Monday, 30 June 2008

Fiction Podcast

I have recently added a link (in our Sites of Related Interest) to the New Yorker's Fiction Podcast, where you can hear talented writers read the work of other talented writers on a semi-regular basis.

Fiction I

From time to time, as a group, we will attempt a little writing assignment, pursuing a short piece of fiction with some parameters. As I am the least talented writer in the group, as well as the least invested in my fiction forays, I am less subject to feelings of embarrassment or shame by public airing of this literary laundry. Thus, below appears a short story I wrote as one of these assignments, which in this case was to write a very short piece in the spirit of Anton Chekhov.

The Glass Eye
by Raymond Mar

Gligorov only had one eye. A childhood accident had taken the other and for years he wore a black felt patch. In his early adulthood, however, he acquired a glass eye that very nearly approximated the remaining one. At a glance, it was difficult to tell that anything in his features was amiss. After a moment, though, one would rapidly notice that his right eye never really moved much—staring as it did, blankly forward—and that its hue was a little lighter, less intense, than the left. Gligorov had mastered identifying the exact moment of realization in a new acquaintance, and would almost always give an exaggerated wink with the offending organ, causing the person to flinch involuntarily. This was typically followed by gross embarassment and a flustered apology from the victim. The talent gave Gligorov great pleasure.

To his friends, having one eye made Gligorov particularly easy to read. When moody and introspective, his left would get very dark and unblinking; when joyful, it sparkled and shone. Plus, it was always easy to see what he was looking at. Today, Gligorov’s eye was darting to and fro, flicking from my face to the mirror behind the bar we sat at, and back. It was clear that something was bothering him. After finishing a rather boring account of one of my patients, I took a sip of my beer and waited for him to speak.

“Do you mind if I tell you a story?” he asked.

“Not at all, please do,” I replied.

“I was at a party two nights ago,” he began.

I nodded.

“A very nice party with many people I had never met before. It was to celebrate the opening of our new opera house. Everyone was decked out in their most resplendent gala clothes. My tuxedo, which doesn’t see very much use these days, came out of the closet, was pressed, and remarkably, still fit me well. After all of the speeches and toasts, people began to wander the halls, admiring the new building. I did the same, sipping my champagne, chatting briefly on occasion with the few people I knew there, as well as a few that I didn’t.”

The corners of his mouth tugged upwards for a moment, in a slight and unconscious gesture. I drank my beer quietly.

“At one point in the night I found myself alone in one of the private boxes, along the East wing of the theatre. The view from there was quite beautiful, and I paused to steal a moment of quiet appreciation. Just as I was about to turn and leave, the velvet curtains behind me rustled and a young woman entered. She was not particularly pretty, I must say. Her eyebrows were dark, and she had a serious look about her. Almost in contrast, her dress was made of a gorgeous golden fabric, with a tight-fitting bodice from which her rather broad shoulders emerged. We smiled at one another, and exchanged pleasantries. Nothing extraordinary. I left the booth and walked back down to the lobby for another glass of champagne. Something, however, nagged at me about the whole exchange, although there was nothing that I could put my finger on directly. There was almost a rudeness about her, although when I played our meeting through in my mind there was no evidence of anything like that. She had been perfectly polite. She had smiled. She had even made a witty comment. Everything went as it usually does when one encounters a young woman at these sorts of events. Then, just as I had secured a fresh flute of champagne, it hit me.” His one eye narrowed and darkened.

“She hadn’t noticed my eye at all. It’s usually the young women who react the most to my particular deformity,” he smirked, “but this woman had been completely oblivious. And for some reason that I can’t explain, the fact really irked me.” He took a mouthful of his beer and swallowed.

“So I carefully sought her out again, slowly roaming the rooms looking for another opportunity to speak with her. One came, eventually, and once again I struck up a conversation with her. I was intent on continuing our dialogue until the point when she noticed my eye.” His right winked almost automatically. “But the moment never came. We must have talked for almost 10 minutes, to the point where the conversation became a little strained, but still there was no reaction from this woman. No indication that she recognized my glass eye at all.” He shook his head slowly. “I left that evening feeling strangely perturbed. And still, two days later, it bothers me.” He finished the last of his beer and turning his head toward the bar, gazed at the mirror and half-filled bottles. I waited, sensing that there was still more to be said.

“The youth today,” he said, turning back to me, “don’t seem to notice anything.” There was a hint of lingering annoyance in his voice.

