All pieces of writing carry a message to the reader.
In non-fiction works, such as textbooks, that message is overt, and usually stated in the title and chapter headings.
In works of fiction, such as novels, the message from the author is usually implied rather than stated directly.
As a simple example of an implied message in fiction, consider the story of ‘The Three Little Pigs’. The story is attempting to impress on the reader the importance of putting in the required effort to do a good job when you do a task, rather than just putting in minimal effort and so producing a product of inferior standard. The story carries the warning that you will pay in the longer term for doing poor work – you might get eaten by the Big Bad Wolf!
Fiction is not just a ‘made-up story’
Once we learn basic reading and comprehension skills it is important to learn how – and why – to read fiction.
WHY read fiction:
The ‘made-up story’ in a piece of fiction provides us with an alternative reality – a virtual reality – where we can live in another time and place, and even in another body. Experiencing the world from a perspective other than our own enables us to look back on our own life and consider our own attitudes and actions, with the prospect of improving how we live our life. In other words, to get the full value from reading fiction, we should read it with a clear purpose of using it as a tool to examine our own life.
HOW to read fiction:
The first step is to agree to embed ourselves into the novel while we read – to experience the alternative reality rather than standing aloof from it. The next step is to take the time to think back over how the author manipulated our feelings and thoughts while we were imbedded in the story. This can be done at the end of chapters, and at the end of the book. Our goal is to find the point of the novel for us by asking the question, “What did we learn as a result of living in that other reality for a while?”
The simple definition of an autobiography is a history of a person’s life told by that person. The word ‘history’ implies that an autobiography is non-fiction but that is rarely the case.
Most people write autobiographies to share some of the wisdom they learned in their lives. Most fiction writers do the same thing.
By reading autobiography as fiction, and so imbedding ourselves in the life of the writer while we are reading, we are much more likely to learn something of use to us from that person’s life.
Sally Morgan’s ‘My Place’
On the surface, this Australian best-seller traces Sally Morgan’s journey of discovery of her aboriginal heritage and the development of her identity as a person.
On a deeper level, Sally Morgan’s writing style invites us to consider our own development right from our earliest memories – that is why it has been such a successful book. When we discussed this approach to reading ‘My Place’ in the High Performance Learning Literary Club it became clear that ‘My Place’ was not a non-fiction history – but rather a reconstruction of Sally Morgan’s life. It is certainly fictional in the sense that Sally could not have remembered all the conversations in the book word perfect.
In our discussions about our own histories, we found that we only remembered a few things from our early lives, and then we weren’t even sure that our memories were necessarily accurate. We all agreed that the process of considering our own memories, and thinking about their impact on our later lives, was a valuable exercise in self-awareness.
Read more about Sally Morgan on Wikipedia here.
This presentation gives you a graphic summary of Sally Morgan’s life and career. It includes pictures of some of her artwork too.
Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
Another classic, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, is a thinly veiled autobiography of Harper Lee. It is written as a novel, but reads like the autobiography of the main character Scout.
Harper Lee does the same thing to us as Sally Morgan – she takes us through the childhood and the development of the identity of the main character and invites us to live in her shoes.
Using fiction reading skills, and taking the time to think about what happened to us while reading this book, is likely provide us with many valuable insights into our own lives.
Elizabeth Harvey’s ‘A Snowflake’s Hope’
‘A Snowflake’s Hope’ is another thinly veiled autobiography, just released by Elizabeth Harvey. Harvey is out front about the book being autobiographical, “It’s based very closely on my experiences and what I did and what happened to me. It’s not a memoir because it has dialogue and detailed descriptions of things that didn’t actually happen.” You can read an article with more detail about the book and author here: Elizabeth Harvey’s ‘A Snowflake’s Hope’
Elizabeth Harvey was the Federal Labor MP for the Adelaide seat of Hawker from 1987 to 1990. This serialised novel is based on her personal and political experiences during those years. All of the Hansard excerpts and cited correspondence are genuine. Some names have been changed or omitted to protect the innocent or baffle the guilty.
The novel’s title comes from the prediction that she had a ‘snowflake’s chance in hell’ of being re-elected in 1990. She lost her seat by just 14 votes!
‘A Snowflake’s Hope’ was written in 2013, twenty-three years after the time it portrays. Embedding ourselves in this novel will help us understand what it is really like to be a politician. The novel challenges the simplistic and cynical stereotype most people have of politicians, and politics in general – such cynicism can’t be good for our democracy.
My guess is that Elizabeth Harvey wrote the book to challenge the attitudes of the media to politicians – the way they treat politicians like sportspeople playing the ‘game’ of politics, and the battles between them are treated like wars.
You can read ‘A Snowflake’s Hope’ for free. It is great value for money. (I would have encouraged you to read it even if you had to pay for it.) It is available for free download here: Download for free ‘A Snowflake’s Hope’ .
Read with Purpose
Most autobiographies are written in a fictional style – a story with characters and dialogue. I would argue that the truth of the events in the story is not all that important – after all, those events are being relayed from the perspective of the author, often many years after they occurred. (Let’s face it, we wouldn’t need a legal system if everyone’s view of an event was the same as that of all the other participants.)
It is important that we take the time to think about the fiction we read so we can find the gems of wisdom contained in the works.
High School English
If you have a child in High School it is important that you help him/her learn to read with purpose. This is the point of the English Literature part of the English Course. I would encourage you to read the novels being studied and discuss them with your child. This is particularly important if your child is not a strong reader – I would suggest you read the book aloud together if that is the case.
When it is time to write essays about the novels you read, make sure your child does not treat the story as if it was real. Many students fall into this trap by taking the questions too literally. Essays in English Literature are supposed to be about the purpose of the author, and the techniques the author employs to get the underlying message across. Plot is only one of those techniques so don’t make the mistake of focussing mainly on the story and the characters.
This fictional example will demonstrate my point:
If the question asks: ‘Why did Fred fall off his horse in Chapter 3?’
- The answer is NOT: ‘He did not put the saddle on properly.’
- The answer should be more in this form: ‘The author constructed the event so the upper class Fred could get to know and fall in love with the lower class nurse Fay, while he spent a month in the hospital getting over his injuries. This enabled the author to construct the rest of the story to highlight the difficulties experienced by people from different social classes when they get married.’
Find out more about how to do well in English Literature here: Excelling at English, Literature and the Social Sciences. And here: The Importance of Reading Fiction and Studying English Literature.
High Performance Learning
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