talks a lot in the essays about authors where those two things collide). But my belief is that those tensions can be productive. That’s sort of what this whole AMV thing is about.