Saturday, 10 May 2008

A Space-in-Between

During 2008, the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail, is running a series on the world's fifty greatest books, with brief reviews to make the case for each one chosen. Non-fiction books can be considered great when they have introduced important innovations to society or to the way we think. So Plato's Republic and Darwin's On the origin of species have made it easily onto the list. But what about novels? By May 2008, we are a third of the way through the Globe and Mail's list of books, and a good proportion of them have been novels. One is wary, of course, of selecting novels written by dead white males. I made the case for a book by a dead white female, who used a male pen-name: George Eliot. By general agreement, her greatest book was Middlemarch.

From the point of view of the psychology of fiction, one of the criteria that may distinguish great novels from those that are merely entertaining, is that a great work is not about persuasion. There is no mental coercion of the reader to run only on rails laid by the writer. Of course there is structure, with settings, characters, conversation, and events, but along with these a great novelist offers what D.W. Winnicott, in his book Playing and reality, called a "potential space between the individual and the environment," a space in which the reader's imagination can expand, and in which, as the reader takes up the words of the writer, the experience of the book can become the reader's own. George Eliot's Middlemarch is one of the world's great novels because the author offers the reader exactly this kind of space-in-between.

You can read the case I made for Middlemarch being a great novel by clicking here.

1 comment:

Bill Benzon said...

Some psychoanalytic critics have argued that literature exists in a Winnicottian "potential space": Schwartz, Murray M. "Where is Literature?" College English 36 (1975): 756-65. Norm Holland has drawn on this idea in his explication of Coleridge's famous phrase, the willing suspension of disbelief.

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