Monday, June 29, 2009

Art and Politics

Can art be political? Politics are about how society should be arranged and, except under repressively authoritarian regimes, there is always controversy. One set of people is always seeking to get another set to feel, think, and sometimes vote, in one way rather than another. The language of politics is persuasion.

The language of art is quite different. It is in another register. It is not about persuasion, but understanding. It’s about enabling people to feel their own feelings and think their own thoughts in the contexts that the artist suggests. Wayne Booth's (1988) idea is that the best metaphor for narrator, or story character, or even author, is friend. So art offers the kind of friendship that enables one to be oneself, and to enlarge the relationship.

Art can, of course, have political implications. Having thought or felt something for oneself, one can come to make certain political choices. So for instance, some of the great novels of the nineteenth century—Pride and prejudice, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Anna Karenina—were about the place of women in society. Perhaps they enabled people to understand more clearly the issues that would, in the twentieth century, contribute to the political currents of women's rights. In the same way, in the twentieth century, there are political choices about rights for homosexual people and about the issue of abortion. Mike Leigh’s excellent film, Vera Drake, offers a certain context on the abortion question.

Vera (played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton) is a warm and generous woman who lives in a very small council flat (public housing apartment) with her husband, and with her son and daughter who are in their twenties. She works as a cleaning woman and, occasionally, without accepting money, she goes with a rubber syringe and disinfectant to help out young working-class women who have got in trouble. "Got in trouble" is 1950's English for "become pregnant." In Britain in 1950, when the film is set, abortion was illegal.

One of Vera's young women becomes infected. A doctor is called, and then the police. The police arrive at Vera's flat, and she is arrested, kept in custody, taken to court.

The real politics that come into view in this film are those of social class. None of the middle class women whose large houses Vera cleans is willing to appear in court as a character witness for her. The daughter of one of them is pregnant, and she has enough money to pay a psychiatrist to issue her with a certificate that says she should have a medical abortion because to bear a child would endanger her mental health. The film is about what happens when a person, who believes herself to be acting honorably, is devalued and degraded. Already living towards the bottom of the social class scale, she descends further. It is a film about the self-annihilating emotion of shame, under the disapproving eyes of society.

Vera Drake is a film that is thoroughly worthwhile whatever your views are about abortion, because as a piece of art, it does not seek to persuade. It is a totally engaging film, that offers an astonishing range of beautifully acted emotions from the whole cast. It shows us what it can be like to be a certain sort of person—kindly, warmhearted—who has no strings to pull, who is confronted by the unkind, coldhearted, apparatus of the criminal justice system. A longer review has been put in our archive of Film Reviews (for which please click here). The film is easily worth four stars on the five-star scale we use.

Wayne Booth. (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Psychology of Actors

Readers and audience members pick up cues from a piece of fiction and from these they mentally create fictional worlds and their inhabitants, in a kind of inner performance. We usually consider the writer as responsible for offering the cues that the reader or audience member will pick up and use, but in theatre, film, and television, there is not one, but two phases. There is a first phase: a written script. But audiences never see it. What they see is an external performance on stage, in a film, or on television. This is the second and mediating phase, and it is from this that audience members take their cues. In the research of the editors of OnFiction, we have worked from the idea that fiction is simulation of the social world, so that for both writers and readers the psychological processes of creating the fictional worlds are based on empathy, theory of mind, and other kinds of social understanding. In a recent paper, Thalia Goldstein (2009) has proposed that actors—those people who offer the mediating performances—might also be people who have taken a particular interest in empathy, theory of mind, and the goings-on of the social world.

Goldstein is just starting her research on the psychological development and training of actors. In this paper she describes, for instance, a study in press by her and her PhD supervisor, Ellen Winner, in which they interviewed 11 professional actors who had acted on Broadway and 10 patent lawyers about such matters as their involvement of pretend play in childhood, and their attunement to others' emotions. Actors were distinguished from lawyers in recalling higher involvement in fictional worlds and pretend play in their childhood.

In the same way that fiction writers must create fictional worlds, and have an intense interest in them, so must actors. Therefore, says Goldstein:
Reading, understanding, and then creating a part onstage, in a film, or on a TV show requires a deep analysis of the inner life of that character. To portray a character, actors must first have a genuine understanding of that individual's mental and emotional life. In other words, actors must develop a good "theory of mind" so that they can grasp the inner workings of the characters they must portray. Thus it is likely that training in acting leads to advanced levels of theory of mind (p. 7).
This is an exciting and innovative program of research, and we look forward to more results on actors' theory of mind, empathy, and regulation of emotions.

Thalia Goldstein (2009). Psychological perspectives on acting. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 3, 6-9.

Thalia Goldstein & Ellen Winner (in press). Living in alternative and inner worlds: Early signs of acting talent. Creativity Research Journal.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dreams of Other Worlds

I got chased by a zombie in a dream last night. It made me think of how misinterpretation of nightmares might have a lot in common with misinterpretation of fictional worlds. Just like in a nightmare, where a person can often identify himself as one character among hostile others, an author may believe he manifests his voice only through the protagonist, who is, usually, in some trouble, too.

In nightmares, otherness of others is felt strongly since we feel their intent to harm us. How could we not feel our different-ness from pursuers and chasers of various kinds, be it real people in our life, imagined, compounded strangers, or zombies and shadow-monsters. Similarly, when identified with the alter-ego of the protagonist, the writer can see the obstacles put before the character as obstacles inherent in the world. He then moves the protagonist through the problems as if moving her through an obstacle course.

What is hard to imagine is that obstacles put before our protagonists in the novels, and zombies and monsters lurking in shadows of our dreams, are not inherent in our world but in our minds. They are us. That is, only insofar as they create a conflict in our minds do they begin to have reality. So, as we are told by psychoanalysis, all dream characters, yes, all – including zombies – represent a part of ourselves in conflict with other parts of us with which we tend to identify more. So, if obstacles put before a protagonist are obstacles inherent in author’s mind, the other, more villainous characters, are just writer’s sub-personalities too, that spin themselves out in the process of writing.

All this theorizing is nice and well until I have to get back to writing or dreaming. Then, I don’t want to think I am the zombie or the villain. So, I’ll conveniently let it slip my mind, and give my therapist something to do.

Monday, June 22, 2009

A Compelling Empathy

One of the most fascinating aspects of fiction film is that it enables us not just to see how empathy can happen in a drama, but to experience how it can work strongly in ourselves. Four months, three weeks, and two days shows us the workings of empathy both in its plot and in our experience as we watch the film. Set in Romania, the film was written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, who based it on a real story he heard which, he said, affected him for more than fifteen years. The plot revolves round a student, Gabita (played by Laura Vasiliu), who is pregnant. She wants to obtain an abortion at a time when abortions are illegal because the government wants to increase Romania’s birthrate. Gabita is not well organized. She has left it almost too late—four months, three weeks, and two days—and the film is about how her college room-mate, Otilia (played by Anamaria Marinca) both empathizes and sympathizes with her, and then loyally helps her.

