Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.
John Gardner, The Art of Fiction 31 (1983).
Of course Gardner does not hold this thought without reservation (notice the “we begin to suspect”), but he reasonably prompts us to add this to our internal lists of what fiction is for. I had forgotten how enjoyable this book is.
Fiction is, among other things, an aid to reflection: a means by which we can more vividly and rigorously encounter the world and try to make sense of it, to confront “the problems of being” as freshly as we can. But we vary in our interpretative needs: the questions that absorb some of us never occur to others. Each of us has her own labyrinth . Every genre of fiction puts certain questions in brackets, or takes their answers as given, in order to explore others. Not even the greatest of writers can keep all the balls in the air at once: some have to sit still on the ground while the others whirl. People who come to a book by Murakami, or Neal Stephenson, or even Ursula K. LeGuin with the questions they would put to a Marilynne Robinson novel are bound to be disappointed and frustrated. But if we readers attend closely to the kinds of questions a book is asking, the questions it invites from us, then our experience will be more valuable. And the more questions we can put to the books we read — in the most generous and charitable spirit we can manage — the richer becomes our encounter not just with the books themselves but with the world they point to.
Alan Jacobs, Reverting to Type: a Reader’s Story, loc. 561-570 (Kindle ed., 2012).