Recently I listened to a podcast of the Diane Rehm show, “A Special Readers’ Review: Why Fiction Matters,” which opened with a Ph.D. candidate at the New School discussing a study which suggested readers of literary fiction performed better on tests of recognizing the emotions of others. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this study was picked up in the media as one that demonstrated that reading fiction would help you in situations requiring social skills (dating, career events). Diane’s guests rejected the “fiction-as-eating-your-vegetables” approach, but the metaphor of reading as diet resonated with me.
Narratives are, I believe, one of the few truly universal human experiences/desires/creations—beyond, of course, sleeping, (real) eating, and sex. Do we need narratives? One of Diane’s guests, a professor of English and a novelist, suggested that writing fiction enabled him to communicate more deeply about experiences—a trip to Guatemala, an experience with mental disorders—than writing non-fiction could. He and the others argued that writing and reading fiction was essentially a means of digestion. In other words, it wasn’t food but how we process—if you’ll forgive this—the meat of life. Writing helps the author process his own experiences; reading gives the reader cognitive gastroliths.
Since I am, sort of, a mythologist, thinking about narratives as food and as digestive method of course brought me around to myths. If writing a novel processes the experiences of writer and reader, is it reasonable to suppose that myths process the experiences of an entire culture? Myth-tellers, -redactors, -interpreters, are of course largely identical with myth-hearers, -readers, -users, etc; and like all oral narratives, myths are both conservative and highly adaptive. And perhaps cultures need myths to process their collective experiences just as individuals need narratives to process their own.
Narratives are like vegetables in the sense that yes, we have to eat vegetables for a healthy diet; but we don’t eat just because we have to in order to survive. I think Diane Rehm’s guests overlooked an opportunity with the metaphor: we create meals to be pleasurable and innovative, to generate experiences and (literally) process old ones. In the same way, a narrative is sorry fodder without interest, imagination, and resonance with past and present experiences.