I am afraid this film is not cheerful, but it is deeply psychological. And because we come to feel strongly for the two young women, it is gripping—far more so than the conventional thriller in which people rush about after each other brandishing weapons.

A very basic plot process in fiction is first to enable the reader or audience member to get to know and like the protagonist. Then, according to Zillmann (1994), we mentally take on the plans of the protagonist, feel pleased when they succeed, and displeased when they are impeded. A demonstration of this was made by the distinguished discourse analyst, the late Tom Trabasso, and by Jennifer Chung, who was I think a film student at the time (2004). Their study is the best experiment I know on empathy in fiction. They had 20 viewers watch two well-known films, Vertigo and Blade Runner. All the viewers rated their liking for the films’ protagonists and antagonists. Each film was stopped at 12 points during viewing and ten of the viewers were asked, at each point, to rate how well things were going for the protagonist and how well for the antagonist. Their ratings agreed with the analyses of the researchers. The other ten viewers were asked to identify their own emotions as they watched. At points where the ten viewers who rated the action thought things were going well for the protagonist, the viewers who were asked to identify their emotions felt positive emotions such as happiness and relief. At points where things were going badly for the protagonist, the viewers who were to identify their emotions felt anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, and the like. In contrast, when the antagonist was succeeding, those who identified their own emotions felt negatively, and when the antagonist was failing they felt positively.

The process is rather basic. It can apply as well to watching a football match as to watching a film. But what great writers and film makers can do is to enable readers or audiences, as they find themselves following a trajectory of empathy, to understand better their own emotions, and indeed those of the people with whom they are empathizing. At times in Four months, three weeks, and two days, when not much is being said, the sense depicted by Anamaria Marinca who plays Otilia is so compelling that we audience members almost seem to hear her thoughts being spoken aloud in our own minds. The sense of empathy and theory-of-mind for a protagonist is, I think, more beautifully and strongly accomplished in this film than in any other I know. It's a very fine film, and I have placed a longer review of it in our archive of Film Reviews (for which please click here). The film gets a strong four on a five-point scale.

Tom Trabasso & Jennifer Chung (2004). Empathy: Tracking characters and monitoring their concerns in film. Paper presented at the Winter Text Conference, January 23, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Dolf Zillmann (1994). Mechanisms of emotional involvement with drama. Poetics, 23, 33–51.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Indirectness of Art

Can art affect selfhood? Today, we are putting our study of the effects of reading a piece of literary art, a short story by Anton Chekhov, into our archive of academic papers (for which please click here). The study is by Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman and Jordan Peterson (2009).

Some kinds of communication prompt people in a specific direction. So, for instance, there is well formulated research on persuasion, in which social psychologists have shown how it is possible to act upon people by words and images to cause their beliefs and actions to change on average in a particular direction. Closely related are the psychologies of advertising and propaganda. But art—I'll offer a criterion—does not propel people to believe or act in a particular way. Søren Kierkegaard (1846/1968) put it like this:
The indirect mode of communication makes communication an art in quite a different sense than when it is conceived in the usual manner ... To stop a man on the street and stand still while talking to him, is not so difficult as to say something to a passer-by in passing, without standing still and without delaying the other, without attempting to persuade him to go the same way, but giving him instead an impulse to go precisely his own way (pp. 246-247).
What are we to say about this psychologically? In our study we asked people to read what is generally regarded as one of the world's great short stories, "The lady with the little dog," by the person generally regarded as the greatest of all short-story writers, Chekhov. The principal problem in all such studies is how to choose a control group? When, in our research group, we previously made comparisons between psychological effects of narrative prose and those of expository prose, we found a huge confound that affected our work, and had also affected many of the comparisons in the research literature. It is that narrative prose is generally easier to read than expository prose, as indicated by the usual measures such as the Flesch measure of Reading Ease that can be run in Microsoft Word's Spelling and Grammar function, to be found in the Tools menu. (The Flesch measure is performed only after the spelling and grammar checker reaches the end of the piece on which it is being run.)

Using this measure, Allan Eng (2002) studied 48 subjects who each read a 619-word passage of either narrative or expository prose, that was carefully arranged to have the same semantic content and level of reading difficulty. Subjects marked the margin whenever a memory occurred. After reading they wrote summaries of these memories. Memories of those who read the narrative, as compared with the expository piece, were significantly more vivid (p<0.05), and more likely (p<0.01) to involve the reader as actor or observer in a detailed scene rather than being reported or semantic memories.

Chekhov's story, "The lady with the little dog," is about two people who have an affair at a seaside resort. So, when we came to construct a control group for this story, Maja Djikic had the brilliant idea of writing a non-fiction-style courtroom report of a divorce case. We were careful to ensure it had all the same information as Chekhov's story, that it even had some of the same conversations, that it was the same length, and that was the same reading difficulty. It is a mark of Maja's skill that when we tested the control courtroom account, readers judged it to be just as interesting as Chekhov's story, though not as artistic. People were randomly assigned to read Chekhov's story or the control piece. We measured their personality traits and their emotions before and after reading, and we found that those who read Chekhov's story changed more in their personality traits and emotions than those who read the non-fiction-style control version. The changes, moreover, were mediated by the emotions that readers experienced while reading. The changes of personality that we found were small, and they were all in different directions. So we think we can say that they were in each individual's own direction.

Our view is that as one reads a piece of literary fiction—as one runs the simulation in one's mind—one is affected by it. Some people who read Chekhov's story will identify with the story's characters. Others will disapprove of them. At certain moments in Chekhov's story, personal memories will be prompted, so that perhaps readers think of themselves in different ways. People who read a lot of fiction may be able to use their fictional reading, in small ways, to imagine their selfhood into circumstances other than the usual, and thereby to extend their sense of themselves: in their own way.

Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman & Jordan Peterson, J. (2009). On being moved by art: How reading fiction transforms the self. Creativity Research Journal, 21, 24-29.

Allan Eng (2002). Learning and processing non-fiction narrative and expository text. PhD Thesis, University of Toronto.

Søren Kierkegaard, S. (1846). Concluding unscientific postscript (D. F. Swenson & W. Lowrie, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press (This publication 1968).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Books on the Psychology of Fiction

We hope our list of books on, or relevant to, the psychology of fiction has been useful. To reach this list with its micro-reviews, please click here. I update it from time to time, and it has passed the mark of a hundred titles of monographs. In addition there are a couple of dozen edited books, without reviews, that contain collections of contributed chapters. This list is far from complete, so if you would like to suggest a book, please do so by adding the title and a micro-review as a comment to this post. We will review nominations. If a book you suggest belongs here, we will insert it in our list, with your micro-review and an acknowledgement to you. We are happy to receive a nomination of a book you have written yourself, but in such a case we would like to read it and write the micro-review. We would also be pleased to hear of, and correct, mistakes you discover.

