20 Jan 2012

Why Smart Women Read Fiction

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Why do you read fiction?

There are many answers, and when posed to a very smart woman in a recent conversation, she said, “I read to be amazed, to connect, to learn, to feel.” Yet her answers reflect only one aspect of a larger issue presented in Garth Risk Hallberg’s recent New York Times magazine article entitled, “Why Write Novels at All,” which focuses more on the reasons authors write than on why we read.

But, these two activities are intertwined—after all, authors need a raison d’etre to write if we are to have anything to read.

In his essay, Hallberg identifies a group of emerging authors that he labels ‘Le Conversazioni’ since they formed a core group at a 2006 literary conference in Italy. Writers he mentions include Nathan Englander (an absolute favorite of this blogger—consider his The Ministry of Special Cases for your book club), Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jeffrey Eugenides. More specifically, Hallberg looks at how they use their craft to justify the existence of fiction. The essayist’s view is that, “The deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness… a sign that you are not alone,” and he offers a few examples from La Conversazioni :

If a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of other’s identifying with our own.—David Foster Wallace

Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.—Jonathan Franzen

These reflections are just a part of the puzzle. Many of us read beyond the need ‘to resist loneliness.’ Something closer to the truth emerges at the end of the essay when Hallberg brings in a 2000-year-old theory about the purpose of art—to delight and instruct. For most smart women, those of us who engage in conscious, deliberate, active reading for whatever reasons are important to us, we want to feel joy and we want to learn, experience something important beyond what is available to us in our daily lives. And this, we believe, is why smart women read fiction.

Please post a comment and let us know why you read. For this blogger, to be delighted and instructed is a great start.

written by
Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.
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