Fiction is dying.
In USA Today’s most recent list of the best-selling books in America, seven of the top 10 titles are fiction, yet four of those seven are romance novels and three of the four make up the sadistically themed “Fifty Shades” series. Most of the books on this list seem like the private collection of a lonely housewife rather than the compelling marvels of imagination and prose.
The appreciation of good literature is waning in modern America and the problem stems from a fault in education. Not only should students be required to study great literature, they should also be made to write fiction. Having both skills will engender an appreciation for truly great prose while perpetuating the art of writing a good narrative.
At Hillsdale College the required “Rhetoric and Great Books” courses give every student a perspective of what makes great fiction. The college needs to offer students the chance to learn how to and to practice writing fiction. Hillsdale College needs an intensive creative writing course.
John Somerville of the English Department said that Hillsdale used to offer a creative writing course frequently, often taught by Somerville himself. With the departure of key professors in Hillsdale’s American literature faculty, remaining professors seem to have less leeway with 400-level courses. The creative writing course hardly ever shows up on the schedule these days. “Scriptwriting,” a theatre department course, is the only creative writing course now offered in the curriculum and is only taught once every two years.
The art of reading and the art of writing go hand in hand. Knowledge of what constitutes good writing comes from reading examples from other authors. Many long-form writers, essayists, and journalists swear by a code of knowing what greatness has come before them to preserve a standard.
In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien describes children as “capable of literary belief,” meaning they can immerse themselves in any well-constructed storyline. He calls for children to be conditioned to appreciate good stories by being in constant contact with them. Tolkien argues that adults lose this capability to become vulnerable and open to imaginative stories unless induced by a great author.
Tolkien describes a great author as one who creates a “Secondary World which your mind can enter.” The author creates a world that has truth to it and readers believe it because they are completely captivated. Tolkien creates Middle Earth in “The Lord of the Rings.” The reader becomes attached to the characters and invested in their actions and outcomes. It is an art to capture the minds of adults as if they had a child’s imaginative capabilities and vulnerabilities.
Tolkien and other great authors are remembered because their stories relate to the universal reader. They speak truths in their narratives that apply to humanity as a whole. The characters reveal our faults and embody our desires. Their outcomes and decisions represent the model of our past and allude to our future.
Fiction is powerful because it is limitless, and the tradition of writing well needs to continue. It can be done only if students are given the tools to improve their skills. And hopefully with this added refinement, the work they produce won’t be called “Fifty Shades and Counting.”
Hillsdale makes every student take courses that stress the importance of reading, but there will cease to be great new literature to read unless someone also teaches students to write.
Moreover, conservatives should not yield such an important aspect of culture. If Hillsdale College is willing to claim the reputation as a bastion of these ideals, it has an incentive if not a duty to encourage engagement in all cultural facets, including literary fiction.