Our list of books and micro-reviews is in chronological order to give the sense of how work on the psychology of fiction has developed over time, and to show how influences can have occurred. In this post, today, I give an alphabetically ordered list of just the authors, dates, titles, and publishers. This will enable you to see who is here and who has been missed but should be included. It will also enable you to use the search function of the blog, at the top-left-corner of this page, to find authors and titles.

As I prepared this alphabetical list, the following came to mind. Aristotle's Poetics has been the most influential book on fiction in the West, although it is not the oldest. (The first substantial discussion of art, including fiction, occurs in Plato's The republic). Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, written in Istanbul during World War II after Auerbach lost his job under Nazi rule in Germany, remains the most distinguished of the modern era. The most wide ranging book in our list is perhaps The mind and its stories, by Patrick Colm Hogan who, in order to write it, read stories from all round the world. The most salutary to Western-centric thinking are the thousand-year-old books on Indian poetics by Anandavardana and Abhinavagupta (in Ingalls et al., 1990). The most surprisingly original is a tie, I think, between Frederic Bartlett's Remembering, and Elaine Scarry's Dreaming by the book. Academically the most bold, perhaps, is Martha Nussbaum's The fragility of goodness, in which she proposes that instead of spending lifetimes reading philosophy, philosophers would have done better to read fictional literature. The book that gets a prize for being both highly influential and illogical is Practical criticism, by I.A. Richards who described his psychological experiment of finding how a group of people understood 13 poems, and then, instead of thinking how interesting were the differences in people's readings, became the founder of a movement to tell people how to make the correct interpretations. The wrongest in the set is, I think, Kendall Walton's (1990) book with its proposal that the emotions we experience in fiction are not real emotions, but are merely make-believe. The wittiest, perhaps, is Pierre Bayard's How to talk about books you haven't read. But the book that is most likely to have you chuckling aloud is Alan Bennett's The uncommon reader, about how, as a result of falling in love with reading novels, Queen Elizabeth II starts to neglect her duties as head of state.

Monographs
M. H. Abrams (1953). The mirror and the lamp: Romantic theory and the critical tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Anandavardana & Abhinavagupta (circa 1000) in D. H. H. Ingalls, J. M. Masson & M. V. Patwardhan (1990). The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Karen Armstrong (2005). A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Canongate, reissued by Vintage Canada.

Aristotle (circa 330 BCE) Poetics (G. E. Else, Trans.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press (This edition, 1970).

Erich Auerbach (1953). Mimesis: The representation of reality in Western literature (W. R. Trask, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1963). Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics. (trans. C. Emerson). Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press ( Current edition 1984).

Mieke Bal (1985). Narratology: Introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Frederic Bartlett (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roland Barthes (1974). S/Z: An essay. (trans. R. Miller). New York: Hill & Wang.

Pierre Bayard (2007). How to talk about books you haven't read (J. Mehlman, Trans.). London: Bloomsbury.

Alan Bennett (2007). The uncommon reader. London: Faber.

Wayne Booth (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

David Bordwell (1985). Narration in the fiction film. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Marisa Bortolussi & Peter Dixon (2003). Psychonarratology: foundations for the empirical study of literary response. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Brian Boyd (2009). On the origin of stories: Evolution, cognition, and fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jerome Bruner (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nöel Carroll (1990). The philosophy of horror or Paradoxes of the heart. New York: Routledge.

R. G. Collingwood (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mary Thomas Crane (2001). Shakespeare's brain: Reading with cognitive theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Margaret Anne Doody (1997). The true story of the novel. London: HarperCollins.

Ellen Dissanayake (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where art come from and why. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Robin Dunbar (2004). The human story: A new history of mankind's evolution. London: Faber.

Judy Dunn (2004). Children's friendships: The beginnings of intimacy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Denis Dutton (2009). The art instinct: Beauty, pleasure, and human evolution. New York: Bloomsbury.

Catherine Emmott (1997). Narrative comprehension: A discourse perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

E. M. Forster (1927). Aspects of the novel. London: Arnold.

Richard Gerrig (1993). Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Raymond Gibbs (1994). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Alvin Goldman (2006). Simulating minds: The philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frank Hakemulder (2000). The moral laboratory: Experiments examining the effects of reading literature on social perception and moral self-concept. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Stephen Halliwell (2002). The aesthetics of mimesis: Ancient texts and modern problems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Paul Harris (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jerry Hobbs (1990). Literature and cognition. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). Cognitive science, literature, and the arts: A guide for humanists. New York: Routledge.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Norman Holland (1968). The dynamics of literary response. New York: Columbia University Press.

Daniel Hutto (2008). Folk psychological narratives: The sociocultural basis of understanding reasons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lewis Hyde (1983). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage.

Wolfgang Iser (1974). The implied reader: Patterns of communication in prose fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Roman Jakobson & Morris Halle (1956). Fundamentals of language. 'S-Gravenhage: Mouton.

Samuel Johnson (1779-1781). Lives of the poets. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Current edition, 2006).

Suzanne Keen (2007). Empathy and the novel. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ronald Kellogg (1994). The psychology of writing. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frank Kermode (1966). The sense of an ending: Studies in the theory of fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elly Konijn (2000). Acting emotions: shaping emotions on stage. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Milan Kundera (1988). The art of the novel. New York: HarperCollins.

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Peter Lamarque (2009). The philosophy of literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Jonah Lehrer (2008). Proust was a neuroscientist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

János László (1999). Cognition and representation in literature: The psychology of literary narratives. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.

David Lodge (1977). The modes of modern writing: Metaphor, metonymy, and the typology of modern fiction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

David Lodge (2002). Consciousness and the novel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Longinus (circa 50 BCE). On the sublime. In Classical literary criticism (Ed & trans. T. S. Dorsch). (pp. 99-158). Harmondsworth: Penguin (This edition, 1965)

Percy Lubbock (1926). The craft of fiction. London: Cape.

Colin Martindale (1975). Romantic progression: The psychology of literary history. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.

Keith May (1977). Out of the maelstrom: Psychology and the novel in the Twentieth Century. London: Elek.

Scott McCloud (1993). Understanding comics. New York: HarperPerennial.

David Miall (2006). Literary reading: Empirical and theoretical studies. New York: Peter Lang.

Steven Mithen (1996). The prehistory of the mind: The cognitive origins of art and science. London: Thames & Hudson.

