Chasing Contentment by Erik Reymond, Free for CAPC Members
In Chasing Contentment, Erik Reymond identifies the lie that satisfaction and contentment come through consumption.
“Sorry your dragon show ended stupidly.”
HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on the bestselling novels by George R. R. Martin, ended its run this past month with a less-than-well-received 8th season. Not ever having watched it myself, I can’t weigh in on the quality of the season (or the content of the show), but observing the phenomenon of fan and critic reactions to what is arguably one of the benchmark pop culture events of the year has helped solidify some opinions I’ve long held about the nature and importance of story—especially as people have taken to social media to disparage the very real grief fans of the show have felt over its lackluster finale. Stories matter—whether they’re good or bad or just okay, they matter because we are narrative people driven to both create and find truth in fiction. Stories, particularly fictitious ones, help to form us into whole beings.
Fiction is by nature untrue, and I think this is where some people get hung up on it. To tell a story, you are technically lying—therefore in reading a fictitious account, the story must be not factual, but rather originating in the imagination. We get the word “fiction” from the Latin fictus, which means “to form.”
These fictions are not just about us being entertained; they are about a search for truth and meaning.As an author, I love the image this evokes: the idea of the story forming—taking shape like clay on a potter’s wheel—in the mind. But although fiction is by definition not true, good fiction should show us true things. It is perhaps ironic that the best fictional stories are those that succeed the most at showing us the truth.
And here is where the fan reactions to the last season of Game of Thrones reveal something telling: We feel offended when our stories end badly. Why? Because although untrue in form, these fictions are not just about us being entertained; they are about a search for truth and meaning, and when we are let down in these areas, it hurts a great deal. Whether a story fails in verisimilitude (that inner consistency of reality), fails to teach us something that is true, or both, at the end of the day a story that breaks confidence with us does cause us a deep offense. Good fiction should maintain verisimilitude, and it should also lead us on a journey to discover true things.
This is the power of good fiction. The author allows space for the reader to enter in and participate with the creative act as a collaborative effort—filling in the spaces with the mind. What lies at the heart of fiction’s impact on us is in the old “show don’t tell” adage. Rather than telling us what to think, it takes us by the hand and invites us to see, touch, smell, taste, and feel for ourselves. We may “figure out” what the author intends for us to learn, or we may not, but the story itself nonetheless allows us to wrestle with layers of moral and philosophical implications.
Storytelling is not a priestly calling, but fictional stories can mold people’s hearts and minds.In fiction, we can “suppose” ourselves into scenarios in which we might never otherwise find ourselves, thus challenging our presuppositions. In this way, fiction actively changes us. When we engage our speculative faculties in the pursuit of truth we are not bound by the laws of this immediate world. For example, in reading a science fiction novel, we might speculate the following: “Suppose a girl lived in a dystopic future where she had to fight to the death in an arena to survive…” This is, of course, part of the main storyline of The Hunger Games (popular Young Adult series by Suzanne Collins), but it is certainly not a scenario any of us would be likely to find ourselves in, in actuality. Although the premise is fantastic, the ethical dilemma is an age-old one: Kill or be killed? Is it just to kill an innocent to save your own life? Is it morally acceptable to take some lives to save more lives in the future? What we find in fiction is that moral and philosophical questions do not change from the real world, but in changing the framework of the questions—changing them into “supposes”—we can see them from new angles. Fictional stories can help us see more clearly truths and falsehoods that seem complex in the real world. Sometimes stories ask us to examine moral questions we might not even have had an opportunity to do so otherwise.
Jesus modeled how stories can be used when he told parables in the Bible. He intended for his listeners to glean truths through the symbols in the stories and to imagine themselves in the place of the people in the stories (when applicable). At times he wanted people to wrestle with the meanings, at other times for truth to be cast in more clear light, and at all times for the story itself to work upon the hearer to effect understanding and change. In the Old Testament, too, we see the power of untrue stories to reveal true things—to cut to the heart with concise conviction. Perhaps the best example is when the prophet Nathan told King David the parable of the rich man and the ewe lamb to rebuke him for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. Storytelling is not a priestly calling, nor are storytellers of today priests or divine prophets, but scriptural examples of the use of parables reveal to us the function and power fictional stories can have in molding people’s hearts and minds.
