Reading Fiction: Theory and Practice

by Glenn D. Marcus and Ron Pisaturo

Copyright (c) 2001 by Glenn D. Marcus and Ronald Pisaturo. All rights reserved.

The Introduction of this 15,000-word essay is shown here. The remainder of the essay is no longer available for purchase. The content of this essay may be incorporated into a future work.

November 18, 2001


In “The Goal of My Writing” Ayn Rand writes:

I write—and read—for the sake of the story. … My basic test for any story is: Would I want to meet these characters and observe these events in real life? Is this story an experience worth living through for its own sake? Is the pleasure of contemplating these characters an end in itself?[1]

In this statement, Ayn Rand is implying that, when we read fiction, we in some sense experience the story as if it were really happening, that we in some respect “live through” the story. But of course we do not literally live through the story; we do not, for instance, literally dive off the cliff Howard Roark dives off at the opening of The Fountainhead. One question I will answer in this essay is: Precisely in what respect does one, or should one, live through a story one reads?

My answer to this question will take the form of prescribing an entire method of reading fiction. I will show how reading according to this method enables the reader to live through the story—not literally, but in a certain important respect.

The reading method presented here is employed, at least to some degree, by all good readers. However, a good reader might use his method only implicitly; he might not have an explicit understanding of it, just as someone who forms concepts effectively might not understand explicitly the process of concept-formation. This essay seeks to help a good reader gain explicit knowledge of his method and thereby learn to use his method even more consistently and thoroughly.

This essay also has a second, briefer part. In The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand identified what man needs from art. After presenting my method of reading, I will explain how this method ensures that the reader will in fact reap from fiction what man needs from art.

To illustrate my method, I will apply it to passages from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I will read these passages as if for the first time. Though a novelist may not expect a reader to grasp every subtlety and implication on the first reading, a novelist writes to make his story understandable and enjoyable on that first reading. Likewise, a reading method must work for a first reading. My method also works on a second or even a tenth reading. But here, let us imagine we are reading the passages for the first time.

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The remainder of this 15,000-word essay is no longer available for purchase. The content of this essay may be incorporated into a future work.

[1]The Romantic Manifesto (paperback), p. 163. See also The Art of Fiction, pp. 175-6.