John Mullan (2006). How novels work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Victor Nell (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press.

Martha Nussbaum (1986). The fragility of goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martha Nussbaum (1995). Poetic justice: The literary imagination and public life. Boston: Beacon.

Keith Oatley (1992). Best laid schemes: The psychology of emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frank O'Connor (1963). The lonely voice: A study of the short story. New York: World Publishing Co (reprinted 2004, Melville House).

Michael Ondaatje (2002). The conversations: Walter Murch and the art of editing film. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

Keith Opdahl (2002). Emotion as meaning: The literary case for how we imagine. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.

Alan Palmer (2004). Fictional minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Willie van Peer (1986). Sylistics and psychology: Investigations of foregrounding. London: Croom Helm.

Willie van Peer, Frank Hakemulder & Sonia Zyngier (2007). Muses and measures: Empirical research methods for the humanities. Newcastle-on-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Jordan Peterson (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. London: Routledge.

Plato. (375 BCE). The republic. (Translated by D. Lee). Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin (current edition 1955).

Matthew Potolsky (2006). Mimesis. New York: Routledge.

I. A. Richards (1929). Practical criticism: A study of literary judgment. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Paul Ricoeur (1985). Time and narrative (K. McLaughlin & D. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Louise Rosenblatt (1938). Literature as exploration. New York: Noble & Noble.

Mark Sadoski & Allan Paivio (2001). Imagery and text: A dual coding theory of reading and writing. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Elaine Scarry (1999). Dreaming by the book. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Roger Schank & Robert Abelson (1977). Scripts, plans, goals and understanding: An inquiry into human knowledge structures. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Thomas Scheff (1979). Catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leonard Shlain (1998). The alphabet versus the goddess: The conflict between word and image. New York: Viking Penguin.

Elaine Showalter. (2003). Teaching Literature. Oxford: Blackwell.

Murray Smith (1995). Engaging characters: Fiction, emotion, and the cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bruno Snell (1953). The discovery of the mind in Greek philosophy and literature. New York: Dover (modern edition 1982).

Konstantin Stanislavski (1936). An actor prepares. New York: Theater Arts.

Sol Stein (1995). Stein on writing. New York: St Martins.

Brian Stock (2007). Ethics through literature: Ascetic and aesthetic reading in Western culture. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.

Peter Stockwell (2002). Cognitive poetics: An introduction. New York: Routledge.

Ed Tan (1996). Emotion and the structure of narrative film: Film as an emotion machine. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Leo Tolstoy (1898). What is art? In A. Maude (Ed.), Tolstoy on art (pp. 117-357). Oxford: Oxford University Press (This edition, 1925).

Jean Trounstine & Robert Waxler (2005). Finding a voice: The practice of changing lives through literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Reuven Tsur (1992). Towards a theory of cognitive poetics. Amsterdam: North Holland.

Mark Turner (1996). The literary mind: The origins of thought and language. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scott Turner (1994). The creative process: A computer model of storytelling and creativity. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Kendall Walton (1990). Mimesis as make-believe: On the foundations of the representational arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ian Watt (1957). The rise of the novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. London: Chatto & Windus.

Peter Widdowson (1999). Literature. New York: Routledge.

Maryanne Wolf (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: HarperCollins.

James Wood (2008). How fiction works. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Virginia Woolf (1929). A room of one's own. London: Hogarth Press.

William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798). Lyrical Ballads. London: Longman & Rees.

Lisa Zunshine (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.

Rolf Zwaan (1993). Aspects of literary comprehension: A cognitive approach. Amsterdam: Benjamins.


Edited collections on, or relevant to, the psychology of fiction
Jennings Bryant & Peter Vorderer (Eds.). (2006). Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Nöel Carroll & Jinhee Choi (Eds.). (2006). Philosophy of film and motion pictures: An anthology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gerald Cupchik & János László (Eds.). (1992). Emerging visions of the aesthetic process: Psychology, semiology and philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Gary Fireman, Ted McVay & Owen Flanagan (Eds.). (2003). Narrative and consciousness: Literature, psychology, and the brain. New York: Oxford University Press.

Joanna Gavins & Gerard Steen (Eds.) (2003). Cognitive poetics in practice. New York: Routledge.

Susan Goldman, Arthur Graesser & Paul van den Broek (Eds.). (1999). Narrative comprehension, causality, and coherence: Essays in honor of Tom Trabasso. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Jonathan Gottschall & David Sloan Wilson (Eds.). (2005). The literary animal. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Melanie Green, Jeffrey Strange & Timothy Brock (Eds.). (2002). Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

David Herman (Ed.) (2003). Narrative theory and the cognitive sciences. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

David Herman (Ed.). (2007). The Cambridge companion to narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mette Hjort & Sue Laver (Eds.). (1997). Emotion and the arts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scott Kaufman & James Kaufman (Eds.). (2009). The psychology of creative writing. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roger Kreuz & Mary Sue MacNealy (Eds.). (1996). Empirical approaches to literature and aesthetics. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Colin Martindale (Ed.). (1988). Psychological approaches to the study of literary narratives. Hamburg: Buske.

Colin Martindale, Paul Locher & Vladimir Petrov (Eds.). (2007). Evolutionary and neurocognitive approaches in aesthetics, creativity, and the arts. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

Bruce McConachie & Elizabeth Hart (Eds.). (2006). Performance and cognition: Theater studies and the cognitive turn. New York: Routledge.

David Olson & Nancy Torrance (Eds.). (2009). The Cambridge handbook of literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Herre van Oostendorp & Susan Goldman (Eds.). (1999). The construction of mental representations during reading. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Andrew Ortony (Ed.). (1979). Metaphor and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (A second edition, of 1993, contains additional contributions.)

Willie van Peer & Seymour Chatman (Eds.). (2001). New perspectives on narrative perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Willie van Peer (Ed.). (2008). The quality of literature: Linguistic studies in literary evaluation. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Alan Richardson & Ellen Spolsky (Eds.). (2004). The work of fiction: Cognition, culture, and complexity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Dick Schram & Gerard Steen (Eds.). (2001). The psychology and sociology of literature: In honor of Erlund Ibsch. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Elena Semino & Jonathan Culpeper (Eds.). (2002). Cognitive stylistics: Language and cognition in text analysis. Linguistic approaches to literature. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Jane Tomkins (Ed.). (1980). Reader-response criticism: From formalism to post-structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek & Irene Sywenky (Eds.). (1997). The systemic and empirical approach to literature and culture as theory and application. Siegen: LUMIS Publications.

