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.