what Hall has to say about “good” and “bad” fiction

DONALD HALL (1928-2018) To Read Fiction When we learn to read fiction, we acquire a pleasure and a resource we never lose. Although literary study is impractical in one sense — few people make their living reading books — in another sense it is almost as practical as breathing. Literature records and embodies centuries of human thought and feeling, preserving for us the minds of people who lived before us, who were like us and unlike us, against whom we can measure our common humanity and our historical difference. And when we read the stories of our contemporaries, they illuminate the world all of us share. When we read great literature, something changes in us that stays changed. Literature remembered becomes material to think with. No one who has read The Death of Ivan Ilych, well, is quite the same again. Reading adds tools by which we observe, measure, and judge the people and the properties of our universe; we understand the actions and motives of others and of ourselves. In the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, the wise ant builds his storehouse against winter and prospers; the foolish grasshopper saves nothing and perishes. Anyone who dismisses the study of literature on the grounds that it will not be useful — to a chemist or an engineer, to a foreman or an X-ray technician — imitates the grasshopper. When we shut from our lives everything except food and shelter, part of us starves to death. Food for this hunger is music, painting, film, plays, poems, stories, and novels. Much writing in newspapers, magazines, and popular novels is not literature, if we reserve that word for work of high quality. This reading gives us as little nourishment as most television and most fast food. For the long winters and energetic summers of our lives, we require the sustenance of literature. Reading fiction old and new — taking into ourselves the work of nineteenth-century Russian, contemporary English, Irish, and especially American storytellers — we build a storehouse of knowledge and we entertain ourselves as well. But to take pleasure and understanding from fiction we have to learn how to read it. No one expects to walk up to a computer and be able to program it without first learning something about computers. For some reason — perhaps because we are familiar with words from childhood and take them for granted — we tend to think that a quick glance at the written word should reward us, and that if we do not take instant satisfaction the work is beyond us, or not worth it, or irrelevant or boring. But all our lives, in other skills, we have needed instruction and practice — to be able to ride a bicycle, drive a car, play guitar, shoot baskets, typewrite, dance. The knowledge we derive from literature can seem confusing. Equally great works may contradict each other in the generalizations we derive from them. One work may recommend solitude, another society. One may advise us to seize the moment, another to live a life of contemplation. Or, two good readers may disagree about the implication of a work and each argues convincingly, with detailed references to the writing, in support of contrary interpretations. A complex work of fiction cannot be reduced to a simple, correct meaning. In an elementary arithmetic text, the answers may be printed in the back of the book. There are no answers to be printed in the back of … any collection of literature. Such nebulousness, or ambiguity, disturbs some students. After an hour′s class discussion of a short story, with varying interpretations offered, they want to know ″But what does it mean?″ We must admit that literature is inexact and its truth is not easily verifiable. Probably the story means several things at once, and not one thing at all. This is not to say, however, that it means anything that anybody finds in it. Although differing, equally defensible opinions are common, error is even more common. When we speak of truth in the modern world, we usually learn something scientific or tautological. Arithmetic contains the truth of tautology; two and two make four because our definitions of two and four say so. In laboratories we encounter the truth of statistics and the truth of observation. If we smoke cigarettes heavily, it is true that we have one chance in four to develop lung cancer. When we heat copper wire over a Bunsen burner, the flame turns blue. But there is an older sense of truth, in which statements apparently opposite can be valid. In this older tradition, truth is dependent on context and circumstance, on the agreement of sensible men and women — like the ″Guilty″ or ″Not guilty″ verdict of a jury. Because this literary (or philosophical, or legal, or historical) truth is inexact, changeable, and subject to argument, literature can seem nebulous to minds accustomed to arithmetical certainty. Let me argue this: If literature is nebulous or inexact; if it is impossible to determine, with scientific precision, the value or the meaning of a work of art, this inexactness is the price literature pays for representing whole human beings. Human beings themselves, in their feelings and thoughts, in the wanderings of their short lives, are ambiguous and ambivalent, shifting mixtures of permanence and change, direction and disorder. Because literature is true to life, true to the complexities of human feeling, different people will read the same work with different responses. And the storyteller′s art will sometimes affirm that opposite things are both true because they are. Such a condition is not tidy; it is perhaps regrettable, but it is human nature. What′s Good, What’s Bad? The claims I make for fiction are large: that it alters and enlarges our minds, our connections with each other past and present, our understanding of our own feelings. These claims apply to excellent literature only. This … suggests that some fiction is better than other fiction, and that some narratives are not literature at all. Even if judgments are always subject to reversal, even if there is no way we can be certain of being correct, evaluation lives at the center of literary study. When I was nineteen, I liked to read everything: science fiction, Russian novels, mystery stories, great poems, adventure magazines. Then for six months after an accident, sentenced to a hospital bed and a body cast, I set myself a reading list, all serious books I had been thinking about getting to. Of course there was a background to this choice: I had been taught by a good teacher who had directed and encouraged and stimulated my reading. I read through Shakespeare, the Bible in the King James’ version, novels by Henry James and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Toward the end of six months, taking physical therapy, I hurried to finish the books I had assigned myself; I looked forward to taking a vacation among private detectives and adventurers of the twenty-fourth century. I thought I would take a holiday of light reading. When I tried to read the light things, I experienced one of those ″turning points in life″ we are asked to describe in freshman composition. I remember the dismay, the abject melancholy that crept over me as I realized — restless, turning from book to book in search of entertainment — that these books bored me; that I was ruined for life, that I would never again lose myself to stick figure characters and artificial suspense. Literature ruined me for light reading …. I don′t mean to say that I was able to give reasons why Fyodor Dostoyevsky′s novel about a murder was better than Agatha Christie′s or why Aldous Huxley′s view of the future, though less exciting, was more satisfying than Astounding Science Fiction′s. But I began a lifetime of trying to figure out why. What is it that makes Chekhov so valuable to us? The struggle to name reasons for value — to evaluate works of art — is lifelong, and although we may never arrive at satisfactory explanations, the struggle makes the mind more sensitive, more receptive to the next work of literature it encounters. And as the mind becomes more sensitive and receptive to literature, it may become more sensitive and receptive to all sorts of things. Questions Mark directly on the essay the point at which you believe the introduction ends. Then identify the major subdivisions of the essay – sections that could potentially comprise a single body paragraph. Underline the part of the essay that forms the conclusion. Highlight in green (or put a box around) the statement(s) that constitute the main idea of the essay. Describe the tone of the essay. What are some ways, Hall establishes that tone? (Hint: look for words and phrases). Despite its impracticality, what does Hall see as the value of literature? List several of his reasons. In paragraph three, Hall employs an allusion to a famous fable? What is his purpose in using it? In paragraph four, Hall uses an analogy to explore the assumptions we have regarding reading and language? What is the analogy? What does the use of the allusion and analogy suggest about who Hall believes his audience to be? What “disturbs” many students in terms to the study of literature? Have you ever felt this way? Explain. What is his argument for why literature is “nebulous”? If we accept his argument, why is reading and studying literature valuable to people of all ages? What is Hall’s definition of “truth.” Does it differ from your perception of truth? If so, how? If not, why not? What claim to truth does literature have in Hall’s opinion? Summarize what Hall has to say about “good” and “bad” fiction, and how he came to have those opinions?

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