Why Read Fiction?

When I was in college, I was constantly avoiding students who were sucked into multi-level marketing pyramid schemes. One such fellow, whom I barely knew, kept interrogating me about my values and interests in a transparent attempt to figure how he could spin Amway for me.

“I like to read” I said.
“What do you read?” he asked.
“I try to read classic literature. Do you read?” I try to turn it back on him.
“Yes, I read business books [Read: Amway propaganda].”
“So you don’t read novels?”
“No. Why would I waste my time on something that never happened? To try to figure out some ‘secret meaning’ of writers?”

Our conversation was officially over after that, but this exchange really bothered me, as never in my life before had I heard somebody question the value of literature. From as long as I can remember, I had been told that reading, and especially reading long-form fiction, is good for you. As a pre-teen, I recall my father being a bit disappointed that I was reading lots of non-fiction, but very few full-blown novels. I internalized this, and to this day, I find myself reading novels often out of a sense of moral obligation. “A good, healthy person reads at least ten novels a year,” right?

The notion that reading fiction is good for you, any fiction at all, has not always been common sense. Especially during the 19th century, many viewed novels as a threat to the emotional and moral status of their primary readership: women. Novels blurred the lines between reality and fiction, novels rotted your brain, novels were a waste of time, and so on and so forth. Similarly, a number of my peers in my secondary and post-secondary education expressed great annoyance at any kind of literature requirement we had, arguing that any kind of critical reading of the text was just inane navel-gazing invented by English teachers. For many of my classmates, and I would imagine most adults, literature is just one form of entertainment or diversion among others. The only reason we as a culture promote reading to kids over video games or television is to make sure they are reading at grade level.

I disagree with this assessment, and posit that reading, especially the taking of a mindful approach to reading, is good for a person, and good for a community.

To spearhead this apology, I am reminded of Canadian English professor and media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s formulation of “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media are the forms of communication that are more direct and one-sided, allowing the audience to be passive; McLuhan cites film, radio, and the lecture as hot media. Cool media, conversely, require more participation form the audience to gather meaning, and are often “lower resolution” than hot media. Cool media include comic books, seminars, street performances, the telephone, and the highway system. Novels, as a cool medium, require quite a bit out of the reader: a 400-page novel can easily take eight hours of time, and a great amount of patience, focus, and emotional energy to read thoroughly. Each novel is a constructed world and set of lives that we are expected to take on as our points of interest. We are tasked to listen and to understand to people whom we have not grown up with, and we may struggle to understand why and how they make the decisions that do. We must remember histories, relationships, families, attitudes, and motivations for up to dozens of new people. And by the end of the novel, we have to say goodbye.

Novels, more than film, television, podcasts, or video games, allow for the development of empathy, because the reader must help in creating the characters, the emotions, and the happenings of a story. Reading novels fosters empathy, especially for characters who are unlike us, and for people in situations different than the ones we ourselves have been in.

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, made similar claims in his work An Apology for Poetry. Rather than being lies, as Plato and the religious conservatives of Sidney’s day argued, narrative fictional works do not claim to be reality, but a hypothetical and imaginative practice that builds towards one’s sense of virtue; thus, novels can help you become a virtuous person.

By virtue, I don’t mean a didactic, condescending prescription (like it’s the end of Sailor Moon and I’m being told to eat my vegetables and look both ways before crossing the street), rather, “What is the kind of person we would trust and like to have in our lives?” From my own experience, novels have helped me become more of the person I would like to be, by broadening my scope and making me a less judgmental, more caring person. Some examples include

Middlesex and what it is like to be a person with an Intersex condition
The Art of Fielding and why some people are attracted to a sport on a spiritual level
Things Fall Apart and life under colonialism
A Little Life and why some people turn to self-harm
Netherland and the challenge of making friends as an adult
Infinite Jest and how sincerity is a force that can save people’s lives