I nodded agreeably, but felt he had missed the point of his troubling encounter completely.

Friday, 27 June 2008

The Science of Fiction

On the magazine racks today is the 28 June 2008 issue of New Scientist which contains an article by Keith Oatley entitled "The Science of Fiction" (Vol. 198, # 2662, pp. 42-43). It describes our research on how reading fiction is associated with improved social skills, and on how this kind of reading can enable changes in readers' personalities. Also just published is the book edited by Sonia Zyngier, Marisa Bortolussi, Anna Chesnokova, and Jan Auracher (2008) Directions in empirical studies in literature. Amsterdam: Benjamins, in which Raymond Mar, Maja Djikic, and Keith Oatley have a more detailed article entitled "Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood: Theory and empirical studies" (pp. 127-137).

In the Nineteenth Century it was thought that the Classics, including the fiction of Homer and Sophocles, gave a grounding for life. Then, in the Twentieth Century, people sought self-improvement from reading the great novels of the Nineteenth Century. The article in New Scientist and the one in the Zyngier et al. book give accounts of our research (some of which can be accessed by clicking here), which shows that the earlier ideas of benefits from reading fiction were not misplaced.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Narrator, the Character, the Reader

With reading comes the possibility of a meeting of minds with the author, although of course in fiction we don't really meet the author but the author's representative, the narrator.

In The great code (1983) Northrop Frye writes about stages through which literature has passed. The first of these is typified by The Iliad which originally was not read but heard as it was intoned by oral storytellers. In such narratives, says Frye, language is poetic, based on myth (mythos means story or narrative) in which, as he puts it, there is "the feeling that subject and object are linked by a common power or energy" (p. 24). The words are like those of an enchantment. The way I imagine it is that in such narratives listeners would become one with the storyteller, with the story, and with its protagonists. We still experience something of this effect when we listen to a gifted raconteur, or at the theatre we see an actor who has presence, or at the movies we watch an engaging drama, or in a novel we identify strongly with a character.

With the coming of print, and of prose fiction, new possibilities emerged beyond the mythical, not least the possibility of some separation between narrator, character and reader, as Percy Lubbock pointed out in his discussion of Gustave Flaubert in his 1926 book The craft of fiction: in Madame Bovary, we come to see the world as Emma Bovary sees it, but also to regard her from the outside, as the narrator sees her. The result is something we seldom achieve with ourselves. It's like being given two eyes that enable stereoscopic vision and the perception of three dimensions. And, with this separation comes another, of the reader from narrator and character, in which the reader is enabled to form his or her own thoughts in the context of the story, a rather different effect than that of myth.

For the writer, narratives with a first-person point of view seem inviting because they encourage the reader to identify with the narrator-character. But does this mean that in third-person narratives, including those with an explicit narrator, readers will be more distant, less involved? Or can one enable intimacy with the reader and at the same time offer a stereoscopic view?

Two Films: Funny but Serious

We have added two more movie reviews to our archive: of laugh-out-loud comedies made to provoke thoughtfulness on matters that are serious. Little Miss Sunshine is a film about our culture's obsession with winning, and The great new wonderful is about whether the trauma of 9/11 drove people's emotions underground so that they started to burst out in unpredictable ways. Both are quite good films, watchable and worth renting. Both deserve three or three-and-a-half points on a five-point scale. You can access our movie reviews by clicking here.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Problem of Not Writing

When it comes to writers, we take it for granted that the experience of not being able to write, the so-called ‘writer’s block’, has to be agonizing. Yet, many people, not just writers, cannot bring themselves to do things, important things. Unlike writers, they do not clothe their distress in dramatic language (we have not yet heard of ‘lawyer’s block’ or ‘teacher’s block’). They suffer quietly without enshrining their inactivity in drama, and then, they either do their work, or do something else. What would happen if we applied similar standards to writers? If you are a writer and cannot and do not write – would it not be natural to suggest that you do something else, and stop calling yourself a writer. After all, not everyone has to write. So, either writers are gluttons for self-dramatization and suffering, or (perhaps and/or) our intuitive ideas about writers, who they are, what they do, and how, are not entirely correct.

