Anecdotally, the reading of literature seems to be down in these trying times. I’ve spoken to some of my author friends, and they, like me, are seeing a downturn in numbers.
There are obvious reasons for this, but those aren’t points we should dwell on. People have less disposable income. Information is changing so quickly, and in such life-changing ways, that we use our reading time scanning articles for any hint about whether it’s getting worse or better.
Moreover, it’s far too easy to turn on a favorite show or movie with a streaming service like Hulu or Netflix. One turns to many as the auto player keeps queuing the next show and recommendation. All of a sudden, it’s bedtime, and I’ve only read angry tweets about the president while yet another Gilmore Girls episode plays in the background.
Everyone is going through something different right now, so I’m not writing this as some form of judgment. I’ve been extremely lucky through it all. These are merely my own thoughts on why reading novels has been important to me and some of the realizations I’ve had on how structure and genre influence how I’m affected by them.
Reading for Comfort
From my earliest memories, I can remember reading as a comfort. I was the nerdy introvert, curled up on the couch with a blanket and a book. Novels were an escape from the cruel realities of schoolchildren.
I had my animal friend adventures in Redwall, the fantasy of a magical world just beyond my wardrobe in Narnia, and even the thrilling and fun horrors of the Goosebumps series.
I’ve gone through many reading phases in my life, but reading for comfort in this way has been pretty consistent. I matured into the more complicated adventure, horror, and fantasy series of Shannara, Dune, The Wheel of Time, and Stephen King.
Now, more than ever, is a perfect time to return to these comfort reads. I’ve been making a conscious effort to get away from screens and into books. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I haven’t even been venturing much into new territory. I’m returning to books I’m sure have what I’m looking for.
I’ve re-read Patrick Rothfuss’s breakout novel The Name of the Wind. It has been the perfect antidote to the news cycle. But it also got me thinking a lot about genre and story structure. Once a writer, always thinking about writing, I guess.
I’m sure there will be a dozen angry comments pointing out obvious counterexamples to this but here’s one realization: fantasy has a hard time producing genuine emotional responses in me.
Romance is relegated to mere subplot, so we tend not to get the swooning of an equally escapist Nora Roberts novel (and if you’ve never read her, you seriously need to use this quarantine time to remedy that!).
Deaths aren’t felt deeply. They are either celebrated victories, mere backstory, for horror effect, or a shocking plot twist only to be reversed through magic later.
In The Name of the Wind, the main character’s entire family is slaughtered. Yet I felt mostly nothing. We hadn’t developed deep relationships with any of the characters. The scene is used to set up the main character’s backstory and internal motivation.
It’s a bit crass, but love, death, and many complicated emotional situations tend to be mere tools to advance the plot. They aren’t explored with any depth.
Adventure plots in general, and fantasy in particular, follow the Hero’s Journey. Literature that achieves deep emotional response must use long-term payoffs. There are only a few such moments in any story.
When the plot structure is focused on defeating evil, the payoff comes from the main character overcoming their weaknesses and flaws to do this. When a book tries to set up other emotional responses, it fights with itself, making all parts weaker.
Fantasy is great. It can be thought-provoking, motivating, inspirational, fun, scary, graphic, and many, many other things. Almost by definition, it can’t be painful or moving in the cathartic way we’ll soon talk about. There just isn’t enough space or structure to set these things up.
And I know: many cutting-edge novels in fantasy are pushing genre boundaries. I’m doing it in my own work.
I’m trying to say that this is all okay! It’s great that we have excellent escape fantasies for exactly these types of life moments. When I read The Name of the Wind right now, I don’t want to experience the trauma of losing family members. I want an escape from that.
I’m going to continue to revisit my favorite fantasy novels to read for comfort and you should, too.
Reading for Pain
Everyone is probably wired slightly differently. I found out at an early age that music affected me with an immediacy and profound intensity that many other art forms did not.
I actually started my undergraduate education as a music major. Fairly early on, I used to identify emotions with music. When I thought of anger, I thought of You Oughta Know by Alanis Morissette. When I thought of love, I thought of Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls.
If you can’t tell, I was about as stereotypical an emo 90’s kid as it gets. When I discovered classical music, my world broke. I didn’t cry at anything in the real world, but music made me cry all the time.
Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 showed me sorrow and pain. I could watch a movie set during World War II without much comprehension. All it took was one time through that symphony to feel someone’s art about it. I couldn’t sleep that night and then listened to it over and over again for weeks.
It actually took quite a bit of time to disambiguate these emotional ties to music, but that’s what great art is supposed to do. It captures an emotional moment and shares it with the viewer.
Aristotle had already identified this feature of art in 335 BC in his discourse Poetics. Art is catharsis — and not just for the creator. It allows the viewer, listener, or reader to purge and purify their emotions by experiencing them through the work of art.
This is a vital part of healthy human life, and it’s something many of us are severely lacking while in isolation. Right now many of us are bottling up what we feel and think about what’s going on in the world.
As counterintuitive as it might sound, we need to read for pain. When I discovered great literature in college, I found out that it could do the same thing as music.
I’ve made it a point to not just read escapist fiction right now. I need the catharsis that can only come from a story structure completely designed around eliciting these emotional responses.
I picked up Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, and Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World. We can still live and express while in quarantine by doing it through great, painful novels and memoirs.
Reading for pain is only a facsimile of the real thing, but it’s a darn close one with the right author. Each person will probably find a different author they resonate with.
If this all feels like too much right now, I’ll coax you with one other concept: there’s reward enough in feeling deeply understood.
Right now, we all feel thoroughly alone and isolated because we are. This isn’t a figment of our imagination or psychosis we must overcome. David Foster Wallace once said that the role of literature is to make us feel less alone by feeling understood.
If reading for comfort and reading for pain are beyond you right now, at least read to feel less alone.
Find a book that really speaks to you — that makes you feel completely understood in a way that no person can. Find something that reads your mind and puts it on the page.
Read that and feel less alone, even if it’s only for a second.