"translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring [...] discernment"

By Laura Vivanco on

In "Reading Readers: Living and Leaving Fictional Worlds" (Narrative 24.3 (2016): 351-69) Cristina V. Bruns explores a downside of deep engagement with novels:

here is a problem of fiction reading. Good stories of many kinds can show us what we are missing. In them we can discover by imagined experience what our ordinary lives lack. During the duration of our reading, our inner world is merged with the imaginary world we meet and to some extent create at the prompting of the text, and our self-experience is thus temporarily re-formed by our encounter with a world of adventure, terror, triumph, love lost and regained, and significance, as well as our encounter with the selves we become as we inhabit that world. Then we must inevitably return to our ordinary life and may find no place in it for our newly shaped self, instead facing only the absence of opportunity for that self-experience, a desire for which the reading has awakened. From this perspective, it is no wonder that one of my students blamed books for leaving her thoroughly dissatisfied with her life. Immersing oneself in the world of a literary text may produce the intense intermediate experience that Winnicott attributed to transitional object use, but in these cases it seems not to give relief from the strain of relating inner and outer reality but indeed to heighten that strain because the intermediate world drawn between the reader’s self and the text shows the reader through imagined experience what is lacking in her world outside the text. It seems that the reader’s task is not yet finished. The process of bringing back into one’s world one’s experience of the story, the process of continuing “a literary style in one’s own life,” in Macé’s words, is neither automatic nor inevitable, but the incongruity between the fiction and life can seem or indeed be insurmountable. (362)

She mostly looks at young adult readers of series such as Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and Twilight but there is a section, based on Radway, which suggests this phenomenon may also affect adult readers of romance. Bruns does note that Radway's findings date from the 1980s, so aren't necessarily reflective of contemporary readers, and she also notes that romance reading did lead on to successful careers for both Dot (the bookseller Radway interviewed) and romance readers who became romance writers.

Here's a bit more:

This work of translation from fiction to life, however, is not only difficult but dangerous, as Flaubert and Cervantes demonstrate in perhaps exaggerated form with Emma Bovary and Don Quixote. Both characters in their own ways try to mold their external worlds to fit what they discovered in reading but found sadly lacking in their mundane realities. What they choose to introduce into their realities, however, cannot fit there. Two students I have interviewed also enacted in life what they found in fiction, both as young teenagers, but one with more intentionality than the other and with very different outcomes. Sarah was teased and excluded for being smart and so read much of the time as an escape. In the Harry Potter series, she discovered Hermione, a girl who also was smart but who used her intelligence and didn’t care what others thought of her. Sarah decided to act like Hermione, to act like she was confident and didn’t care that others teased her. Before long Sarah became that person rather than just imitating Hermione, and this enactment brought her out of a period of intimidation and alienation. The other student, Melanie, loved the romance of the Twilight series and was thrilled early in high school to win the affection of an older boy who seemed out of reach for her socially like Edward was for Bella. She said that a few years later she realized that during that relationship she had used Edward’s sometimes harsh treatment of Bella to rationalize and tolerate her older boyfriend’s growing demands that made her increasingly uncomfortable. If the relationship at the heart of the Twilight series could survive and flourish through such difficulty, hers could too, she reasoned, even though it produced at times physical bruises like those Bella received. Eventually Melanie had to be pulled out of school in order to get away from her hoped-for romance.

In both instances these avid readers brought into their lived experience elements from the fictional worlds they loved, producing in Sarah’s case clearly a more satisfying relation with the world around her, and in Melanie’s the opposite. One could attribute the difference between these outcomes to a widespread assumption that Harry Potter is a better book series than Twilight, but it could also be that Sarah’s choice of an element was compatible with her reality while Melanie’s was harmful when transposed into ordinary life. If, as Booth claims, writers of fiction construct worlds designed intentionally to be more appealing than ordinary reality in order to keep readers reading, then translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring the work not only of enactment but also of discernment. (363-64)

I think Bruns is right that "translating what we love in fiction into ordinary living is unavoidably problematic, requiring the work not only of enactment but also of discernment." I also think it's likely to be a problem potentially faced by all readers who find something desirable in the fictional worlds they read about.  Even if we're perfectly capable of separating fantasy from fiction, it can be harder to work out exactly what it is in the fictional world which holds the most appeal, why, and whether this has implications for our daily lives.

It occurs to me that this sort of "translation" and "discernment" is also required when engaging with a lot of other media, including the glimpses we can get into the lives of celebrities via magazines, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook etc. When real people shape how they present their lives to others, they may make them seem more appealing so perhaps even more discernment is required in order to work out the implications for our daily lives?