Have you ever noticed how some stories make a deep impression on certain people yet fail to make a dent in others? You know the sorts that go all in for certain stories: the Trekkies for Star Trek, the Ringers for The Lord of the Rings, the fans, the geeks…need I go on? The group members share a common passion and bond like family members, while those outside think the groupies are simply nuts. To the fans, however, there is a music in the stories they love. Metaphorically, they are sitting in a concert hall listening to their favorite band and singing along madly while wondering at the other concert goers asleep in their seats. In the library where I work, these are the folks who have been so moved by the books of our authors that they stare in awe at their surroundings with a look in their eyes that says: “Do you understand that I’m not a visitor, this is my heart’s homecoming?”
Why is it that story, and indeed any form of art, can act on one person in a life-altering manner while leaving another wholly untouched?
One clue rests in the approach of the reader himself. C.S. Lewis examines this “reader mindset” in detail in his book, An Experiment in Criticism. He cautions, “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” Each of us has a barrier between what goes on in the world and what we will allow our inner beings to engage with seriously. Lewis elsewhere calls this barrier our “watchful dragons.” For those unwilling truly to engage with story, to let down a bit of their dragon guard, there is little hope for story to be transformative. After all, how can a medicine work unless you first swallow it?
Another clue rests in the writing, and hence also the author doing the writing. The master storyteller, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s words, “makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.” This proverbial “suspension of disbelief” concept no doubt takes considerable skill and craft by the author in order to be successful. Yet even a well-crafted secondary world may be embraced differently by different readers. A scientific-minded individual may find fairy tales and their elements of magic too far flung to “believe,” and yet this same person may have a deep-seated passion for science fiction. The failure of creating belief therefore may lie either with the author or with the reader.
The secondary world must entail more than a convincing setting in order to fully capture its reader, however. We will pick up our investigation there on Friday.
Laura Schmidt is the archivist at The Marion E. Wade Center, and welcomes all lovers of story to a seat by the fireplace in our book-lined reading room.