Creative Versus Critical Reading

There are two ways to experience a work of art. One is the creative, the other the critical.

Developmental psychologists found that children as young as four exposed to a story via puppets, video, pictures, and voice are highly creative in filling in the blanks. They construct the story in their imaginations and experience it as real. They immerse themselves in the story.

This occurs in what the pioneering psychologist Jean Piaget labels the Preoperational stage, the second of four stages. In the third (Concrete Operational) stage, ages 7-12, we begin to think logically. Children realize that stories are made. They see logical inconsistencies, and some times assume the adult story tellers made a mistake and “correct” them with imaginative “fixes” to stories.

The last (Formal Operational) stage is where we mature critically, at least in theory. Observation of adults shows that many people still think magically and illogically for their entire lives, believing physical, political, and ethical systems for esthetic or self-serving reasons rather than those based on evidence and thought.

In secondary schools and college teachers of literature try to teach students to read critically, to make reading fiction an intellectual rather than an immersive experience. The works they use for this include two types: “serious” and “literary” fiction.

(Please leave your quibbles with these terms at the door to this discussion. Heaven forbid you to apply critical thinking to my writing!)

“Serious” fiction focuses critical attention on larger moral, ethical, religious, and social issues. Shallow and conventional minds exist among the literatus as in every other arena. Even those having PhDs and tenured positions can be fools. Thus members of some awards committees automatically exclude genre fiction. More critically self-aware and less self-congratulatory members realize that “seriousness” can be a quality of other genres than contemporary fiction.

Examples of serious genre works include romance (Pride and Prejudice), tragimance (Romeo and Juliet), courtroom drama (To Kill a Mockingbird), adventure (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), science fiction (1984), fantasy (Animal Farm), mystery (The Big Sleep), and comedy (Catch-22).

“Literary” fiction focuses attention on the literary process itself. Techniques used include reference to other works of art via allusion and imitation, reference to itself (“Goodness the author has got me in such a fix!”), use of irony and multi-layered symbolism, and breaks with established literary traditions such as plot and causation and convincing characters and settings.

In short, literary fiction tries to focus attention on the medium rather than the message it conveys. This parallels, or perhaps is merely a different version of, the movement in graphic art to focus on the window rather than the windowed, the picture rather than the pictured.

The two different approaches, the immersive and the intellectual, both have their fierce partisans. Each considers their way of consuming art the superior one. Yet the creative and the critical are not enemies. Rather they are opposites, like one’s right and left hands. Which when working together are many times more powerful than either working alone.

In reading they can work together in several ways.

One is to try to partition the two approaches into first and later reads. So in the first the reader tries to read a new work of fiction first as an immersive experience. To be transported elsewhere and elsewhen and become someone else. To be stretched beyond oneself, live another life for a short time. To “willfully suspend disbelief.” Then in later reads one turns from the pictured to the picture, attending to literary pointillism, strokes both fine and broad, textures and blocking, perspective, and metaphor.

Another way is to dance between the two approaches while reading, whether first read or later reads. This takes more agility and risks falling off the stage. But some prefer it.

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So what does this mean to us as writers? Damned if I know. This was breakfast warm-up writing! YOU tell ME.

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