Dolf Zillmann & Peter Vorderer (Eds.). (2000). Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sonia Zyngier, Marisa Bortolussi, Anna Chesnokova & Jan Auracher (Eds.). (2008). Directions in empirical studies in literature: In honor of Willie van Peer. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Literature for Life II

Previously we’ve written about the charity Literature for Life, which employs reading and writing initiatives to improve the lives of young mothers from disadvantaged backgrounds in Toronto. One of their members, Amiga Taylor, has recently been featured on our own national radio (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation; CBC), producing radio segments about her life.

Amiga’s association with Literature for Life began as a writer for one of their magazines, Solace, dedicated to an open discussion of violence and victimization within families with young mothers as contributors. She began volunteering for the organization after her 11 year-old brother, Ephraim Brown, was killed by a gang-member’s stray bullet. She is now the project manager and Editor-in-Chief of Yo’ Mama magazine, another publication by Literature for Life written by and for young (often teen) parents, and has also run poetry workshops for the organization. Ms. Taylor is now in Ryerson University’s Television and Broadcast Arts program, and worked as an associate producer on two pieces for the program OutFront on CBC Radio.

The first, entitled Nostalgia, is a discussion with her mother about being kicked out of the house onto the streets, where she later found herself pregnant and homeless at 17 years of age. The second, entitled Blue Sapphire, describes her attempt to deal with the violent loss of her young brother. You can listen to both pieces by clicking on the links, and can contribute to Literature for Life by clicking here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Exploring the Character of Place

Before I set out to make my first Midwest-West transect (across Iowa, Nebraska, and Colorado - and then back across Wyoming and South Dakota), I'd like to conclude my series of reflections on psychogeography -- just in time to prime some serious exploring of a dramatically new landscape. (As I write, I'm downloading appropriate listening materials: place-based fiction by Willa Cather and Edith Wharton and geographic texts on the West.)

Particularly as I prepare to spend so much time traversing space that is new to me, it seems apropos to return to a theme raised by Keith Oatley's question in reponse to my May 13 post about the affordances of places. Keith asked about Jay Appleton, who proposed that places are aesthetically appealing when they display such features as refuge and prospect. Although difficult to prove (and efforts to make evolutionary arguments about why we like prospects and refuges often head into dangerous and irritating waters), this idea is reflected in a myriad of ways in our culture, particularly in the composition of landscapes we preserve or designate as special. Semi-open landscapes, where we can look out from the refuge of forests or canyons onto the prospect of swales or meadows - or, better yet, water - far outnumber protected plains or grasslands where the prospect may be grand, but where there is no refuge from which to view it or with which to give variety or texture to the experience of the place.

I am skeptical of the evolutionary arguments. Although I may be better able to speak to this idea after my trip across the corn belt, I harbor suspicions that familiarity is a considerably more significant driver of landscape preferences than acknowledged -- and I also suspect that this familiarity is greatly enhanced and expanded by our literary experience. Particular landscapes are celebrated and valorized, and the high amenity landscape retreats represented by artists and writers eventually become the vacation spots and retirement destinations of much larger constituencies -- as seen in the American Southwest or in the ranchlands of the intermountain West, for example, landscapes which are perhaps also notable for their cultivation of more appreciation of open spaces.

As I consult Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow (and search for analogues for the Corn Belt and western midwest landscapes), I realize how underexposed to the poetics of open spaces I have been as an eastern urbanite. Realizing this, I am then faced with a dilemma that faces all literate travellers and explorers of space, torn between the desire to read about others' experiences and the desire to first read the landscape itself and to plumb my own experience of it, and then allow this to resonate with the experience of others. (Given the length of the trip, I'm sure I can accommodate both approaches; thinking of the increasingly ubiquitous recorded guides to museums and landscapes, I wonder how long will I last before I must have someone tell me about my experience?)

This desire to bring social experience to bear on the experience of space is central to the inquiry of psychogeography, as is considering explicitly this desire itself, and the way it shapes our experience of space and place. In my first post of this series, on April 15, I described Kristen Ross's well known interview with the prolific French intellectual Henri Lefebvre about the Situationist International -- the movement with which psychogeography is most associated. In the passage of the interview that I reproduce below, two features stand out for me as relevant to our inquiry in Lefebvre recounting of the social context of the development of the situationists' psychogeographic methods.

First: in the context of a group that was trying to pull the rug of familiar setting and space out from under the construct of bourgeois society to shake things up a little, to get people to notice, to pay attention, and to rethink, the unsettling they experience because of the displacement of their exploratory walking from the urban to the rural is striking. This points to the way that environments support us, and to the way that this support is accessible to us only to the degree that it may be read or interpreted.

Second: the methods they describe in effect highlight the experience of space -- like Virginia Woolf's writing, they wrest the unconscious bundling of association and meaning making into conscious attention. As I've noted before, these methods strike me as very similar to the way that authors describe their construction of character, and I suspect that they open doors for us to better understand the way that we imbue and extract meaning in our spatial surrounds.
H.L.: We worked together day and night at Navarrenx, we went to sleep at nine in the morning (that was how they lived, going to sleep in the morning and sleeping all day). We ate nothing. It was appalling. I suffered throughout the week, not eating, just drinking. We must have drunk a hundred bottles. In a few days. . . . and we were working while drinking. The text was almost a doctrinal resume of everything we were thinking, about situations, about transformations of life; it wasn't very long, just a few pages, handwritten. They took it away and typed it up, and afterwards thought they had a right to the ideas. These were ideas we tossed around on a little country walk I took them on. With a nice touch of perversity, I took them down a path that led nowhere, that got lost in the woods, fields, and so on. Michele Bernstein had a complete nervous breakdown, she didn't enjoy it at all. It's true, it wasn't urban, it was very deep in the country.

K.R.: A rural dérive. Let's talk a about the dérive in general. Do you think it brought anything new to spatial theory or to urban theory? In the way that it emphasized experimental games and practices, do you think it was more productive than a purely theoretical approach to the city?

H.L.: Yes. As I perceived it, the dérive was more of a practice than a theory. It revealed the growing fragmentation of the city. In the course of its history, the city was once a powerful organic unity; for some time, however, that unity was becoming undone, was fragmenting, and [the situationists] were recording examples of what we had all been talking about, like the place where the new Bastille Opera is going to be built. The Place de la Bastille is the end of historic Paris -- beyond that it's the Paris of the first industrialization of the nineteenth century. The Place des Vosges is still aristocratic Paris of the seventeenth century. When you get to the Bastille, another Paris begins, which is of the nineteenth century, but it's Paris of the bourgeoisie, of commercial, industrial expansion, at the same time that the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie takes hold of the Marais, the center of Paris -- it spreads out beyond the Bastille, the rue de la Roquette, the rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, etc. So already the city is becoming fragmented. We had a vision of a city that was more and more fragmented without its organic unity being completely shattered. Afterward, of course, the peripheries and the suburbs highlighted the problem. But back then it wasn't yet obvious, and we thought that the practice of the derive revealed the idea of the fragmented city. But it was mostly done in Amsterdam. The experiment consisted of rendering different aspects or fragments of the city simultaneous, fragments that can only be seen successively, in the same way that there exist people who have never seen certain parts of the city.