Yet, despite the power of stories, many people think fiction, and particularly modern commercial fiction, is mere pop entertainment—below serious consideration, promotion, or engagement. Years ago, I was a bookseller at Barnes and Noble, and I observed that even those adults who actively sought to purchase novels often did so with a degree of shame—as though they ought to be reading something “serious” instead. Fiction was the guilty pleasure, read for “fun,” a lesser activity amongst the serious, primary, matters of life.
Public disparagement of others’ enjoyment of cultural artifacts tends to be nothing more than a smokescreen for elitism.I still see this attitude persisting amongst friends and acquaintances in real life and online spaces. A twitter commentator I follow recently posted that he was going to get back to things that, “didn’t matter” after a disappointing life turn. Amongst the things he listed was, “reading fiction.” Not to critique anyone’s real-life struggles and disappointments, but his comment jumped out at me because fiction is so often relegated to this position: as an escape from the real world—as something that matters less rather than something that can matter a great deal.
Another phenomenon I’ve observed is that some people—particularly those who view themselves as being scholarly—will only engage in fiction if it is a classic work. As if the classic nature of the fictional stories elevates them above modern works and makes them worthy of time and consideration.
These are the perspectives that lead to such reactions as, “Sorry your dragon show ended stupidly,” which made the rounds of social media in the wake of the end of Game of Thrones—reactions that devalue people’s interest in modern stories. There will always be a subjective standard to the consumption of art, and no person is ever obliged to enjoy any one particular thing. But public disparagement of others’ enjoyment of cultural artifacts tends to be nothing more than a smokescreen for elitism. As author and podcast host Joy Clarkson recently tweeted:
Criticisms of popular art often involve a thinly veiled disgust for ordinary people. This snobbery leads to stubborn ignorance regarding some of the most engrossing, delightful, & profound art our age will produce. Scholars would do well to sneer less & enjoy attentively more…Many of the books, musical pieces, and paintings we refer to as ‘classics’ were once popular art. Mozart was considered somewhat vulgar. Dickens was a pot boiler serialist. Popularity doesn’t make a work of art good, but it certainly does not disqualify it.
Elitism is not a way to love your neighbor well—arguably it’s not a way to love your neighbor at all. While we have freedom to express opinions and we should discuss the value of art in all its forms, sometimes how we express ourselves falls into the realm of what we have the right to do, as opposed to what is beneficial. Throwing mockery out into the social media void rarely falls under the label of “beneficial.”
We need stories to be whole people, to be whole participants in culture, and to be honest truth-seekers.Furthermore, a refusal to engage with the fictional stories being produced for our age is a refusal to engage with the culture itself and a refusal to take part in shaping that culture. It is an abdication of not only a great privilege, but also a great responsibility. What voices will be amplified? What voices diminished? What themes and messages and quality of story will be put forth as the tent poles of our culture, defining the values of our society for ages to come? The classics of years gone by shaped—and continue to shape—the world. Read the classics, yes; read also modern literature. We cannot know what is good if we refuse to participate, and if we refuse to participate, we leave the choosing to other people.
A life filled with fiction is a life filled with the sort of speculation on truth that can only happen in the imagination, and the issues of our current age deserve our attention in this way as much as the issues of ages that produced the works we now call classics. We remain narrative people driven by stories. From our earliest years, we play make believe and imagine and dream—and perhaps this is why some people view stories as being childish and something that needs to be “put away” in adulthood. But God didn’t create us to move beyond fictional narratives as a means of examining truth. Our ability to understand good stories, like fine wine, grows richer and more complex with age and maturity.
I am happy to see people reading fiction whether they think it matters or not, because I know that stories are far more powerful than many people expect them to be. We need stories to be whole people, to be whole participants in culture, and to be honest truth-seekers. Through fiction, we wrestle with ourselves and come out more refined—but because of the nature of fiction, we hardly realize this process is happening until we are already changed. In this manner, stories can be a divine gift for the cultivation of our very souls. Unless, as with any good thing, you have no control over your consumption of it, fiction is not a guilty pleasure or mere escapism—it is a place to go to search of truth.
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