Reading a Novel: You’re Doing it Wrong!

May 6, 2013


Let me give you a secret: If you can’t understand a novel, you’ve probably packed too many bags.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, fundamentally, most people are only taught one way to read – for information. This is a grave mistake, my friends. Grave indeed. People need to learn how to read to get to the truth and how to read to experience a writer’s truth.

It’s the difference in reading expository writing and reading fictional writing. And believe me, there’s a huge difference.

When you read non-fiction (an article, a biography or other historical work, a quick blog post, or a DIY manual), the writer’s obligation is to leave no questions asked. A non-fiction writer wants to hit the bullseye and hit it with one clear truth, where the reader cannot possibly interpret the text except in the way it’s intended. The reader has an obligation to come prepared with a full understanding of self-truths and a critical eye, prepped, on the toes, ready to spring if needed.

When you read a novel, the writer needs you to do the exact opposite. You have to suspend the need to know and welcome the experience. That’s the only way you’ll learn what you need to learn. A non-fiction writer says, “This is what I mean.” The novelist says, “Hey, how’s it going? Come sit by me. This one’s saved just for you. Shh. Don’t talk. Just be here with me. Feel what I feel.”

And you, as the reader, have to be cool with that.

When you dedicate yourself to reading a novel, you are accepting a contract with the writer. You say, “Okay. Here I am. I packed light, so where are we going?” You allow the writer to take you on a trip. You don’t offer directions or suggestions on speed limits. You don’t switch the shuffle setting on the iPod. You leave the A/C alone.

Your job is wingman. You sit. You listen. You sing along. You feel.

This is the primary reason people misunderstand novels. The readers aren’t prepared to show up. They bring too many bags with them. They get obsessed about sunscreen and packing an umbrella. They want to read the map. They bring their own value systems and presuppositions. They cannot let go of their own experiences and reality.

Can I be honest? Readers who cannot let go of all of those things need to stick to non-fiction. Non-fiction needs you on your game. Like an intellectual Swiss Army Knife, you need all resources with you, ready to go. You owe it to a non-fiction writer to be wary and watchful.

When you make a contract with a novelist, you leave all of that at the door. You put the bags down, empty your pockets, and buckle up in the front seat. This relationship between the reader, the writer, and this novel of a road trip is a matter of trust. You suspend yourself for a while with no strings tying down anybody.

Reading a novel allows you to pause, shed your own identity, and experience the lives of others without leaving the comfort of your couch. The reader simply says, “Okay, I’m going to let this writer take me on a journey, and I’ll go wherever I’m told, and I’ll experience all the intended emotions. Then, when I finish, I can get back to my normal life.” So, at the last page of the journey, the reader leaves those thoughts and feelings, closes those passions back up, and places them on a shelf.

Be careful though. The good writers?

They always have an Ace in the Hole. 

The good writers create a world so beautiful, with characters who are truer than true, and a story that’s more real than anything ever experienced in real life. The reader begs for more, revisiting the journey again and again. When this happens – and writers love when this happens – the reader falls in love, allowing the experiences from the fictional world to seep into daily life.

What do you think? Do you see a difference in reading non-fiction and fiction? What books have seeped into your daily life?

Photo Credit: Mathieu Simpson via Compfight cc

Kelly Wiggains

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Kelly Wiggains, a high school English teacher turned homeschooling mom, likes to surround herself with good literature, beautiful things, and big ideas, and she wants her home to reflect those things, too. Here at she talks about everything From Literature to Living., 5 eBooks for $7.40!

13 responses to Reading a Novel: You’re Doing it Wrong!

  1. Yes! Where were you when I was studying literature? I needed to hear this WAY back then. Great info.

    • Unfortunately, Erin, this took me a long time to learn, too. I think my professors probably said it, but I was too busy trying to sound smart or trying to look cute in college.

  2. What a great way to explain it all! I always struggled when I tried to explain to my students the difference between writing and true literature. I always just boiled it down to form: plain ol’ writing is about conveying information, and moving the reader from point A to point B, whereas literature is as much about the way the story is crafted and allows the form to imbue the reader with the themes and images and truths to make it an art form rather than just a straightforward recitation of the events.

    But this? This does a WAY better job of explaining it. I love it and may actually refer back to this (with all due credit, of course!) when teaching in the future.

    • Share away! Thanks, Tiffany. Yes, true literature is fine art, which ends where it ends and stands on its own, and you love it for all that it is.

  3. That’s a really good way to put it. You really do have to bring different expectations to fiction. It’s a big reason why there’s no good answer when someone asks you what a novel’s about. If it’s a good novel it’s about everything and nothing. It’s about life and truth and love and duty and fate and choice but it’s not about any of that at all. It just is, and you just have to read it and experience it to understand.

    Also, some novelists will betray your trust, and that’s part of the deal, and you just have to accept it. Novels are like people; sadly, few of them are trustworthy, but the ones that are make it worthwhile to put up with the others.

    • Andy! Don’t steal my thunder, dude. I was totally going to address the writers you can’t trust. Kidding. I love having friends who get this!

  4. I’m such a sap…Anne of Green Gables is one of my all-time favorite series. I think my mom and I watched the movies (after reading the books, of course!) twice a year, every year, while I was growing up. I think it is because the characters are truer than true and the story is better than real life, but yet they are people you want to be friends with and the story is something that could have happened to your grandparents. And The Stonewycke Trilogy (Michael R. Phillips and Judith Pella). I think I cried when it came to a close. Reading other books by the same author just isn’t the same as satisfying the craving for more of the story.

  5. That’s interesting. I primarily read genre fiction, wherein letting the writer take you on a journey is the whole point of the experience, so I wasn’t aware this was a problem for people who read literary fic. I guess it’s the difference between reading for information and reading for escape.

    • Yes. People who read to escape from the get-go, generally have no problems leaving behind world view or expectations. However, I’ve read a lot of reviews or opinion pieces about why people don’t like a book or choose not to read it. Then the review points out that the reader simply did not agree with the lifestyle choices of the character. I also noticed this attitude a lot when parents would complain about books read for my classes – it has foul language. The main character commits adultery, etc.

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