Chapter 14 – How to Read Imaginative Literature (part 2 of 2)


To make the “don’ts” discussed in the last section more helpful, they must be supplemented by constructive suggestions. These suggestions can be developed by analogy from the rules of reading expository works.

There are, as we have seen, three groups of such rules. The first group consists of rules for discovering the unity and part-whole structure; the second consists of rules for identifying and interpreting the book’s component terms, propositions, and arguments; the third consists of rules for criticizing the author’s doctrine so that we can reach intelligent agreement or disagreement with him. We called these three groups of rules structural, interpretive, and critical. By analogy, we can find similar sets of rules to guide us in the reading poems, novels and plays.

First, we can translate the structural rules – the rules of outlining – into their fictional analogies as follows.

  1. You must classify a work of imaginative literature according to its kind. A lyric tells its story primarily in terms of a single emotional experience, whereas novels and plays have much more complicated plots, involving many characters, their actions and their reactions upon one another, as well as the emotions they suffer in the process. Everyone knows, furthermore, that a play differs from a novel by reason of the fact that it narrates entirely by means of actions and speeches.
  2. You must grasp the unity of the whole work. Whether you have done this or not can be tested by whether you are able to express that unity in a sentence or two. … the unity of a story is always in its plot. You have not grasped the whole story until you can summarize its plot in a brief narration – not a proposition or an argument. Therein lies its unity.
  3. You must not only reduce the whole to its simplest unity, but you must also discover how that whole is constructed out of all its parts. … The parts of fiction are the various steps that the author takes to develop his plot – the details of characterization and incident. … In a story, the parts must somehow fit into a temporal scheme, a progress from a beginning through the middle to its end. To know the structure of a narrative, you must know where it begins – which is not necessarily on the first page, of course – what it goes through, and where it comes out at. You must know the various crises that lead up to the climax, were and how the climax occurs, and what happens in the aftermath. (By “aftermath” we do not mean what happens after the story is over. Nobody can know that. We mean only what happens, within the narrative, after the climax has occurred)

Second, what are the interpretive rules for reading fiction?

  1. The elements of fiction are it episodes and incidents, its characters, and their thoughts, speeches, feelings, and actions. … Just as you must come to terms with an expository writer, so here you must become acquainted with the details of incident and characterizations. You have not grasped a story until you are familiar with its characters, until you have lived through its events.
  2. Terms are connected in propositions. The elements of fiction are connected by the total scene or background against which they stand out in relief. The imaginative writer, we have seen, creates a world in which his characters “live, move and have their being.” The fictional analogue of the rule that directs you to find the author’s propositions can, therefore, be stated as follows: become at home in this imaginary world; know it as if you were an observer on the scene; become a member of its population, willing to befriend its characters, and able to participate in its happening by sympathetic insight, as you would do in the actions and sufferings of a friend. If you can do this, the elements of fictions will cease to be so many isolated pawns moved about mechanically on a chessboard. You will have found the connections that vitalize them into members of a living society
  3. In the reading of [expository] books, it is necessary to follow the argument. Hence, after you have discovered its terms and propositions, you are called upon to analyze its reasoning. There is an analogous last step in the interpretive reading of fiction. You have become acquainted with the characters … Now you must follow them through their adventures. The scene or background, the social setting is (like the proposition) a kind of static connection of the elements of fictions. The unraveling of the plot (like the arguments or reasoning) is the dynamic connection. To read a story well you must have your finger on the pulse of the narrative, be sensitive to its very beat.

The three steps we have suggested outline the way in which one becomes progressively aware of the artistic achievement of an imaginative writer. … You will not only know what you like but also why you like it.

Third, and last, what are the critical rules for reading fiction? … Where, in the case of expository works, the advice was not to criticize a book – not to say you agree or disagree – until you can first say you understand, so here the maxim is: don’t criticize imaginative writing until you fully appreciate what the author has tried to make you experience.

There is an important corollary to this. The good reader of a story does not question the world that the author creates – the world that is re-created in himself. … That is, we must merely appreciate the fact that a writer sets his story in, say, Paris, and not object that it would have been better to set it in Minneapolis; but we have a right to criticize what he does with his Parisians and with the city itself.

In other words, we must remember the obvious fact that we do not agree or disagree with fiction. We either like it or we do not. Our critical judgement in the case of expository books concerns their truth, whereas in criticizing belles-lettres, as the word itself suggests, we consider chiefly their beauty. The beauty of any work of art is related to the pleasure it gives us when we know it well.

Let us restate the maxims, then, in the following manner. Before you express your likes and dislikes, you must first be sure that you have made an honest effort to appreciate the work. … To achieve appreciation, as to achieve understanding, you must read actively, and that means performing all the acts of analytical reading that we have briefly outlined.

After you have completed such a reading, you are competent to judge. Your first judgement will naturally be one of taste. You will say not only that you like or dislike the book, but also why. The reasons you give will, of course, have some critical relevance to the book itself, but in their first expression they are more likely to be about you – your preferences and prejudices – than about the book. Hence, to complete the task of criticism, you must objectify your reactions by pointing to those things in the book that caused them. You must pass from saying what you like or dislike and why, to saying what is good or bad about the book and why.

The better you can reflectively discern the causes of your pleasure in reading fiction or poetry, the nearer you will come to know the artistic virtues in the literary work itself. You will thus gradually develop a standard of criticism. And you will probably find a large company of men and women of similar taste to share your critical judgments. You may even discover, what we think is true, that good taste in literature is acquired by anyone who learns to read.