There are people who look down on fiction because, of course, it's not true. They see it as “fluff” and would advocate reading biographies, cultural studies, and history instead. This is a false dichotomy; there certainly are heavy works of fiction (Crime and Punishment, anyone?) and lots of non-fiction that is light on substance. Nevertheless, it is true that there is some “fluff” in the fiction world. Our culture is self-centred and pleasure-seeking, and in general, the fiction genre tends to be female-oriented, so it's easy to find books that are all about finding love and finding oneself but with little of substance. That said, there is so much more to fiction than the latest “chick lit” title.
What I love most about fiction is the ability to fall into a story and experience a different time, place, and culture through the characters. Biographies also tell someone's story, but it can feel like the reader is at a distance because the writer him/herself has not been through the experiences (unless it's an autobiography, obviously); in a work of fiction, however, you have the opportunity to put yourself in the action. This means that you can learn while you're reading, and you may not even realize it. I recently read Moby Dick, and in addition to enjoying the story, I learned so much about whales and the history of whale hunting. Of course, I could have gotten that information elsewhere, but I am unlikely to ever research the subject, and articles about whale biology would probably put me to sleep. Likewise, it's great to read about contemporary Afghanistan, but The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini make the experience of Afghans during the 1980s and 1990s real in a way that a history book cannot do without sacrificing some objectivity.
In the second place, a good work of fiction is often not just about the story. Many writers use fiction to discuss societal problems, human nature, etc. I am a huge fan of Jane Austen, and it pains me when her work is described as “romance” because if you read her more carefully, she has so much to say about the place of women in society, and about the development of character. Although I love the end of Pride and Prejudice, one of my favourite scenes is in the middle when Elizabeth reproves herself for believing Mr. Wickham's account of Mr. Darcy, and admits that she believed Wickham because he appealed to her vanity. She may not be a real person, but Elizabeth's willingness to search her own conduct and mind for where she went wrong has been a real example for me.
If you hadn't gathered it already, I love reading “the classics”; many of my favourite books are from 19th century England, although I also read classics from other areas. Part of my interest stems from my background as a history major in university, and part of it from a desire to read works that have impacted society. In addition, I find that while many of the classics are not specifically shelved under “Christian fiction”, most pre-20th century works were written with a Christian worldview in mind and I know I won't have to sift through any explicit sex scenes. This fall, I read Quo Vadis, a late-19th century book by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, which is an engaging account of Rome under Nero's reign and of the Church during this period. Sienkiewicz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905; it's hard to imagine a Nobel Prize winner today providing such a compassionate picture of the Apostles Peter and Paul and portraying the idea that the New Testament is actually true.
Christians often wonder about the merits of reading secular fiction. It's sometimes difficult to tell whether a work of secular fiction will have objectional content or is written from a secular worldview. Should we limit ourselves to the fiction section of Christian bookstores? How do we engage with novels that proclaim ideas contrary to our faith? Personally, I think this is one of those Romans 14-type gray areas. There are obviously books that I think are unwise for believers to read. Any genres with illicit sex scenes (e.g., erotic fiction and often the romance section of a bookstore) will not help to follow the guidelines of Philippians 4:8 or to keep your heart from lust. Other than that, rely on prayer and the Bible for guidance, and consider your own weak areas. A person struggling with a violent or abusive past may want to skip a lot of contemporary murder mystires or thrillers, for example. Personally, I am not interested in horror or romance novels,* nor do I tend to read books that are overly violent or deal with the occult/demonic elements unless they it is in a specific Christian context. If I'm reading a book and encounter unexpected elements, I try to remember that I have the power to skim or skip passages or even to stop reading if the book will violate my Christian conscience.
The other side of the coin is that if you are strong in your convictions, it can be beneficial to read books with which you disagree. I wouldn't hand The Da Vinci Code to a brand-new Christian, but a person strong in their faith should be able to enjoy the engaging story AND also understand enough of Dan Brown's arguments to be able to discuss them with friends. In the past, I have read books that were popular in my youth group so that I'd have some idea of what kids were obsessing about and be able to have more meaningful discussions. My Dad and I both enjoy books by Robert Sawyer, a Canadian sci-fi writer whose works have a strongly atheist leaning. I don't agree with his worldview, but his books are interesting and thoughtful, and while reading them, I engage with some of the atheist movement's argument. Sure, I could read Richard Dawkins, but Sawyer's writings are much more enjoyable. I know when I open one that he is writing with an atheist viewpoint, but don't have to fear that because I know in Whom I have believed. In sum, I don't think we need to avoid all books that do not agree with the Christian viewpoint, so long as we are strong in our beliefs and prepared to think through things that counter the tenets of our faith.
Readers, what do you think? Do you read modern secular fiction? What's your favourite novel?
*Meaning the “romance novel” genre, which are normally has its own section within a bookstore and typically involves simple plots and a lot of sexual scenes, rather than merely novels with romantic themes (which could fall into many categories)