For a change, I’m including a guest post. Thanks, Lucy Adams, for an interesting and thought-provoking article.
Why do people read books? What are the reasons that they are among the most important inventions of human civilization? You know the answer, although you may not be aware of it.
Today I want to talk about two of the largest concepts of fiction, but let me start from afar.
If you recall history, it becomes obvious that the first prototypes of books – cave walls, clay tablets and bark – emerged as useful tools for the registration and preservation of oral folk tales, the only source of wisdom and life experience at that time. Savvy men quickly appreciated the convenience of such inscriptions and, since that time, books have become a major source of knowledge, transferring information from one person to another, from generation to generation.
Thus, the first reason for reading is the acquisition of knowledge.
The second one is more prosaic. Human life has always been rather monotonous. In ancient times our ancestors worked all day, occasionally having fun quarreling among themselves. As for modern quarrels, they happen mainly within the office … but we’re still constantly striving for new experiences and strong emotions that the monotonous daily routine can’t provide. So the second reason for reading is purely entertainment.
I can fairly say that people read books either to gain new knowledge or to have fun. But, if in ancient times these functions were often delimited, most modern books combine intellectual and entertainment components.
- An intellectual component is the thoughts and reasoning of the author, his or her morality and basic ideas. These elements don’t bring a pronounced entertainment element; they are designed to make the reader think or to teach him something.
- An entertaining component targets the emotional side; it’s everything that makes us worry and laugh – action, love and erotic scenes, conflicts and disputes, etc.
Thus, the intellectual component is an appeal to the mind whereas the entertainment one is an appeal to emotions. Based on this dichotomy, I divide the whole of fiction into entertainment and intellectual, in strict accordance with the prevailing factor. This division is, of course, conditional. Why am I sure it’s necessary? See below.
Speaking about entertainment literature, I mean first of all books that are enjoyable to read at leisure, that is books that do not require undue stress and do not provoke reflections on complex topics (although entertainment literature can be represented by either ironic detective stories, which ladies leaf through in subways, or historical prose, honed during years).
The first thing I recommend paying attention to is that entertainment literature primarily addresses the reader’s emotions. This is, perhaps, the main vector of its influence. Detective stories try to awaken curiosity; romances to ignite desire; horror stories to scare; adventure stories to worry about the fate of the hero. Moreover, the degree of emotional response largely determines the success of the book; if the text causes the desired emotions, the book will doubtless be successful. It looks easy, but actually making a stranger laugh or tremble with fear is a great challenge!
The second important point is that for many centuries the literary community has developed an arsenal of techniques to solve this “easy task”. An attempt to use them in an “intelligent” text puts it at best into the category of entertainment, at worst it gives birth to something preposterous. I have occasionally seen famous authors attempt to bring serious philosophical meaning through the outline of an action or a quest. Needless to say, these attempts are often unsuccessful.
In my opinion, the most important element of entertainment is the narrative. The author constructs it so to as to hold the attention of the reader from the first to the last page. In many respects, that means the plot depends on the impression generated by the whole story. Again, do not forget that correct structure provides clear, user-friendly text, so the reader stays relaxed, not being distracted by illogical empty dialogues, mistakes, and inconsistencies.
However, morality is the minimal necessary intellectual component that must be present in any entertaining reading to give it at least some value.
Overall, I believe that intellectual prose requires active participation by the reader in understanding the author’s ideas. Not just in experiencing the carefully prepared episodes, but in conscious mental work on the problems posed. If the reader is not made to think, it’s not intellectual prose.
In intellectual fiction, the content always dominates over the shape. At the same time, the value of a book is determined not by the complexity of the plot but the author’s ability to say something new and important. An author of intellectual fiction doesn’t bring any ready-made solutions, but provides the reader with an opportunity to make his personal conclusions based on the material.
One of the main tasks of intellectual prose is to illuminate the laws of the outside world from different perspectives. Methods and techniques can vary, from straightforward to the highly complex, involving the reader in the process of making a conclusion for himself.
Intellectual prose is characterized by the increased role of the reader, as compared to entertaining prose.
According to studies on perception of so-called intellectual prose, two generalized models of intellectual literature were found – intellectual work and intellectual leisure.
- The first suggests uncomfortable reading with a certain risk of psychological changes. The reader tries to understand the author’s ideas and applies them to himself and his life. Reading turns into internal work, the result of which could be the transformation of attitudes towards the world and oneself.
- The second model suggests that reading intellectual literature can be a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Of course, such reading does not teach anything or change the reader’s mind, as the author’s ideas pass by like bizarre landscapes outside the window of a train, leaving no imprint on the individual. In this case, the intellectual component is the desire to foresee the moral of the story or discover clichés and misses.
The knowledge of these two models brings me to the curious conclusion that the vast majority of readers choose entertaining literature. And even those who seem to prefer something intellectual, sometimes read in an effortless manner.
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