"The nonfiction writer has to express the spiritual message in a structure and style that satisfies the demands of artistic integrity while the fiction writer struggles to enfold a nonintrusive message within a believable narrative." 1
Really? Is this what a fiction writer does? Not the best ones, anyway. And maybe that is why, even though I help edit the Buddhist Fiction Blog, I wonder about whether a work of fiction can or should teach Buddhism, Christianity, or any other "ism," however "nonintrusive" the message aims to be.
When I think about really good literature, it taps that in me which understands what it is to be human. It taps the universal love we all share by making us feel that the characters are like us -- even though, if we met them on the street, we might want to walk the other way. But with a good book in hand, we can suspend our needs for safety and status and allow ourselves to empathize: even if we are in a loving relationship, we can know how it is to love in a hopeless way; even if we have never been to war, we can know how a soldier might feel; even if we have never been hungry, we can know how that man who hasn't had a decent meal in a month might be suffering. And we can also know joys we have never experienced.
But the total is more than the sum of its parts. We can know all of this because we tap into the unconditional love we all, at bottom, are. A novelist helps us to understand the message of Christ or the message of Buddha by giving us the experience they point to -- an experience for which religious "messages" are a poor substitute.
1 Philip Yancey, in Introduction to The Best Spiritual Writing 2012, ed. by Philip Zaleski.