Literary Fiction is a Mental Workout
Just when I was getting worried about the waning interest in fiction comes this little piece of research from a professor at Stanford University. Joshua Landy, an associate professor of French and Italian, found that literary works of fiction offer “a new set of methods for becoming a better maker of arguments, a better redeemer of one’s own existence, a person of stronger faith or a person with a quieter mind.”
Lingering on passages, contemplating ideas and reflecting on the words stretches the mind’s capacity to take on bigger ideas.
Landry puts forth a new literary theory in his recently published book, How to Do Things with Fiction. In it, he challenges widespread assumptions that literary fiction exists to impart knowledge or provide moral messages. Instead, he says, authors from Plato to Chaucer to Shakespeare write to improve the reader’s rational thinking and abstract thought by running them through a gantlet of mental gymnastics.
In literary fiction, unlike genre fiction, readers are often called upon to interpret a story’s meaning. In that way, authors should be thought of not as entertainers but as personal trainers, who put readers through mental workouts that improve the mind.
In a time where readers are losing patience with more challenging pieces of writing, Landry suggests that people should give such stories another chance. Lingering on passages, contemplating ideas and reflecting on the words stretches the mind’s capacity to take on bigger ideas. In others words, reading a story isn’t necessarily a quest for truth, but an exercise in thinking about truth.
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