K.R.: While the dérive took the form of a narrative.

H.L.: That's it; one goes along in any direction and recounts what one sees.

K.R.: But the recounting can't be done simultaneously.

H.L.: Yes, it can, if you have a walkie-talkie. The goal was to attain a certain simultaneity. That was the goal; it didn't always work.

K.R.: So, a kind of synchronic history.

H.L.: Yes, that's it, a synchronic history. That was the meaning of Unitary Urbanism: unify what has a certain unity, but a lost unity, a disappearing unity.
As I explore the corn and ranching landscape of the west Midwest, I will be fascinated to see what this exploration of the appearance of disappearing unity of North American experience of landscape reveals in the way of the character of place.

Willa Cather. 1927. Death Comes for the Archbishop. New York: Knopf.

Kristin Ross and Henri LeFebvre. 1997. Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International; Interview conducted and translated 1983 by Kristin Ross. October 79, Winter.

Wallace Stegner. 1955. Wolf Willow. New York: Viking.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Great Tradition

Having started to look through approaches to teaching fiction, I can't avoid F. R. Leavis, who edited the journal Scrutiny, and became a formidable influence on literature in mid-20th-century Britain. A close friend of mine was an undergraduate in Leavis's group, at Downing College, Cambridge. I would sometimes go to Leavis's lectures, and occasionally I would join the group in the evenings, and listen to the discussions. Leavis wasn't an especially good lecturer, but he encouraged an atmosphere among his students of engaged excitement and moral seriousness. I was a medical student at the time, taking courses that were largely without intellectual content. The atmosphere that Leavis created was closer to what I felt I'd come to university for. The sense I acquired, already germinating in my schooldays and encouraged by my propinquity with the Downing group, was that nothing else is quite as important as literature. It's like being infected with a chronic disease which, although it comes and goes, is difficult entirely to shake off. My additional, and secret, thought—an indication no doubt that the infection had spread dangerously—was that the only really worthwhile thing to do in life is to write a novel.

Leavisite education stressed evaluation. Charles Winder (2005) kept notes on Leavis's undergraduate seminars between 1957 and 1961. He reports, for instance, on Leavis's discussion of T.S. Eliot's proposal that after the Metaphysical poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell, there was a dissociation of sensibility: the intellectual became disconnected from the emotional. I remember this issue being talked about in the group. Winder's notes capture Leavis's evaluation of John Donne's originality, his statement that Donne was concerned with the individual in relation to other individuals, and his disapproving judgement that Donne's work was "without social context." Next, Winder's notes say, Leavis announced that "a comparison can be made with Marvell [who was influenced by Donne, but] who was, however, not a great poet" (p. 73). Students were expected to become knowledgeable about movements of theme and style over four hundred years of English poetry, drama, and prose fiction, to know who influenced whom, to be able to evaluate who was significant and who was of no account. Like the New Critics such as Cleanth Brook and Robert Penn Warren (see my post of 25 May) based in the South of the USA, who offered a kind of intellectual refuge from the onslaughts of the modern world (which seemed to be coming from somewhere to the north of them), Leavis set his face against the vulgarization of society, with its headlines and comics.

Leavis's most influential book was on the novel: The great tradition. It starts like this:
The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad—to stop for a moment at that comparatively safe point in history ... it is as well to start by distinguishing the few really great—the major novelists who count in the same way as the major poets, in the sense that they not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but that they are significant in terms of that human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life (pp. 9-10).
This last word, "life" is significant. Thus, said Leavis:
As a matter of fact, when we examine the formal perfection of [Jane Austen's] Emma, we find that it can be appreciated only in terms of the moral preoccupations that characterize the novelist's peculiar interest in life ... the same is true of the other great English novelists ... they are all distinguished by a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity (p. 17).
Leavis was combative, opinionated, and self-righteous. But when one contracts the infection one acquires with it the conviction that up to the early years of the Twentieth Century, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad were indeed—indisputably—the great novelists in English.

F. R. Leavis (1948). The great tradition. London: Chatto & Windus (Current edition Peregrine, 1962).

Charles Winder (2005). Leavis's Downing seminars: A student's notes. In I. D. MacKillop & R. Storer (Eds.), F.R. Leavis: Essays and documents (pp. 71-91). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Anniversary Narratives: Expanding the Gift Circle of Fiction

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the blog, I reread three of my favorite posts: Keith (November 17) delving into Lewis Hyde’s The Gift and his discussion of Babar, King of the Elephants, in “Babar in Words and Pictures” (March 16), and Raymond discussing the Literature for Life project (April 24) which promotes family literacy through engaging teen mothers in reading literature.

I first became aware of Hyde’s book reading Keith’s post. I then read Hyde’s rich volume and experienced a sense of intellectual watershed, with development and transformation of ideas, which is apparently not uncommon among its readers. Hyde argues that the way in which art is produced and circulates is most fruitfully viewed as a gift exchange, rather than as a commodity economy. Gifts generate feelings of good will between the giver and the recipient, which is not necessarily the case in market exchange. But more importantly, gifts create community in a way not possible for the market. By way of example of social gift exchange, relying on Bronislaw Malinowski’s reports, Hyde discusses the Kula people of the South Sea islands who exchanged arm shells and necklaces, items which have very little practical value, but great social value. In viewing a map of the islands inhabited by the Kula, the necklaces circulate clockwise among the islands over the course of between two and ten years, and the arm shells circulate counterclockwise. No item is retained in the possession of one person for any longer than a year and at the most two. Keeping the gifts in motion, by canoe and across hundreds of miles, continually revitalizes the sense of community.

Hyde most clearly delineates his comparison with the artist’s gift-giving in the chapter on Walt Whitman: the first gift is “what is bestowed upon the self – by perception, experience, intuition, imagination, a dream, a vision, or by another work of art” (p. 190); the second gift is the labor the artist invests in shaping the elements given in the first gift; and the work itself is the third gift, which is “offered to the world in general or directed back specifically to the ‘clan and homeland’ of an earlier gift” (p. 191). Finally, “Reading the work, we feel gifted for a while, and to the degree that we are able, we respond by creating new work (not art, perhaps, but with the artist’s work at hand we suddenly find we can make sense of our own experience)” (p. 193). When art is given and received as gift, we develop “a sense of solidarity with whatever we take to be the source of our gifts, be it the community or the race, nature, or the gods” (p. 159). Hyde develops these ideas brilliantly, and his chapters on Whitman’s and Ezra Pound’s poetic renderings of strongly resonant ideas are extraordinary reads.