Conversely, reading helps us recognize just how many of our own thoughts and experiences are not unique to us, but are shared. I think of reading Tom Sawyer as a 14-year-old, and being amazed how Tom imagines if he were to die, how distraught and sorry his Aunt Polly would finally be. Or how like many of my peers, the protagonists in Notes from Underground and Dostoyevsky’s longish-short story White Nights responds to modernity by retreating into isolation and an unhealthy set of projection on prospective lovers. I found Donna Tartt’s The Secret History utterly captivating, partially because I was a liberal arts major who loved nothing more than arguing about highfalutin matters with my friends. And I found solace in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s book of creative [and spoiler alert, sometimes fictive] non-fiction Pulphead, especially the first narrative essay, when Sullivan explores his teenage flirtation with Christian Evangelicalism, an experience I share.

There are many other reasons to read: to learn new words and turns of phrase, to relax, to understand what it is the kids are talking about, to learn historical or cultural details, to explore what it is like to be your gender if you are a closeted trans person, and many more, each one of these reasons being valid. What reading is not, is a waste of time, because reading is not a task or a practice with a single goal or outcome, any more than a conversation with a friend is a waste of time, because it does not produce a specific, measurable goal.

To read is to have a conversation, and like most relationships, how it changes you will often be in ways you do not expect.

Nature Fetishism and Transphobia

Yesterday, some overly-confident men were talking around me about how vaccines cause autism, and how fluoride in water is causing our kids to be effeminate. I’ve had other people send me wacky “Natural News” articles about how the “uptick” in “transgenderism” is from processed foods and other nefarious “chemicals.”

As much as I tried to avoid this discussion, they asked me repeatedly if I would get my children vaccinated, and condescended and [erroneously] mansplained to me when I told them that vaccines have eliminated polio and smallpox.

Like many cismen, they were filled with a hubris that made them think that their wacky conspiracy theories overwhelm the heaping consensus of the international scientific community. The problem is, people who have this fetishistic view of nature (that is to say, people who believe that the natural world is pure, morally good) wind up being transphobic. TERFS, conservative Christians, Some Black Nationalist Groups (“Hoteps”), and Deep Green Resistance, often hold to this notion that we need to return to some sort of state-of-nature before agriculture, before the Patriarchy, before the White Race, before psychiatry, before GMOs, before “Western Medicine,” and only then will we be cured of all our social and physical ills.

If this is true, where does this leave transsexual and transgender people, who cannot accept the bodies they were given by nature? Instead, overwhelming amounts of research and documentation across cultures have confirmed that gender dysphoria has one cure: to transition. There is no “natural” way to transition. Rather, to transition is to reject the utter lie that there is a normative natural order we are born into, and to accept a synthetic process that allows you to live your fullest, most authentic self.

I implore my friends to be cautious around language about “Returning to nature,” or how modern psychiatry and medicine is somehow inauthentic, and people would be ridded of their dysphoria, depression, bipolarity, ADHD, etc. if only we retreated back to an imaginary Garden of Eden. The truth is, we have moved beyond a nature “Red in Tooth and Claw,” and because of that, I am able to live as the woman I am.

I have no use for your Arcadia, or your alkaline diet.

Church Mission Trips Might Not Be a Good Idea

If you grew up in a middle-class suburb, and belonged to a protestant church, there is a high likelihood you have been on a mission trip. Millions of young adults, adult lay leaders, and pastors pack their bags every summer for week-to-two-week service trips to locations like Central America, Haiti Appalachia, and Native American nations. Projects like house builds and vocational Bible schools will be undertaken during the day, prayers and small group discussions in the evening, a day or two of fun, and everybody returns back to the suburban congregation changed and energized by the Spirit.

I know this, because I have been on four mission trip: Juarez (2006, housebuild); Gulfport, MS (2007, cleanup); Milwaukee area (2009, cleanup, foodservice); and, Belize (2014, Housebuild). (I also took an “Alternative Spring Break” to Birmingham, AL in 2010, but my college group did not know that Habitat for Humanity was a Christian organization until we were asked to pray before our first day). I have been through the emotional highs and lows of the trip. I have spent countless hours fundraising and advocating for our youth group. I have lead prayers and reassured parents. At the age of 15 in Juarez, I even stated during our house dedication how this was the first time in my life I felt like my life had meaning. I now find it very difficult to justify the current White Suburban Church model of mission trips.

