This is a short piece I wrote as a contribution for a feature on another website a few years back. It seems worth re-posting here and now (with minor revisions) for several reasons: first, so that I won’t forget about it–I was only reminded of it this morning because of this excellent piece on the playfulness of David Mitchell’s writing; second, because some of my upcoming book reviews may involve these topics; third, because it’s relevant to recent discussions I’ve seen about critical thinking and reading. To my mind two of the tasks of a reviewer are to encourage critical reading by showing the enjoyment and other benefits that can derive from it, and to gently demonstrate it in their work so that readers who want to learn can see it “in action,” as it were. I try to do some of the latter in my reviews–some of both, really–but perhaps the former could also use addressing more directly….
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One aspect of fiction that I tend to focus on and appreciate is the sense of play intrinsic to the very unreality of fiction, the delight in human imagination that comes from knowing participating in the creation of a fictional story (in my case, via completing the loop of the story’s creation as a reader and occasional reviewer). On a large scale, that of story groups and genres, this is part of why I enjoy fantastic and speculative fiction, which make no bones about their unreality; it is part of why I enjoy metafiction, stories about the creation of story; it’s part of why I enjoy postmodern fiction, which suggests that all we have are stories. I don’t read fiction because I expect it to be “realistic,” as that word is usually understood; that’s what nonfiction, and in particular journalism, aspire to. Rather, I read fiction because I expect it to be true to our unique and marvelous human need to imagine and share stories; and true as well to the imaginative possibilities of each unique human’s different perceptions of and perspectives on the world.
At the level of individual stories, my focus on the joy of imagining leads me to enjoy those works that make evident that an author is at play; for example, those that feel structured and architected to set up interesting or unusual themes, conflicts, and dramatic situations. However grim and dour the story situation may be–or however complicated the choice between multiple positive possibilities–we can tell that the author enjoyed imagining it and bringing it about in the story. Similarly, I enjoy a strong sense of narrative presence, unreliable or otherwise, that makes plain that a story is being told. This appreciation is also part of why I enjoy elements of prose such as simile and metaphor: these encapsulate the essence of story, how saying that one thing is something else, or is two things at once, can be (or seem) impossible, and yet be true and revelatory in their wondrous connections. Somewhat more prosaically, my appreciation for the sense of play intrinsic to story leads me to appreciate stories that include scenes of play, of games and fun, or that incorporate puzzles for the reader.
These are some of the elements of story that delight me when I encounter them, yet often I see many of them called pretentious, elitist, or simply unrealistic. Allow me to suggest an alternate interpretation: they are there to evoke delight, to be enjoyed, and to communicate a sense of hope in people’s ability to imagine.