And yet, there seems to be something missing in the comparison. On the islands, the gift goes from one island, to another island, to another island, to another island, etc. until some Xth-generation gift returns to the first. In Hyde’s gift-exchange of art, the concatenation of recipients seems to be: (1) a bestowal of some sort, on the artist, (2) from artist to the work, (3) from work to the recipient, (4) from recipient through some degree of personal transformation to a new work. But what of the non-artist who somehow conveys the whole or parts of the original gift to another non-artist? True, this mode of circulation of the work is likely in the form of direct or indirect quotation, but it is still gift-giving in Hyde’s usage: the kind that builds community through feelings of good will. One could say that the imaginative moment happens when the gift-giver thinks, “My friend will love this story!”, the moment of laboring in the reading aloud of the story, and the third gift is the recipient’s memory of having been read to by someone who considered the recipient’s individual needs and interests in picking out a story and even reading it aloud. The fourth gift would perhaps be the recipient’s quotation (with enthusiasm born not only of enjoying the passage itself but of the memory of having heard it from the lips of an intimate) of passages to other people who might be interested in hearing them. (Just telling someone about a great story or work of art would seem not to qualify, because one is then telling someone about the original gift, not really giving it.) In such a series of gift displacements, the gift does not stop with the first recipient, but moves more or less intact through many participants. Before stories were written, oral recitation allowed the transmission of stories, and after they were written down, adults have read to one another, not just at book launches, but in sitting rooms, in beds, on boats, on trains, in factories, in all sorts of places. The trouble with this extension of the model is that adults don’t read to each other much anymore.

But we do read to children and generally think it a very valuable endeavor. In his comprehensive review of empirical research on the psychological and educational effects on children of reading aloud, Jim Trelease (2006) cites a poem, by Strickland Gillilan, that succinctly presents such reading as a gift, and precisely not a commodity, passed from one generation to another: “You may have tangible wealth untold:/ Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold./ Richer than I you can never be--/ I had a mother who read to me.” In his post on Babar, Keith discusses how parent and child might experience sadness while reading of the death of Babar’s mother and looking at the illustration in which Babar’s sadness is depicted. The feelings elicited by the story and pictures would be greatly reduced in quantity and qualities if the child were reading the story alone, and the child who cannot yet read for himself and is not read to by a caregiver, might never enter the circle of emotional enrichment occasioned by literature. Of course, the person who cannot enter the circle of giving as a recipient cannot pass along the gift. In the post on Literature for Life, we learn that young women who may never have read a book before come to full participation in the circle of literature exchange through the program. With 1400 young mothers participating, at least as many children are benefitting from the model of their mothers’ reading, feeling reassured in her feelings of goodwill and love: a fine example of Hyde’s claim that we respond to the work of the imagination “by creating new work” (p. 193), but in this case, the new work is another enchanted reader.

Lewis Hyde (1979). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage Books.

Jim Trelease (2006). The read-aloud handbook (Fifth Edition). New York: Penguin Books.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Anniversary Narratives: The Blog and The Book

At the beginning of 2008, three of us (Maja Djikic, Raymond Mar, and I) were the surviving members of a writing group that had met for several years to discuss fiction, and research on fiction, and to give ourselves exercises in writing fiction—300 words or so—that we would then read to each other. Our group had been reduced by the move of Valentine Cadieux to Minneapolis, and the move of Rebecca Wells-Jopling to attend to the exigencies of having a new baby and finishing her PhD thesis. We started to talk about writing a blog. I had no real idea of what a blog was, but next day, I read in the newspaper that a singer whom I had heard the week before wrote a blog, so I looked it up. The singer had by then flown from Toronto to Europe for his next performances, and was in Vienna, I think. In his blog he described waking up in his hotel and wondering whether to have a croissant for breakfast.

I did some more extensive research, and took some advice, and the three of us discussed the idea some more. Raymond was already knowledgeable on the subject, and it was he who came up with the idea of calling our blog OnFiction. We have now run to 150 posts.

There are several features that I like about our blog, which distinguish it from most others. There is only rather a small amount about what we have for breakfast. Instead, the blog is something like a literary magazine. What we aim for is discussion that would be of interest to our readers that is lively but would not out of place in an academic journal, occasional pieces of our own creative writing, reports of research and, alongside our three-times-a-week posts, archives of articles and reviews. So, if you want a recommendation and a review of some films that combine fictional and psychological interest, you can go to our film section (click here). And if you want a list of books with micro-reviews, you can go to our section of Books on the Psychology of Fiction (click here). In our research we have not yet cracked the problem of which works of fiction have the most distinctive psychological effects, for instance of improving people's theories of mind, or enabling personal transformation, but we have made a start on the problem by nominating some works that seem, from their style and content, as if they might have particular kinds of effect (click here).

Most importantly, we have begun, along with colleagues to whose sites we give links, to work out what a psychology of fiction might be. It's a reunion, I think, of the literary and the psychological, a kind of recovery, perhaps, from the founding in the nineteenth century of separate university departments of literature and of psychology. An integration of literature and psychology was present at the beginning of both ancient Greek and ancient Indian traditions of poetics. It is seen again in European philology, for instance in the following by Erich Auerbach (1958) writing about his researches on medieval texts.
For when we do understand the past what we understand is the human personality, and it is through the human personality that we understand everything else. And to understand a human existence is to rediscover it in our own potential experience (p. 102).
So, let me think back to posts that I have enjoyed. I've enjoyed nearly all of them, indeed members of my family sometimes ask me: "Are you blogging again?" So, I'll choose just one post. It's on reading books as means of self-improvement (click here) and it centres on a 2007 book, based on his Jerusalem Lectures, by my friend and colleague Brian Stock, one of those admirable scholars who (as Auerbach used to be) seems as conversant with medieval Latin, French, and Italian, as he is with his native language. Here's a quote from this post, in which I discuss Stock's book on two modes of reading that he calls ascetic (for self-improvement) and aesthetic (for pleasure). These modes are not mutually exclusive.
Stock shows that the tradition that developed with such readers and writers as Augustine, Petrarch, and Montaigne, was of ascetic reading in a way that one would enter a state of calmness with one's book, exclude the outside world and take in the words, and then a second phase of contemplation and reflection, to incorporate the meanings as parts of oneself. He points out, too, that this account parallels in many ways the practices of meditation in the East, which of course, also aim at self-improvement.
Erich Auerbach (1958). Literary language and its public in late Latin antiquity and in the middle ages. New York: Pantheon.