On grounds of utility, mission trips are a great mismanagement of resources. Tens of thousands of dollars are raised to let unskilled youth and parents travel to a foreign country and build a small house, when that money could be allocated to local laborers. Even using the $50K for microlending or vaccine outreach will almost certainly do far more material good than a single house build.

Of course, most mission trips do not claim that this is the most efficient use of resources. From my experience, many churches go to great lengths to explain why they are choosing to send their youth to the Developing World instead of to a local community. Unfortunately, the explanations I’ve heard all eventually take a patronizing, colonialist, and poverty-tourist tone: “By sending our youth to Haiti/Honduras/Jamaica/Mexico, they will see just how blessed we are here in the United States.” One priest leading a trip brazenly exclaimed, “America is not the ‘Real World!’” Upon returning, the promoted narrative among the parents and adults involved

1 Declaring how bad things were for the people in the country
2 Being surprised how friendly/happy they seemed, and
3 How Jesus instructs us to be a Good Neighbor and a Good Samaritan

The problem with the White Suburban Mission Trip, with its volun-tourism, poverty-fetishism, and White-Man’s-Burden rhetoric, is how it fails to ask a very basic question: WHY do most of us have it so good in the United States, but people have it so poorly in the Developing World? As soon as you ask this question, the entire purpose the mission trip begins to look less like being a good neighbor, and more like an attempt to shift away our collective guilt.

In the Episcopal hymnal, there is a popular piece entitled, “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” While otherwise an inoffensive and child-like hymn, the old additions included a verse that has since been excised: “Rich man in his castle/Poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate.” God orchestrated a divine plan in which some people would be rich, and others would be poor. And although we may not understand the purposes of this right now, we ought not question God’s intentions. This sort of divine sanctioning of classism (and slavery, and colonialism, and transphobia, and so on and so forth), is nonsense, and is contradicted by The Beatitudes, Christ’s healing of the Disfigured, and the Book of Job. The problem is, the White Suburban Mission Trip supports this “Divine Plan of Poverty” when it fails to question the power structures that make the Developing Regions poor, and the Industrialized World rich. When I was in Juarez, we did not talk about how NAFTA destroyed the livelihood of millions of Mexican farmers, and how US drug policy has helped create the political mess enabling the cartels. When I was in Gulfport and New Orleans, we did not talk about the legacies of slavery, sharecropping, or the New Jim Crow. Nor did we talk about Wisconsin’s highest-in-the-US incarceration rate for black men, and long history of eviction rates when we served in Milwaukee. Or how Belize’s long history of colonialism and slavery.

All too often, we were expected to try to find a “Blessing in Disguise” in the systemic poverty, so we took pictures with little brown babies, drank local sodas, and looked forward to taking a warm shower as soon as we returned. But if Christ had wanted Christianity to be about powerful groups taking pity on the downtrodden, He would have preached directly to the Romans, and not for the Jews. Rather, our Gospels challenge the power structures of Empire, the same power structures that we, the White Suburban Churches, draw tremendous benefit.

Rather than sending our youth on college-resume-boosting mission trips, I recommend that White Suburban churches commit themselves to standing behind grassroots and community-initiated efforts in Developing Nations, and instead of going on international House builds, going on Pilgrimages. In 2008, my church did just that, and we traveled to Ireland to learn about Celtic Christianity and the influences of Irish beliefs on the church. As a 17-year-old making 6.50 an hour at McDonalds, I spent $750 to go on this trip, and had a wonderful, transformative experience. Among other things, I began accepting the Femininity of God as a result of this trip, which has definitively helped me in my life and my transition. Other pilgrimages take an explicate social-justice angle, especially some of the Episcopal churches around St. Louis during the year after the shooting of Mike Brown. After all, If your spirituality does not upset and direct your material reality, then what’s even the point?