Thursday, August 28, 2008

History of the Novel

People used to assume that the novel emerged at the end of the European Renaissance with Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (the first part published in 1605 and the second in 1615). As Margaret Anne Doody (1997) shows, however, in The true story of the novel (see our list of books on the psychology of fiction by clicking here), the novel is much older. Greek novels have survived from 100 BCE. But even this history is parochial. A parallel tradition of prose fiction exists in the East, although because of the fragility of bamboo-based materials for writing on, fewer ancient works have survived there than in the West. One notable example of an early novel, written about 1000 years ago, is Murasaki Shikubu’s The Tale of Genji (translated by Royall Tyler, Penguin, 2001; see also William Puette's, 1983, The tale of Genji: A reader's guide. Rutland, VT: Tuttle).

The tale of Genji is a thoroughly psychological novel, written by a woman who was the daughter of the court scholar in what is now Kyoto, in Japan. The introduction to the English version tells us that her name is a pseudonym: Murasaki is the name she gives to her novel's heroine, and Shikibu is the name of a post once held by her father. She was far more learned in the Chinese classics than was thought proper for women, and she suffered the loss, in turn, of three people to whom she was very close. "I wish I could be more adaptable and live more gaily in the present world," she wrote in her diary, "had I not an extraordinary sorrow." Without benefit of reading either Roman Jakobson or Jacques Lacan, Shikibu has superbly depicted the phenomenon of the metonymic chain: the idea that sexual desire is always a quest, never quite fulfilled, a displacement along a chain of substitutions (metonyms) from the union with one's original object of attachment. Shikubu's story is of Genji's yearning for his lost mother, and his finding principally reminders, images, parts …

Here is the novel's first sentence:
In a certain reign (whose can it have been?) someone of no very great rank, among all His Majesty’s Consorts and Intimates, enjoyed exceptional favor.
This someone is Genji’s mother, Kiritsubo. The novel then opens out into a series of Genji's love affairs. The first is with Fujitsubo, whom Genji's father (The Emperor) has taken as a mistress after Kiritsubo died. Being a Consort of the Emperor, she is, properly speaking unattainable, but Genji does attain her, at least partly. He has affairs with many other women. Most importantly he falls in love with Murasaki, who reminds him of Fujitsubo and, of course, of his mother, Kiritsubo. The tale of Genji, one might say then, is the perfectly metonymic novel. For modern readers, it does go on a bit (1000 pages), perhaps a hint that the metonymic chain can be quite extended; I am afraid I have not reached the end. But it is beautifully written and poignant. It enables one to enter an ancient feudal society utterly different from anything that exists today, dedicated to aesthetics, principally in poetry and music, in which the cardinal virtue was sensitivity to the pathos of life, especially as expressed in the arts. It is also insightful about something that may be a universal of human experience.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Act V

The National Public Radio show This American Life has a fascinating episode (#218: "Act V") that follows a group of inmates in a high-security prison as they prepare to perform the last act of Hamlet. It is a wonderful exploration of the potential for fiction to transform an individual, to illuminate one's own personality and experiences and lead to individual growth. One also cannot help but ponder the potential for human transformation in general, and the competing goals of incarceration: to both rehabilitate and to punish. You can listen to the show for free here (a copy can also be downloaded for 95 cents). The organization responsible for this program can be found here. This American Life can be subscribed to as a podcast, through iTunes.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Research Bulletin: Differences in Empathy

Empathy is feeling with another person. It's important in life, and important in the psychology of fiction because it seems to be a basis for theory of mind and for indentification with fictional characters.

What is its opposite? There are two ideas. The first is that its opposite is interest in things rather than people. The second is that its opposite is contemptuous violence towards others. On both these dimensions, girls and women have, on average, more empathy than boys and men.