Brian Stock (2007). Ethics through literature: Ascetic and aesthetic reading in Western culture. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Anniversary Narratives: Growth

Maja’s post from yesterday certainly had resonance, as it was only while I read it this morning that it that I realized that I had to write a post today. This site was really begun as a sort of experiment. We had no idea whether we could meet the demands of providing content on a regular basis, and importantly we had no idea whether anyone would actually be interested in reading it! A year after we began, I am happy to report that both goals have been achieved.

I am always impressed by the writings of my fellow editors and contributors, and extremely grateful for those who have provided guest pieces as well as our thoughtful commentators. Part of what makes our site unique, I believe, is the ongoing dialogue that occurs below a post, between contributors and readers.

These readers have gradually grown in number as the months pass. I have to admit that one of my weaknesses is checking our counter statistics. It is not only fascinating to watch our readership grow; I am also constantly amazed at how our readers come from all parts of the globe. Our last 500 visitors have come from Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Norway, Poland, Australia, China, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Norway, Japan, Taiwan, Germany, the Ukraine, Thailand, Australia, and Russia. Our counter software provides a little map with pushpins for groups of visitors, and I love to click on individual pins to see where exactly that person is from, be it Funchal in Portugal, or Beltsville in Maryland (US).

As our readership grows I become increasingly optimistic that we can start to achieve some of our wider goals. To bring empirical research on the psychology of fiction to the public in an approachable way, along with related theory and discussion, and perhaps most importantly, bring attention to important charities and groups that are using these theories and this research to bring about change in people’s lives.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Anniversary Narratives: Posting

THREE DAYS BEFORE
(2pm): Checking my scheduler.
• Three days. I don’t even know what to post about. I could do … No. No. That won’t work.

(6pm) Eating dinner.
• Maybe... No. I just have three days, and nothing. If I don’t have a better idea by tonight, someone else should fill in instead of me.

TWO DAYS BEFORE
(10 am) On a bicycle.
• I just have two days. This is pointless.

(2:30pm) While reading something unrelated.
• Ahhh! I’ve got it! Good. Plenty of time. That’s a good idea. This time, I should really post ahead of time, for a change, while the idea is fresh. I’ll do it first thing tomorrow morning.

ONE DAY BEFORE
(9:30am) At breakfast.
• Plenty of time.

(11:30pm) In bed, before falling asleep.
• I have to post tomorrow. Yes, that was a good idea. I should have really done it this morning. Anyway, plenty of time. So the first part should be…. Ok, good.

THE DAY OF THE POST
(6:30am) In bed, just awoken, eyes still closed.
• So what did I say about the first part…

(1:15pm) At my computer, doing post-unrelated things.
• Dammit. It’s already afternoon.

(4:50pm) In a line at a coffee shop.
• It’s late, but still lots of time. It’s gonna be a late night. That’s ok.

(8:00pm) At home, sitting before a computer screen.
• I have to begin NOW.

(8:45pm) Still at the computer screen
• It’s going somewhere….

(9:50pm) Pacing the room, trying not to look at the computer screen.
• This is going nowhere. Even I don’t get what I’m trying to say.

(10:20pm) In the kitchen, burrowing through the fridge for a snack.
• This was a bad idea, really, I should have known this was a bad idea.

(10:35pm) Before a computer screen.
• Ok, I get it. This is what I wanted to say…

(10:40pm) Before a computer screen
• I’m really tired.

(10:47pm) Before a computer screen, having ignored a warning for low batteries in the wireless keyboard.
• I just need to finish up. Why is my keyboard not working? What?? It needs batteries?! Please, not now!!!

(10:50pm) Burrowing through a box that might or might not contain extra batteries.
• Why now? Why does this always happen? I’ll miss the deadline. This will be the first time I miss the deadline. I just needed two more minutes at the damn computer.

(10:57pm) Batteries replaced.
• Can make it still. It doesn’t look too bad.

(11:12pm) Before the computer. More snacks on the work desk.
• Actually, this isn’t bad. I like it. That’s it. Time to post.

THE MORNING AFTER
(6:45am) Scrambling out of the bed, urgently turning on the computer, getting on line.
• What the hell did I post? What if it was awful, and they had to take it down?! Oh, ok, here it is. Good. Next time, I should really post ahead of time!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Anniversary Narratives: Introduction

Given the demonstrated interest of the OnFiction editors in travelogues, history, narrative, and even fiction, it may come as no surprise to readers that we will pause from our usually scheduled programming this week to reflect in a series of posts on the nature of the first year of this endeavor.

Over the course of this week, each of the five editors of OnFiction will present a short tour through the highlights of this year, taking advantage of the comfortably worn-in trope of the anniversary to savor particularly nice posts that have – in the transient way of online publishing – come and gone, perhaps without quite enough conversation, or to re-explore features of the archives that have matured into lovely young resources with stories of their own.

Frankly, I am looking forward to these tours perhaps even more than the average reader; not only have I been ruminating over threads of old posts still uncommented upon (and yet somehow affording comment) – David Miall’s post on Literariness, for example, was quite striking, particularly in juxtaposition to the recent conversation on The Actor Problem and both have stayed with me waiting for me to think further on them ­– but also, as a multiple outlier in the group (not a psychologist, and not even in Canada), I’m looking forward to the tow through the nooks and crannies of this site that others have developed whilst I, perhaps, was lost musing on literariness.

As a person somewhat preoccupied with navigating real and metaphorical space and wayfinding (as my recent posts on psychogeographies reveal), and as a bit of a general information nerd fascinated by categorization and the organization of information, I will kick off our week of celebration and reminisce with a guide to two very practical parts of the site. I think some people might miss these two tools, so I highlight them because they help to transform the site from an entertaining scrolling window of interesting posts to a quite fascinating archive of neverendingly useful resources and thoughts (if I may reveal my admiration for my colleagues’ work on the archives quite baldly).

First, at the right of the page in grey text, you will find the modest link “Click Here For Our Reader’s Guide.” This dynamic guide provides a quick orientation to the site, and is particularly useful if you’re interested in topical tags, understanding how things are organized (or how organization has changed), or in participating in writing for OnFiction. (It also reflects our ongoing effort to properly categorize things – if there are categories you find you wish we had, or wish we wrote about, I would very much like to hear comments: anniversary reflections are traditional times for considering reform and grand plans for the future.)

Second, at the top left of your screen, you will find a somewhat more prosaic, if still infinitely useful search field. (I’ve highlighted both tools in red on the tiny title photo, in case readers have habituated as thoroughly as some of the editors had when they finally discovered this tool.) The “search blog” button allows you to search back through previous posts in this site for that phrase or word or commenter that you’ve been ruminating about but can’t quite place. This also transforms the space of the blog from a long scroll to the wonder of hyperspace – where I will leave you with only the faintest hint of the possibilities for purposeful wandering in that sort of arrangement of space. Enjoy the search, and thank you readers and other writers for reading and writing us through our first year.
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