So let us present an unintuitive proposition: A writer is not a person who writes, but a person whose process of self-development depends on writing. The horrors incurred by not being able to write are then not just horrors of not completing a task at hand. It is not about one’s work, it is about self that without the necessary process – writing - cannot evolve with experience. Not writing then is not akin to failure at work, but failure at being oneself. This is why not being able to write can feel like slow death; why a suggestion of giving up writing altogether is chilling. It is as if someone suggests you jump through an ice-hole in a frozen lake, let yourself be trapped under the surface, looking out to the blue sky through a foot of ice, slowly numbed until there is nothing else. Perhaps.

The implied difference between writerly and other professions need not exist. For those whose continued, evolving selfhood genuinely depends on their work (be it teaching, gardening, or lawyering), the process of not doing it would incur as much suffering as writers seem to experience during their ‘blocks’. And to the skeptic’s voice, accusing me of freely granting hard-earned ‘writer’ status to thousands of suffering souls hovering over their computers not writing a single word, I can only respond: “What is it to you?”

Friday, 13 June 2008

Consciousness: The Movie

+Stranger than fiction, written by Zach Helm and directed by Marc Forster, is a film about a character called Harold Crick (played by Will Ferrell) who, as he brushes his teeth one morning, starts to hear a voice-over that describes everything he does. This is the dawning of consciousness. His life is being narrated in story-form; but is he determining the story or is the story determining him? A touching love theme develops, with a young woman (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) who bakes cookies and runs a small café. But Harold starts to worry, and consults a specialist in stories, a professor of literature (played by Dustin Hoffman), who works with him to find out what kind of story he is in. If it's a tragedy, he'd better watch out. Eventually, Harold discovers he really is in a story. He is a character being written about by novelist Karen Eiffel (played by Emma Thompson), and she is indeed wondering how to kill him off.

Helm and Forster seem to have been reading the philosopher Daniel Dennett (for instance his 1991 book Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown & Co) because their film offers Dennett's model of consciousness as post-hoc verbal commentary on action. But fiction is very much about consciousness, and the film also raises the question of what it might enable. Does it enable us to act more voluntarily, or to experience our lives more vividly, or to guide ourselves better in relation to love? We can compare the film's model of consciousness as voice-over with the poetic consciousness of William Shakespeare, the ironic consciousness of Jane Austen, the thoughtful consciousness of George Eliot, or the associative consciousness of Virginia Woolf. Can models of consciousness in fiction affect our experience? What kind of consciousness might we aspire to?

It is hard not to like this film. Its tone is droll, and its characters are appealing. It doesn't, perhaps, go as far as it might, but you can imagine your own implications. On a five-point scale I give it three-and-a-half. That is to say it's a pretty good film. You can access a fuller review by clicking here.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Books on the Psychology of Fiction at the Cinema and the Theatre

Since we introduced our list of books and micro-reviews on the psychology of fiction, we have added several more. In addition Bill Benzon has contributed a review of a book on the cognitive structure of comic-book fiction by Scott McCloud (1993), and Peter Sattler a review of a book on mental imagery in fiction by Elaine Scarry (1999).

It occurred to me that although our interests include the cinema and the theatre, our original list was without books on films, and there was only one on theatre, namely Aristotle's (330 BCE) Poetics. We have now remedied this defect to some extent by adding four books on the psychology of cinema: the influential book on the psychology of fiction films by Peter Bordwell (1985), and books by Murray Smith (1995), Ed Tan (1996), and Michael Ondaatje (2002). We have also added two on the psychology of theatrical acting by Konstantin Stanislavski (1936) and Elly Konijn (2000).

Although a number of people have kindly said that our list of books is helpful, I am aware that there are many gaps. Also, I am not a very fast reader. So, please suggest books and offer micro-reviews that we can add to the list, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Monday, 2 June 2008

The Role of Empathy in Fiction

The role that empathy plays in the comprehension and experience of fiction has been debated at least since Adam Smith’s The theory of moral sentiments was published in 1759. These ideas continue to have currency in such recent books as Suzanne Keen’s (2007) Empathy and the novel and Lisa Zunshine’s (2006) Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. You can find references, and micro-reviews for both these books in our list of books on the psychology of fiction.

We regard identification with a character as the literary application of empathy, and we think that it is one of the most important of the psychological processes that are at work during our engagement with fiction. In 2005-2006, Keith Oatley wrote an article for Greater Good Magazine, on this subject. It is available in our new archive of magazine articles. Also, Raymond Mar has conducted empirical research on this topic, with relevant papers available in our archives or his own website.
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