On Intimate Relationships (with Fiction)

I would call myself a researcher in the field of literature education. I would also call myself a researcher of human relationships. These topics may sound at first unrelated, but I draw the connection between them by interpreting the act of “relating” in a flexible way. According to the OED, “to relate to” is “to identify or feel a connection with.” In my own case, and for many others, books are among those things we most strongly identify with, perhaps even more strongly than we do with people, at times. When I study readers and the way they read, I look at those who have connected with literature on this personal level. I view this interaction between person and text as a two-way relationship.

When I reflect on my literature-rich childhood in the Silicon Valley region of California, I often feel that I was raised, at least in part, by books. Some of the most poignant information I have learned about human nature has come from reading fiction, and not solely from reading about characters in books, but from identifying with any elements of the narrative. My own relationships with fiction have been instructional ones, in which the book teaches me something, as a parent or sibling might.

The stories I remember loving, the ones that made me feel as though I had really been to another place, are still nestled in my memory today, mainly in the form of images. These images are quite vivid; for example, if someone were to ask me to describe the train station where Matthew Cuthbert met Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, I could confidently describe, after some contemplation, the layout of the buildings, how high the sun was in the sky, whether or not there was a breeze blowing, et cetera. If that person were to ask the same of one of my colleagues who had also read the book, their answers might be similar to mine. They might also be very different, or, a person might have no answers at all. Like many (perhaps all) books, Anne of Green Gables is a work that proclaims its relevance loudly and clearly to many individual readers, while at the same time holds no appeal at all for others.

L.M. Montgomery of course did not describe every single detail of the train station, for such detail would be unnecessary and even distracting. She did however, as great writers do, give enough detail to guide the reader adequately in constructing an imagined, creative space in response. I found Anne of Green Gables relevant enough to create a very vivid imaginative space. The book called upon me to do this. When a book calls to us with an intensity we cannot ignore, we establish an intimate relationship with it. This relationship may stay with us for life, to the extent that we remember it as part of our own lives, weaving our “reading memories” in with those of reality. When we truly relate to a piece of literature it is not solely the words inked on the page that we envelope into the trajectory of our lives, but the imaginative space we are guided to create while reading it.

My insistence on the crucial role of the reader in the reading experience requires that I view reading as transactional, and I do so in Louise Rosenblatt’s (1978) sense of the word. Through a transactional lens, reading is an act of constructing meaning from text using material taken from our own store of personal memories, feelings, and associations. Each person’s store is unique, thus the space we create while reading will likely look different from the space created by another, in response to the same work.

As someone who grew up creating imaginative spaces daily, I can vouch for the residual, emotional effects of inhabiting a space you have created. When we create a space in response to text and relate to things in it, this two-way relationship does something to us. It exerts some force over our perceptions of things. We may be comforted to learn that the mundane aspects of our own lives have a place within these majestic narrative structures, which we hold in such high regard. We might even hold our own lives in higher regard as a result of these personal connections.

That fiction can befriend, comfort, and even raise a reader is a notion that many have explored already. Bruno Bettelheim’s (1976) book The Uses of Enchantment made such a claim about fairy tales as a genre. Bettelheim psychoanalyzed popular fairy tales and brought attention to the elements in them likely to hook the child reader and offer emotional support. I began my research into relationships with fiction with the fairy tale genre, and quickly found that the conjuring of imaginative space is kindled just as much by the individual reader, and everything she brings with her, as it is by the text itself. My approach, then, has been to emphasize the reader’s personal, intimate input as much as the text’s.

My research focuses on the relationship between reader and text, within the context of this imaginative space. I explore such questions as: How does the imaginative space of fiction come about? When does it not come about? What happens inside of it? What can we do with a deepened knowledge of the mechanisms at work in this space?

If I were interested in studying the dynamics of romantic love, I would find two people who were in love and examine the ways in which they orient themselves in relation to the other. My reasoning behind this might be that understanding how romantic love works can help those who lack it, to find and keep it. Similarly, my research on readers reading entails the interviewing of readers who have established intimate relationships with fiction. I ask them what story they want to tell me about, why they love it so much, and how they feel when they inhabit the space of that story. And, like lovers gushing about their mates to anyone who will listen, these readers hardly need prompting at all. It would seem that when we truly fall in love with a story, such that we hold its meaning in our minds and weave it in amongst our favorite memories, that story (not unlike a person) can actually love us back.

Works cited:

Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales.

New York: Knopf.

Montgomery, L.M. (1992). Anne of green gables. New York: Bantam Books.

Relate [Def. 9]. (n.d.). Oxford English Dictionary Online. In Oxford English Dictionary.

Retrieved April 24, 2016, from http://www.oed.com.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary

work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

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