Why should a Buddhist invest emotionally in any fictional character? We are attached enough to our own and others’ identities as it is. Yet a novelist is paid to double down on these fictions. Like a magician, she makes a living by conjuring fictional worlds and characters that have no basis, even in conventional reality. Considerable energy is spent on this enterprise by both author and reader. If a Buddhist is interested only in what lies behind the mask, partaking in fiction seems to be a waste of time that would be better spent on meditation and prayer.
It is difficult to argue against the primacy of religious practice. Still, fiction is not irrelevant to human flourishing. Narrative sustains our communities. Even the stories of the great religions and nations are narrative constructs, designed over the centuries to shape ideas of who we are and who we should aim to be. One theory in the aesthetics of fiction is that “great” novels should have a twofold artistic purpose. In one respect, they must convey moral, religious, psychological, cultural, political, and other issues of deep concern. In another, they need to help us consider those issues in the “various ‘gaps’ and the ‘afterlife of the reading experience.’” According to Peter Kivy of Rutgers University, “The gaps are the periods between episodes of novel-reading . . . and the after life is the period after one has finished reading a novel, when it is still fresh in the mind and its contents [are] still an object of thought” (Kivy 2009, 429).
These gaps, like the silence between the lines of a melody or the movements of a symphony, make the experience of reading fiction coherent and meaningful. A fictional piece’s wonder and mystery lie in its story’s accentuating of its gaps and “afterlife.” Non-fiction can be affecting as well, but theoretically it simply invites us to consider the facts of past, present, and future. It is precisely because of fiction’s “falsehood” that the gaps for our private reflections are so much more spacious. Even more than history, interpreting fiction requires imagination. With imagination, the possibilities for intimate, introspective reflection become almost limitless.
Many of us remember being deeply affected by the closing paragraph of a book, or the way in which a character’s endlessly diverse experiences were conveyed in a single sentence. In the “gaps” in the middle of any given book or during its “afterlife,” we can let the conveyed words and images leave an imprint on us for years, or perhaps even a lifetime. The same could apply to other fictional media—a scene in a film or TV show, or even a poignantly drawn panel in a comic book.
Kivy identifies no less than four kinds of “serious” reader (the serious in-it-for-the-story reader, the serious thoughtful reader, the serious structural reader, and the serious studious reader), although there are too many differences between them to list here. However, there is actually a fifth: the “serious mindful” reader. This reader has no qualms about enjoying and being affected by fiction. But she is mindful of how the novel form moves and teaches her: through its ephemeral, conditioned identity as ink shaped in letters typed on paper through a computer screen, fiction is showing her reality’s transient nature.
Also, what does it say about us when we can learn more about ourselves through a made-up person than a real experience? For example, non-fiction has no room for an immortal character that can show us the loss that comes of relationships with mortal people. In Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Arwen is warned about her mortal lover: “And there will be no comfort for you, no comfort to ease the pain of his [Aragorn’s] passing. . . . But you, my daughter, you will linger on, in darkness and in doubt. . . . Here you will dwell, bound to your grief, under the fading trees, until all the world is changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent.” Learning about this kind of heartbreak usually comes through fiction.
Fiction can be beautiful and beneficial because a serious mindful reader can exercise her empathy. She can identify with the full spectrum of emotions and experiences expressed in the characters, from heartbreak and melancholy to jubilance and hatred. She remains mindful of reality as it is and the illusory nature of fiction, but is also open to its skillful means (upaya) to teach and move the human being. And who is it that’s reading, anyway?
Kivy, Peter. 2009. “Fictional Form and Symphonic Structure: An Essay in Comparative Aesthetics.” Ratio XXII (4): 421–38.