A Sense of Life in Fiction
Updated: Jan 24
A friend lends you a book. “It’s fantastic—you’ll love it!” she insists.
So you read, fifty, a hundred pages, maybe all the way to the end. Yeah, it’s a good read. The writing is superb. The plot is gripping, the characters are engaging. And yet, there’s something about it you don’t like. The book doesn’t click with the way you see things. It feels wrong. You can’t articulate it—all you know is that you’re turned off.
You think about the books in your top ten, trying to analyze what makes them your favorites. Some are not as well written as the one your friend lent you. Some have a hokey plot, or are “mushy” or “sentimental.” But you love these books because they have an ineffable quality that shines through, something that makes the book more than the sum of its parts, despite its drawbacks.
That ineffable quality may very well be a “sense of life.”
I didn’t invent the concept “sense of life.” The novelist Ayn Rand did. In fact she wrote an essay about it. Here is how she describes it:
The emotion involved in art is not an emotion in the ordinary meaning of the term. It is experienced more as a “sense” or a “feel,” but it has two characteristics pertaining to emotions: it is automatically immediate and it has an intense, profoundly personal (yet undefined) value-meaning to the individual experiencing it. The value involved is life, and the words naming the emotion are: “This is what life means to me.” Regardless of the nature or content of an artist’s metaphysical views, what an art work expresses, fundamentally, under all of its lesser aspects is: “This is life as I see it.” The essential meaning of a viewer’s or reader’s response, under all of its lesser elements, is: “This is (or is not) life as I see it.”
Another way to put it: A sense of life describes how work of art or a work of fiction resonates with your values about life and the human condition—and, ultimately, how it resonates with your soul.
As Rand pointed out, a sense of life usually manifests itself as a gut reaction, a feeling you have about a book or a work of art that’s powerful and hard to put into words. It’s not surprising that emotions play a key role in this, since emotions are often the first signals that tell you whether some thing “feels right.” (By the way, this applies not just to fiction and fine arts. It is equally true in potentially dangerous situations where people have a “bad feeling” about, say, a stranger’s behavior in a deserted parking lot. For a potentially life-saving discussion of this phenomenon, see Gavin de Becker’s gripping book The Gift of Fear.)
Again, we’re not talking about the aesthetics (that is, whether a book is well-plotted and well-written, or whether a painting is masterfully limned). We’re talking about your intuitive, emotional, maybe even subconscious reaction to it.
When I was in graduate school, it was fashionable to disparage emotions (pathos) as the enemy of logic (logos). Plato compared intemperate emotions (what he called passions) to an unruly, evil horse. One of my professors got me to re-think the proper role of emotions by pointing out that they are bound up with values—that is, with the core beliefs or principles that shape one’s view of life and of the world. Feeling sudden anger when someone criticizes your values is not necessarily a bad or irrational thing—it’s a signal that something you consider important is under attack.
Talking about religion or politics at a dinner party is generally considered bad form precisely because you risk attacking someone’s core beliefs (or having yours attacked) and escalating the situation into an argument. Such conversations get heated not because people are too emotional, but because they are care deeply about the moral values behind their religious and political views. If you insist on romping around in this minefield, despite Miss Manners’s warnings, you may quickly find yourself in a full-blown argument defending your values from the stubborn blockhead sitting across the table while the other guests look on in discomfort. That’s why you should avoid getting into such situations the first place.
Values and fiction are related because values guide the choices writers make when they tell a story, whether the writer is aware of this fact or not.
Here’s how. A blank page contains an infinite number of possibilities. The writer’s task is to manage those possibilities by deciding what stays and what gets left out, much like a sculptor has to decide which chunks of marble will stay and which must be removed. The sum of all the decisions the writer has made in telling the story reflects a writer’s values, and also creates the book’s sense of life.
By deciding what to include in a story and what to exclude, a writer’s sense of life will come through over the course of a few chapters, maybe even just a few pages. The omission of certain details, the playing up of other details, the atmosphere, the choices the main character makes, how the story ends—all these factors (and more) will lead the reader to come away with certain impressions about some aspect of reality or human nature. It doesn’t matter that the book is fiction, or that the world and characters are imaginary. We humans are designed to learn from stories, to imitate them, even. The objective truth-value of a story is irrelevant—we will draw lessons and learn from them no matter how fantastical or mythological they may be.
What does a book's sense of life reveal about an author? Not much. An author whose book has a bad sense of life is not necessarily a bad person. In real life, he may very well be a decent, kind individual. He may believe that he has told his story truthfully, to the best of his ability, and it could have been written no other way. I respect that. Conversely, an author who writes books with a beautiful sense of life may, in real life, fall far short of the noble ideals set forth in his stories.
The same holds true, in general, for readers. Readers who like a book with a bad sense of life are not necessarily bad people. Let me give an example.
One of my close relatives considered Gary Jennings’s The Journeyer to be one of the best books he had ever read. I was repelled by it, and only got a third of the way through. Among other things, Jennings’s depiction of children and sex was revolting. (I stopped well before the disturbing torture scene later in the book. But if you read the reviews on Amazon, you can see how readers were affected by that scene and by the implied pedophilia of the book). My relative who counted The Journeyers among his all-time favorite books was an affable, law-abiding person, but he and I had opposite reactions toward this particular book.
Having said that, there are times when a person’s reaction to a particular work of fiction or to a particular character may give some insight into his or her moral sense. But this only holds true if his or her actions are influenced as a result. If a friend tells you he was inspired by Sam Gamgee’s devotion to Frodo in Return of the King, and that he strives to be as kind and loving toward his friends as Sam was toward Frodo, that speaks well of your friend’s character.
Conversely, imagine that a young man tells you he read Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. He thinks the philandering main character (Yunior) is cool, and he aims to treat the women in his life the way Yunior did. This would not reflect well on the young man’s character, and the women in his life would be well advised to protect themselves from him.
Good and bad are objective. When I talk about a “good” and “bad” sense of life, I mean it in an objective sense. A sense of life is based on values, including moral values. Moral values are objectively good or bad. That means a sense of life can also be analyzed as objectively good or bad, including a mixture of both.
This view—that values and a sense of life are objective—is not one that is shared by most modern literary critics and professors. A lot people subscribe to the Marxist notion that the morality of a person’s actions depends on what tribe the person belongs to. So if a white male is misogynistic, it’s bad. But if someone from an “oppressed” group is misogynistic, then you have to judge them by different standards (according to the Marxists) because the larger “oppressive” culture is ultimately to blame for their actions.
This is nonsense. It's a monstrous inversion of ethics to say that it is fine for a woman of a certain race or class to treat her children cruelly, but not fine for woman of a different race or class to do the same. Cruelty towards children is wrong no matter who does it. Either something is morally wrong for all people or it’s not morally wrong at all.
A sense of life doesn’t necessarily make or break a book. You can love the sense of life of a particular book and still find it boring and unreadable. You can dislike a book’s sense of life and still find it entertaining. Sometimes the aesthetics of a book are so good, you keep turning the pages, regardless of the fact that you don’t share the author’s values.
For example, in many of his stories, Stephen King’s sense of life is often darker and more pessimistic than mine. I often don’t agree with his view of the world. But I enjoy his stories because he’s a good writer, and his tales are compelling and entertaining.
The bottom line is this: You don’t have to articulate what it is about the sense of life of a given book that you like or don’t like—you are free to just enjoy the story all the way to the end, or leave it anytime you wish and never return. But being aware that there is such a thing as a sense of life in a work of fiction gives you another way to understand the often intangible, emotional impact of the stories you read.