In adults, the old Puritan attitude leads us to treat fiction as the delivery mechanism for instructional or inspirational messages. Whenever a novel’s merits are described in terms of the “life lessons” that it “teaches,” you can detect that old uneasiness over the “sporting lie” being appeased. In movies and television, literature class discussions almost always consist of students earnestly announcing that what Fitzgerald (or Hemingway or Shakespeare) is really saying is that you should follow your heart (or face your fears or be true to yourself — pick your empty nostrum).
…Ultimately, all of these attitudes — and the standardized tests that Stone and Nichols complain about — boil down to the belief that reading can only be the means to an end, whether that end is moral betterment or worldly success (two classic Puritan preoccupations). For some of us, however, reading is an end in itself, and what fiction has to offer isn’t lessons but an experience, a revelation, a sudden expansion of the spirit. Like any art, it can teach or motivate, but it doesn’t have to, and it’s often better when it doesn’t.
Now, that’s funny, not least of all because I’m sure Miller can’t help but be aware that seemingly every third article on Salon (or Slate, or any other similar webzine) is cut from that cloth. Rarely do I visit those sites without asking the silent rhetorical question at least once during my stay: who the hell are you and why should I care what trite lesson you learned?