Simon Baron-Cohen, Rebecca Knickmeyer and Matthew Belmonte (2005) argue that empathizing is the capacity to predict and to respond to the behavior of people by inferring their mental states and responding to these with an appropriate emotion. Systemizing is the capacity to predict and to respond to inanimate systems by analyzing input-operation-output relations and inferring their rules. On average, females are stronger empathizers and males are stronger systemizers. (The authors further argue that autism is an extreme male pattern.)

These next two studies are about effects of physical abuse in childhood.

Rather shocking individual differences in empathy were found by Mary Main and Carol George (1985). They compared 10 non-abused toddlers at daycare with 10 toddlers who had been physically abused. When non-abused children saw another child in distress, they responded to that child with concern, empathy, or sadness. By contrast, when abused children saw another child in distress, they responded in ways the non-abused children did not: with physical attacks on the distressed child, or with anger, or with fear. The abused children seemed cut off from empathy, and instead felt emotions associated with their own abuse, including emotions of angry retribution.

A study of the effects of abuse was made by Avshalom Caspi et al. (2002) on a cohort of 1037 children, 52% male, assessed every two or three years from age 3 to age 21, and again at age 28, in New Zealand. Arguably, this is one of the most important studies in the whole of psychology of recent times: the researchers found two factors that, in combination, predicted which children would grow up to be violently anti-social. One factor was a gene that produced diminished levels of monoamine oxidase A (which metabolizes a neurotransmiter) and the other was being physically abused in childhood. It was principally those with both factors who became violent. Although those with the gene for low monoamine oxidase who had also suffered maltreatment were only 12% of the boys in the cohort, these boys were responsible for 44% of the whole cohort's convictions for violent crime by age 28. Some 85% of the boys with the low monoamine oxidase gene who were severely maltreated developed some form of antisocial behavior. Only 2% of girls in the sample had convictions for violence. The monoamine oxidase gene is on the X chromosome. Being female, with two X chromosomes, allows effects of a low monoamine oxidase gene on one X chromosome be moderated (in effect cancelled) by a normal monoamine oxidase gene on the other. This confers protection from harmful effects. Males have an X and a Y chromosome. The monoamine oxidase gene on the X chromosome is in a position where, in males, the harmful gene cannot be moderated by a corresponding normal gene because this gene position is missing from the much shorter Y chromosome. Being a male with one unmoderated low monoamine oxidase gene predicts violence, but only if the boy is abused. Those with this gene who were not abused were no different from boys without it.

The genetic difference between males and females, found by Caspi et al. may be a principal reason why, in general, males commit more violent crimes than females. We can speculate that males with the low monoamine oxidase gene who were physically abused in childhood are able to act violently towards others in part because they have far less empathetic concern.

If we consider that identification is important for the enjoyment of fiction, we might expect that those who are low in empathy would not be much interested in reading it. But perhaps fiction might be a way of reaching such people: a way discussed by Jean Trounstine and Robert Waxler (2005, see our list of books by clicking here; see also our post on Changing Lives Through Literature by clicking here).


Baron-Cohen, S., Knickmeyer, R. C., & Belmonte, M. K. (2005). Sex-differences in the brain: Implications for explaining autism. Science, 310, 819-823.

Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T., E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W., et al. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297, 851-854.

Main, M., & George, C. (1985). Response of abused and disadvantaged toddlers to distress in playmates: A study in the daycare setting. Developmental Psychology, 21, 407-412.

Trounstine, J. R., & Waxler, R. (2005). Finding a voice: The practice of changing lives through literature. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Friday, August 15, 2008

New Books on our List

Since we started the list of Books on the Psychology of Fiction (click here to see it), I have been adding five or six books a month. Initally we had 61 books with micro-reviews. Now we are up to 80, plus 25 edited collections of articles for which we have given full citations but no reviews. David Miall's site, which you can reach by clicking here, has a very full bibliography of articles and books on readers' responses to literature.

