Jan 8, 2014

'Tales, tales, interminable tales':
On secularity and the practice of fiction reading

In the years before the Civil War, Virginia clergyman Charles Wesley Andrews was worried about America. Things were falling apart. Christian truths were being abandoned, communities broken. People were being changed, radically, on the level of consciousness, without even being aware of what was happening.

What brought this scourge upon the land? This pestilence?


Fiction.


"Our stores," Andrews wrote, "railroad cars, offices, shops, counting rooms, parlors, nurseries, nay, our very bedchambers, were infested with books, magazines and papers of every form filled with tales, tales, interminable tales."

He wasn't alone in his horror. Though many devout conservative Christians of the time loved novels, especially Sir Walter Scott's, there were those who, like this Southern clergyman, were appalled.

From his position, the world was being remade by novels, and not in a good way. Novels changed those who read them -- and not in a good way. The practice of reading fiction opened up within the reader what we might call a life of fantasy. People preferred fantasy to the "plain, well-defined, and pointed doctrinal teaching" that Andrews believed undergirded Christianity's firm grasp on reality. A devotional author, summarizing this argument, claimed the definitions of "fiction" and "Christian" made the two mutually exclusive: "If it's Christian," he said, "it's true; if it's fiction, it’s false."

Andrews observed two effects of fiction reading. First, it changed relationships to reality. Through engagements with fiction, readers found they preferred imagination, preferred entertaining romantic realities and enrapturing experiences of suspended disbelief. Second, through their engagement with fiction, readers were detached from their surrounding community. Opening this inner life, fiction isolated individuals, and they experienced themselves as discrete selves. They were, in a way, disembedded by the experience, to use philosopher Charles Taylor's terminology, and buffered. Fiction turned people into readers, and, it was observed, readers "shrink away up in a corner of the room," where they cry "rivers of sentimental tears, and caverns full of isolated sighs." This was far from ideal, as the burgeoning field of evangelical antebellum instructional literature on reading repeatedly pointed out. The right way to read, as recommended, for example, in the nineteenth-century classic, How to Read a Book in the Best Way, was aloud. One should read in community, in ways that furthered connections to reality.

As America was flooded with fiction in the mid-1800s, Andrews was possessed by this fear: a fear of fiction, of fiction readers, and what it would mean to live a world of consciousnesses thus formed. It's easy enough to laugh, but the case can be made that, in an important way, he was right.

Read the full paper online at the Claremont Journal of Religion: 
The Possibility of Secularity and the Material History of Fiction.