Imagine you’ve sat down with your favorite novel. While you’re reading, what do you feel? If, in part, it’s an emotional connection with a character, you’re not alone. This is a common experience; and plenty has been written about it, in both popular and scholarly spaces. Because it’s powerful and strange, this feeling. Powerful enough to make you cry. Strange in that it’s fictional characters we’re talking about.
But I’m interested in a different feeling we can have while reading fiction, something that sure seems like an emotional connection with the author, the real person responsible for those characters who make us cry. When we read, we might feel as though we are in a conversation with the author, a conversation that is both intimate and emotionally rich. Sometimes this apparent relationship might even be powerful enough to feel like a peculiar form of friendship. As a character in John Green’s novel-turned-movie The Fault in Our Stars says, “My third best friend was an author who did not know I existed.”
Now you may be quick to dismiss this so-called relationship with an author as mere teenage melodrama. But I don’t think you should. Sure, as David Foster Wallace noted, it’s “very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about.” And yes, there is no actual way you could be friends with someone who knows nothing of your existence. Friendship talk in this context is metaphorical at best. But like Wallace and Proust, I think there’s something legitimate at play here, something very real.
But hey, wait, you say, melodrama aside, it’s still fiction. Real author or not, they’re still making stuff up. Someone’s behind the curtain; but there’s still the curtain. That emotional connection you’re feeling to an author is likely a connection to a persona the author constructed, another level of artifice.
Yes. This is a problem. The problem. But bear with me.
Colin Lyas argues that there are limitations to how much an author can fake when they’re writing. If you sense a deeply sensitive, perceptive, or emotionally mature person working in the pages of your favorite novel, it’s hard to imagine that the author could have manufactured those traits. Maybe the author isn’t that way in their non-writing life, but at least at the time of writing, they had to be.
“When we read, we might feel as though we are in a conversation with the author, a conversation that is both intimate and emotionally rich. Sometimes this apparent relationship might even be powerful enough to feel like a peculiar form of friendship.”
If this is right, then when we feel emotionally connected to an author, we are connected to something and someone real. This someone may differ from their everyday self, and may even be a better version of them-self, someone who surfaces only when fingers hit the keys or pick up a pen to make all the tiny adjustments that are so often part of the writing process. But it is some version of them, nonetheless.
Maybe this is part of what makes reading so special. When we read, we have the chance to connect, intimately so, with human beings at their best, their very finest, their most articulate and compassionate and funny and insightful.
Recently, there’s been debate over the possibility of literature making us better people, whether when we read, we become more moral, empathetic, or wise. It’s yet another complicated issue, and one I have nothing to say about today. But at bottom, it’s part of that well-worn debate on why we should read literature and keep it in our schools. On why literature matters. And I do have something to say about that. Read literature to connect. Read literature to find someone who understands the way you see the world and thereby makes you feel less alone. Read to celebrate the fact that we are deeply social creatures, however introverted some of us are. Read to experience a kind of emotional intimacy I’ve experienced nowhere else, an intimacy that is at once peculiar and powerful, quiet and oh so loud.
Featured image credit: book by Patrick Tomasso. CC0 public domain via Unsplash.