This week - like all weeks recently, it seems - there's been a crop of articles in major publications that make a variety of ridiculous claims about books and authors and readers. I'll get into some of the specific arguments later, but first I wanted to address what seems to have become a pervasive theme: that novels are dangerous because they prescribe beliefs or behaviors that readers accept and mimic unquestioningly. It's a theme in the Wall Street Journal YA article that's been getting a lot of press, and YA readers and authors on Twitter have shown just how silly this assumption is under the #YAkills hashtag. And Megan McArdle accepts it as an underlying premise in her piece on art and politics. As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in her great response to Megan's piece, "I’m befuddled by the idea of the passive reader that seems to pervade Megan’s piece . . . Art is playground, context, fodder — not marching papers, and not a straightforward recruiting tool."
This idea of prescriptive fiction is fair to neither readers nor writers. It assigns to authors a purpose that they may neither intend nor want. Characters in novels are generally not intended to be behavioral models for readers, and while authors' worldviews certainly affect their writing, novels that are specifically intended as evangelism are rare. Thinking of fiction as primarily a method of instruction or persuasion overlook the fact that novels are usually read and written for the stories and the characters and the beauty of language. As Malinda Lo wrote in her response to the WSJ article, "the idea that YA is primarily about lessons strips it of the possibility of being art, and therefore of being taken seriously. It turns it into moral pablum." Writers want to entertain their readers, to make them think about things. Most are not actually trying to produce armies of clones. Lo again: "I’m writing books to explore my place in the world. . . . I’m writing to tell damn good stories to people who want to read them."
And those readers deserve some credit. All but the very youngest should be able to distinguish fiction from reality, and the idea that not everything we read is completely true or good is not a difficult one. Readers don't completely rearrange their belief systems every time they read a novel. That's just laughable. Sure, there are books that change the way we look at the world, but that doesn't happen in a vacuum, and it's not a simple "book says A so reader believes A" correlation. Books give us new ideas to think about and new contexts in which to play with ideas, and we internalize those ideas - accept, reject, pick out our favorite bits - and integrate them into our belief systems along with all the ideas we get from other sources and influences.
We avid readers sometimes like to say that books are magical, but let's not take it too far: reading a novel doesn't lead to automatic brainwashing. On the other hand, if we accept this idea that we as readers are powerless and passive, this suggests that we should stop reading fiction that portrays a wide variety of political and philosophical viewpoints because new ideas might hurt us. And that's where the real danger lies.