The two latest additions to our list of books-with-micro-reviews are slim volumes. One is Alan Bennett's (2007) delightful fantasy The uncommon reader, about how Queen Elizabeth II comes, at a late stage in her life, to fall so much in love with reading that this pursuit usurps (if that is the right verb) all her other interests and commitments. The other is How fiction works, by James Wood (2008) an influential critic who has written for The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, etc. His book has been reviewed at length by Rohan Maitzen, whose site you can reach by clicking here.

If you know of, or have written, books to add to our list, please let us know by adding a comment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Research Bulletin: Minds of Their Own

In fiction, readers engage with the characters, and wonder what they are up to. It may even be, as Jennifer Jenkins has proposed, that when we read fiction, theory of mind is a matter of constantly considering in our own minds the range of characters' next possibilities of action, including mental action. In this way, what characters do becomes recognizable, though it can also be satisfyingly surprising.

It turns out that writers have some of the same experience as readers, of finding that their characters do things that seem appropriate, but without the writer having—as it were—to pull the strings. Marjorie Taylor, Sara Hodges & Adèle Kohányi (2002-2003) published a study based on interviews with 50 fiction writers to explore this question. The writers were recruited by advertisements and word of mouth. They ranged from professional writers to people who had not yet published anything. All but four of them reported some experience of characters exhibiting apparently autonomous agency. Writers who had published their work had more frequent and more detailed reports of the phenomenon, which suggests that it is associated with expertise. As compared with the normal population, writers were more likely to have had imaginary companions as children, and they also scored higher on tests of empathy.

Taylor et al.'s conclusion about expertise is also supported by our analyses of 52 Paris Review interviews with very distinguished writers, including 14 Nobel Prize winners (Oatley & Djikic, 2008). We found that 30 of the 33 Paris Review interviewees who were asked a question about whether they made new discoveries in the course of writing said that they did, and these discoveries included characters behaving in ways the writers had not expected.

Taylor et al. cite E. M. Forster's (1927) Aspects of the novel (see our list of books with micro-reviews by clicking here). Forster had this to say:
The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They “run away,” they “get out of hand”: they are creations inside of a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check, they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay (p. 64).
What this means for theory of mind and fiction could be something like this. It is not just that we readers imagine ourselves into the minds of characters as we run the simulation which is the literary story. Writers do something of the same, and the possibilities suggested by the contexts of action take precedence over other forces in how the writer imagines the character. Our theory of mind, in other words, is theory-of-mind-in-certain-compelling-social-situations.

Taylor, M., Hodges, S., & Kohányi, A. (2002-2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, 361-380.

Oatley, K. & Djikic, M. (2008) Writing as thinking. Review of General Psychology, 12, 9-27.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Alice Munro: Away from Her

The short story is a modern genre that emerged only in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, in the writings of Ivan Turgenev and Guy de Maupassant. So says Frank O'Connor (1963) in his brilliant book The lonely voice (see our list of books with micro-reviews by clicking here). I am convinced by his argument. The modern short story is distinct from older short forms such as the yarn or the fable. And it is not defined by being merely short. It is usually about one person, who often is on the edge of society, who undergoes a change of some kind. Perhaps some small event prompts an epiphany. The short story is characterized by a form in which, as O'Connor says, “a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes.”

Prompted by O'Connor's account, I think of the short story as a prose equivalent of a sonnet, in which the first part depicts an issue and the later part brings a transformation, or a new perspective.

Among the great writers of short stories, after Turgenev and Maupassant were, of course, Anton Chekhov who is generally thought of as the greatest of all, O'Connor himself and, more recently, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.

Cynthia Ozick has said of Alice Munro: "She is our Chekhov." It was two years ago when I went to see and hear Munro when she made one of her rare public appearances at a PEN Canada event in Toronto, a fundraiser in a packed hall. I was eight rows back, and I felt privileged to be in the same room with her. She said, then, that she was retiring from writing, but I notice that her stories have continued to appear in the New Yorker.

