Actual photo of PJ Reece having a mystical experience while researching this blog post.
What if we knew WHY READERS READ.
Imagine how confidently we could hammer out manuscripts. Armed with the motive for consuming fiction, we could easily make our stories come true.
Why readers read—writers would kill for the answer.
I know, they say that reading is an escape, that it’s a relief from our hum-drum lives. That’s what they say. Who the heck is they, anyway? Conventional wisdom, that’s who.
Yes, I’m pretty riled up. Any student of fiction should soon discover that stories are no mere palliative. We’re hooked on reading. We’re addicts. And yet no one—authors, critics, publishers, writing gurus—no one is digging for a deeper explanation.
The MYSTICAL NATURE of the literary experience!
Majmudar speaks of a “mystical union” between reader and protagonist. He says that by “dwelling outside ourselves a while” the reader experiences a “dissolution of the self.”
UNSELVING he calls it.
(My wife says, “Take that word out and shoot it.” If anyone can coin a better word, please let me have it.)
What’s much more important is that Majmudar believes that this literary empathy is…are you ready for this:
“The highest expression of the novelist’s or dramatist’s art.”
Amit Majmudar is my new best friend. Here he is again:
“To forget one’s selfhood by experiencing fully the reality of another living being—this is the mystical experience par excellence.”
Fantastic. And yet Majmudar doesn’t quite nail it. “Experiencing the reality” isn’t good enough. Mystical implies another level of reality. A hidden reality. Simply experiencing another person’s everyday reality is not good enough.
With all due respect to Majmudar’s thesis, I’m going to take it a step further:
Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes may be therapeutic, but mystical isn’t about healing. Mystical is about “dying”. Readers tag along with fictional heroes to vicariously experience their struggles and failure. The death of “who we think we are” forces protagonist and reader to leave their everyday realities behind.
That break with the everyday happens in the heart of the story.
If reading is an escape, it’s an escape to more tension, not less. But it’s a tension pregnant with profound potential. A protagonist heading for a certain dead-end—that’s compelling.
To experience someone else’s shoe size and belief system is entertainment, but to experience that belief system breaking down—that’s an existential crisis. And the only way out is to rise above it.
Hero and reader, they’ve got each other for company until the ground beneath their feet gives way in the heart of the story. Then everyone’s on their own.
Says Amit Majmudar:
“By reading or watching these works, we, too, unselve vicariously… Never mind that it’s temporary and artificial—[it’s] similar to mystical unselving. The high is the same, and addictive.”
I watch for this “unselving” in all fiction, be it book or movie. I realize it’s not only why I read and watch, but why I write.
What stories have you liked lately? Can you isolate that moment of unselving? Let us know by adding a COMMENT.