Thursday, May 29, 2008

On Suffering in Art

“Love + Suffering = Art”

This is how Robert Gottlieb mocks the Hollywood formula for ever-proliferating movies on artists and their ‘process’ (New York Review of Books, Vol. 24, No.14/Sept. 27, 2007). In his view, it is the 19th century Romantics that are to blame, with their glamorization of public expression of private woes. True, it is hard not to snicker watching fictionalized Shakespeare, Austen, Molière, throw endless sheets of crumpled paper into their over-filling baskets, or pace energetically up and down their undersized lodgings. We snicker partly because all the crumpling and pacing start to look the same, but also because it is a bit naïve and overly clean – it doesn’t show more ubiquitous displays of suffering: unwashed hair, too much cheese cake (alcohol, drugs, sex, whatever), minor cruelties to others (and oneself), and so on. It doesn’t show artists suffering just like everyone else because their suffering appears to be work-related and therefore has a different, more sanctified, aura.

It is hard not to wonder. Of course artists suffer (they are people and all people suffer), but is their suffering somehow intricately bound to their work? Or do the two – suffering and creating – co-exist apart yet in the same person? This is precisely what we have set out to explore in one of our research projects: "The bitter-sweet labor of emoting: Linguistic comparison of writers and physicists" (which you can access in our archive of academic papers by clicking here). In it, we analyze language of award-winning artists as they talk about they work, and compare it to language of a group as intelligent and creative, award-winning physicists. The results do not surprise. There is a reason why a stereotype of a suffering artist, while preposterous if in extreme, is for most of us – believable.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Changing Lives Through Literature

The heartening program Changing Lives Through Literature, which started at the University of Massachusetts, was mentioned by Rohan Maitzen in a comment to our 5 May post. (A link to Rohan's blog can be found in our list of sites of Related Interest.) The program began in 1991 in discussions between a professor of English literature, Robert Waxler, and a judge, Robert Kane. The idea was that offenders could be sentenced to probation rather than jail on condition that they attended a seminar on literature. A book has been published on the project: Trounstine, J. R. & Waxler, R. (2005). Finding a voice: The practice of changing lives through literature. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

The website of Changing Lives Through Literature can be reached by clicking here. This site describes the program, and gives links to articles on it in magazines and newspapers. An evaluation has been published in an academic journal: Jarjoura, G. R., & Krumholz, S. T. (1998). Combining bibliotherapy and positive role modeling as an alternative to incarceration. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 28, 127-139. This study is of 72 young men who were repeat offenders. In a Program Group were 32 of these men who took the Changing Lives Through Literature program (in four eight-person classes, which included the literature seminars, talks from role models, and other rehabilitative input). In a Comparison Group were 40 of these men with comparable criminal records who were also on probation but who did not take the program. During the study period (the duration of which I could not find in the article), 6 of the men in the Program Group (18.75%) committed further offences while 18 in the Comparison Group (45%) did so. Reservations about this study include the effect being without statistical analysis, and ambiguity as to which aspects of the program were responsible for it.

I have conducted computer searches of the research literature, but I have not been able to find further refereed papers on evaluations of the program. Similarly, I not been able to find any subsequent research papers that refer to Jarjoura & Krumholz (1998).

If you know any follow-up articles published in refereed journals, perhaps you could let us know by making a comment to this post.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sebald's New Narrative Genre

One of the real innovators in imaginative literature in the second half of the Twentieth Century was W. G. Sebald. He was born in 1944, in a small town in the German Alps. In his early twenties he emigrated to England, worked at the University of Manchester, and later became a professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia. He died in a car accident in 2001.

Sebald's writing, beautiful in the density of its thought, is deeply concerned with memory both individual and cultural. It is pervaded by the trauma of the Second World War and its profound effects on everyone in Europe not just at the time but subsequently. Sebald's first three books, which I review here, are a new narrative genre: part memory, part history, part fiction, part travelogue with, every few pages, a black and white photograph or diagram, without a caption, often indistinct, but always evocative, which takes part in a counterpoint with the text. Overall the tone of Sebald's writing is melancholy, but he is also wry, ironic, and occasionally extraordinarily funny. Susan Sontag has written: "Is literary greatness still possible? What would a noble literary enterprise look like? One of the few answers still available to English language readers is the work of W. G. Sebald."

You can access my review, from The Literary Review of Canada, of Sebald's The emigrants, Vertigo, and The rings of Saturn, by clicking here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Books on the Psychology of Fiction

There has been a surprising number of books that are either directly on the subject of the psychology of fiction, or that contribute to it. We have made a list of 61 of them, starting with Aristotle's Poetics, which explicitly explores both the literary qualities and the psychology of what Aristotle called poetry, which we might call fiction. Poetry and fiction are derived, respectively, from Greek and Latin words for something made. Most of the examples with which Poetics is illustrated are not from lyric poetry, but from Homer's epics and from plays by Sophocles, Euripides, and others.

Our list is mainly of books by one or two authors. With the reference to each one, we include a micro-review of 50 to 100 words or so. After these books, we also list edited collections of articles or chapters, but because contributions in edited books tend to be various in quality and content, we do not review these collections.