"The bear came over the mountain" is a story that was published by McClelland and Stewart in Munro's (2001) collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage. The story was renamed and republished in 2007 by Penguin, as the title piece of the same collection of stories, now called Away from her, which is also the title of the film of the story, directed by Sarah Polley. The film, in which appears the ever graceful Julie Christie as Fiona, is excellent, but the short story is even better. It is about a man, Grant, who has been a professor, one of those who had affairs with his students. But a scandal threatened, and Grant took early retirement. As Munro says in her story: “without making the error of a confession—he promised Fiona a new life.” They moved to a house near a lake, in the country. Now, 20 years later, Fiona starts to show signs of Alzheimer's disease. After a period of deteriorating abiliites, she decides she should be in a facility with nursing care. Grant remains in the house in which they lived together, and Fiona moves into the facility. In the first 30 days, a new resident is not allowed visitors, and when Grant does visit he sees that Fiona has become attached to Aubrey, a man in a wheelchair who, as a result of an accident, can scarcely speak and can do little for himself. Fiona, a helpful person, has become devoted to Aubrey. She is polite to Grant, but seems not to recognize him as her husband. Now comes the delicacy of Munro's story. The facility into which Fiona has moved is an enclosed world, with its own customs and its own relationships. Outsiders can only observe. It's a bit like the university: an enclosed world, with its own customs and its own relationships. Grant visits the facility frequently, and with Fiona's absence, he feels more and more attached to her. Fiona was always fond of irony, not easy to pin down: in Grant's epiphany, he starts to wonder whether her intimacy with Aubrey might be an ironical commentary on his previous life at the university. Knowing this in advance will not spoil the story or the film; there is still much more to happen. And what is the place of voluntariness in all this?

As in Chekhov's stories, there is no moralizing, but there is something of the same wry humour about our human condition. The film rates as a four on our five-point scale; you can access a review of it by clicking here. But for me the short story gets five stars.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Research Bulletin: Theory of Mind in Children's Books

As noted in an earlier post, one of the most interesting questions currently facing empirical researchers of the psychology of fiction, is the role that empathy or social comprehension plays during the processing of narrative fiction. One potentially interesting question is whether children's storybooks can aid social development. Two papers have investigated the degree to which storybooks contain information that might relate to a child's ability to understand the minds of others. Kimberly Wright Cassidy and colleagues (1998) found that, in the books read to preschoolers by a group of parents, over 75% contained some language related to internal states, and a third of the books dealt directly with the concept of someone holding a belief that is false (a key component of understanding other minds, which usually develops between the age of 3 and 5 years). Similarly, Jennifer Dyer and colleagues (2000) conducted an in-depth content analysis of 90 books for 3-to-4 and 5-to-6-year-olds, and found that mental-state references were frequent: they occurred once every three sentences or so. This constitutes empirical support for an observation that might have occurred to many, that children's stories are indeed very social in nature. Whether the social content of these stories thus promotes social development in preschoolers is another question, and one that is just now becoming the object of direct empirical study.

Cassidy, K. W., Ball, L. V., Rourke, M. T., Werner, R. S., Feeny, N., Chu, J. Y., Lutz, D. J., & Perkins, A. (1998). Theory of mind concepts in children's literature. Applied Psycholinguistics, 19, 463-470.

Dyer, J. R., Shatz, M., & Wellman, H. M. (2000). Young children's storybooks as a source of mental state information. Cognitive Development, 15, 17-37.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Stories and the Mind

In the current issue of Scientific American Mind (August-September, 2008, pp. 46-51), Jeremy Hsu has an article entitled "The secrets of storytelling," with the subtitle "Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind." In the article, Hsu argues that "the imaginary world of stories may serve as a proving ground for vital social skills." He reviews research by Melanie Green, Daniela O'Neill & Rebecca Shultis, Steven Pinker, Robin Dunbar, Jonathan Gottschall, Patrick Colm Hogan, and Jennifer Edson Escalas, as well as by Raymond Mar & Keith Oatley.
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