Our list is far from complete, so please make suggestions in the form of comments to this post. Nominations and micro-reviews that fit the subject of the psychology of fiction will be added to the list, with an acknowledgment to you.

You can access our list by clicking here.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Art of Fiction: Simulation

In September 1884, Longman's Magazine published an essay by Henry James called "The art of fiction." In it James said: "A novel is, in its broadest definition, a personal, a direct impression of life." In December of the same year, the magazine published a reply by Robert Louis Stevenson, called "A humble remonstrance." Stevenson said that:
Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art in comparison is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.

In our view, James was wrong and Stevenson was right. Four years after his essay Stevenson was still meditating on the subject and, in another article (in Scribner's Magazine), "A chapter on dreams," he said he had always been a dreamer and, when he became a writer, his stories were a kind of transcription of his dreams. Stevenson thus found himself in company with William Shakespeare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who had, each in his own way, proposed that fiction is a kind of dream: one that is started up by the writer, and carried on by the theatre-goer or reader.

Dream is, indeed, rather a good metaphor for fiction. With a concern to bring the idea up to date a bit, and offer it to cognitive psychologists, I have called fiction a kind of simulation: not a simulation that runs on computers, but one that runs on minds. As a metaphor, simulation is less universal than dream, because fewer people have experience of programming or using simulations. But in some ways this metaphor takes us further. It takes us, for instance, to the point of thinking that just as if one wants to be an aeroplane pilot one can improve one's skills in a flight simulator, if one wants to improve one's skills in the social world one can do so by reading fiction.

In our archive of academic papers we have placed an article called "Why fiction may be twice as true as fact," which explains and explores the idea of simulation. You can access it by clicking here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Theory of Mind at the Movies

One of our psychological findings (see Mar et al., 2006, in our archive of academic papers) is that people who read mainly fiction have better empathy and other social skills than people who read mainly non-fiction. We attribute this to the principle of expertise, which has been much researched in cognitive science. The subject matter of most short stories and novels is selves and their vicissitudes in the social world. In reading fiction, as Lisa Zunshine has pointed out in her (2006) book Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel, we exercise, and enjoy exercising, our theory of mind to understand these selves. People who read fiction are therefore able to practice, and become expert at, skills of understanding selves in the social world. By contrast, those who read about physics, or biology, or history, become more expert in those domains.

We have not investigated whether this increased expertise in the social world would be present in people who watch films that are mainly of the fictional kind, as compared with people whose film watching is mainly of documentaries that concentrate on explanation. What we can say, however, is that there are some fiction films that focus very strongly on the social nature of human existence. Such a one is Gabrielle, directed by Patrice Chéreau, This beautiful and moving film, with Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert in its leading roles, is an adaptation of "The Return," a short story by Joseph Conrad. The centre of the drama is people's theory of mind: how much we know about each other and ourselves, and how much we can know. I give the film a 4 on a five-point scale.

You can access a review of Gabrielle by clicking here.

Saturday, May 10, 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.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

OnFiction Film Reviews

With this post we introduce our series of psychological film reviews. Given our goals of understanding the psychology of fiction, fiction films are clearly of great interest. Film has taken over some of the territory previously occupied by short stories and novels. Print holds, however, a continuing place in the psychology of fiction because of the opportunities it offers for reflection and inference, as well as for the way it allows one to stop, start, and think, as one goes along. In reading a novel or short story, the connection of the text is to what the reader knows and remembers. In film, by contrast, the connection is by means what is seen and heard. Because of their different emphases on memory as compared with perception, print and film can therefore afford different kinds of effect. Nonetheless, some processes in the psychology of fiction can occur with both media.

Since 2005, Keith Oatley has been reviewing films from a psychological perspective for the American Psychological Association's online journal of book and film reviews, PsycCRITIQUES. For films, the genre is a new one: movie reviews with references to the psychological research literature. This journal is not easy of access, and so we archive some of these reviews here.

The first review in our archive is of the excellent and unusual film, The lives of others, which came out in 2006, written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it stars the superb actor, Ulrich Mühe, who plays an officer of the secret police who conducts surveillance on the regime's favourite playwright. Among other things, the film is an exploration of how engagement in art is based on psychological processes that are parallel to, or the same as, those of empathy. On a five-point rating-scale, I give this film 4.5 for its combination of artistic merit and psychological- literary interest. Its only defect is that it is probably too idealistic about the possibilities of humanity in an efficient secret police force run by a determinedly repressive state.

You can access this review in our archive.

Monday, May 5, 2008

OnFiction Construction and Archives

We are in the process of constructing this site, and we envisage doing so between May and September 2008. On it we will post items on the psychology of fiction. We will also archive items of interest on this topic, as well as pointing out, from time to time, new items that can be accessed here. Archived items will include academic papers from our research group, psychological reviews of movies, book reviews, and pieces of fiction.

Currently archived is a paper by Raymond Mar and colleagues which shows that reading fiction, as compared with non fiction, is associated with improved social skills. This is the first empirical finding of which we are aware to show that reading fiction is associated with important social accomplishments. Also in the archive is another paper, by Raymond Mar and colleagues, on differences that are detectable in brain imaging between a movie of real actors and a computer animated movie that was traced from the original movie, which depicts exactly the same patterns and movements. Human perception of social agency seems finely tuned to detect real people and real movements.
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