Friday, October 30, 2009

No Revisions, Please

“Life should be like a poem.” said Joseph Campbell in his PBS interview with Bill Moyers. I will attempt an interpretation of his statement, which, I hope, he would have approved of. Just like in a poem, where words put us in resonance with experience that transcend their meaning, so in life, our actions, if carefully chosen, could bring us in touch with experience that transcends time. But it was not this interpretation that came to mind when I first heard his statement. It was that for as long as I remember, I wanted my life to be just like a minimalist French film.

It’s not that I am necessarily a fan of minimalist French films as films, as much as I like them as potential life. They are spare, devoid of frivolity, prohibitive of good-natured banter. Every glance brims with meaning. There are few actions, but they all matter. In short, like with literature and music, all the insignificant stuff, the padding, the superficialities so ubiquitous in life - all of it has been edited out. And that is what I think I wanted – my life – an edited version.

And yet when I think how could I have pulled it off – all the glances that could have been more packed with meaning, the insincere how-are-yous that could have been avoided, not to mention myriad vacuous moments that one can never get back - I get exhausted just thinking about it. My life would be all angles, no curves, all bone, no cartilage. Sharp and searing, sure, like eternal existentialist judgment that even frivolities are choices, and that there are no revisions in life.

True, there are no revisions of the old material, but thankfully, there is always new material one can try to get better another time around. Yes, we fall short of perfecting our life into an art. Our lives are not poems as much as bad journals – of little interest to anyone but ourselves, never revised, but enjoyed nonetheless. All we can try for is an inspired line or two, a moment here and there where we fall out of time into Campbell’s eternity.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Footnotes to Literary Works

Recently I had occasion to think about footnotes, and more particularly, about footnotes to literary works, when a friend showed me a copy of the poetry collection, FEG Stupid Poems for Intelligent Children (Hirsch, 2002). It has many footnotes overall, and at least one footnote at the bottom of every page. The poems are fun, and the illustrations are innovative and engaging. The footnotes contain many definitions of words, references to literary works from which certain lines are cited within the poem, and encouragements to the reader to try and get to the bottom of what the poem is about. And then there is the odd gratuitous one: “We fought tooth and nail to keep this poem in so our illustrious illustrator would have some room for his art” (p. 28). Indeed, there are no unfootnoted poems in this book. Maybe that is what bothers me about it. If I were an “intelligent child” for whom the book is ostensibly written, I wonder if I would relish or reject the footnotes greeting me on every page. Could the footnotes interrupt or derail the emotional experiences that the poems themselves might elicit? Might it be more fun to track down references oneself?

The same questions arise in the context of footnotes to fiction. Would the author’s ongoing intrusion into the reader’s experience of the main text annoy? But it seems that it isn’t always just the voice of the author that intrudes. I recently discovered on the web an impressively extensive list of novels that include one or more footnotes. From the brief annotations to entries on the list, it is clear that writers of fiction often make quite creative use of footnotes, through which characters sometimes speak to each other, or in asides to the reader, or in which the narrator situates the main narrative in context. Indeed, the Pulitzer committee seems not to have been bothered by the 33 numbered, and on occasion quite lengthy, footnotes to Junot Díaz’s 2007 novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. So it seems that reading enjoyment may not necessarily be impeded by the presence of footnotes.

It would be interesting to find out to what extent readers think footnotes enhance or diminish their experience of literary works. It would also be interesting to discover whether their belief concerning the degree to which footnotes help or hinder their reading corresponds or does not correspond to their actual experience of reading the work. A fruitful study might use Larsen and Seilman’s (1988) “self-probed retrospection” method of putting “e”s (for emotions) and “m”s (for memories) in the margins while reading. One group would read the novel with the footnotes and another group would read it without them. The number and intensities of emotions experienced in the two conditions could be revealing. Further, before participants have begun reading the novel, they could be asked (among other questions, of course, so as not to tip them off concerning the study’s goal) if they usually read the footnotes to whatever they are reading and whether they think it enhances or diminishes their enjoyment of the narrative. Now, I haven’t looked into whether someone has already done such a study. If not, it seems to me a worthwhile one to do.

Díaz, Junot. (2007). The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books.

Hirsch, R. (2002). FEG Stupid poems for intelligent children. New York: Little, Brown, & Company.

Larsen, S. F., & Seilman, U. (1988). Personal remindings while reading literature. Text, 8, 411-429.

Monday, October 26, 2009

fMRI Goes to the Movies

A group of cognitive neuroscientists in New York has brought a whole new approach to the psychology of film, with fascinating results and tantalizing promise. The group is Uri Hasson, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmeyer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin, and David Heeger. The have placed people in an fMRI machine and asked them to watch film clips. Then they have statistically analyzed the fMRI results to find commonalities of responses among different viewers while they watched the clips. They call their method inter-subject correlation. High inter-subject correlations occur when the same parts of a number of viewers' brains are activated in the same way at the same time while they watch a film. In the newish journal of film and its psychology, Projections, the researchers review results they have obtained using this method, which they have reported in the neuroscience literature over the last few years.

In one study, Hasson and his colleagues compared responses to viewing films with responses of subjects as they listened to a story being read to them. Some areas of the brain, for instance the visual and auditory regions, were activated respectively by viewing and listening. Areas that, across a number of people, were activated both by viewing a silent film and by listening to a story were the superior temporal sulcus, the temporal-parietal junction, and the left intra-parietal sulcus. The researchers suggest that these regions, perhaps, are concerned with more abstract forms of processing, shared by film and audio-stories, for instance of understanding narrative sequences of human interaction.

In another series of experiments the researchers examined effects of scrambling shots of two silent Charlie Chaplin films. The researchers showed participants clips of the films in their ordinary sequence, and also in sequences in which the order of segments had been scrambled. The segments were of about 36 seconds (8 to 10 shots), or about 12 seconds (3 to 4 shots), or about four seconds (single shots). In the visual areas of the brain, the inter-subject correlations were relatively insensitive to scrambling of segments of any length, indicating that they were driven by instantaneous visual input. Some brain areas (the lateral occipital cortex, the para-hippocampal place area, the fusiform face area, the superior-temporal sulcus. and the precuneus) needed coherence across three to four shots to drive them with high inter-subject correlations. The authors propose that these areas are sensitive to arrangements of shots (that is to say to metonymic juxtapositions) of the kind that film editors carefully choose, for instance in montage. The anterior regions of the brain needed coherent segments of 30 seconds or more to drive them in what the authors call "more complex cognitive functions."

In a further set of studies, the authors compared effects of different genres of film, and found that some were able to control the brain systems of viewers rather closely, whereas others enabled responses to be more open to different viewers. They say: "The percentage of cortex exhibiting high ISC [inter-subject correlation] provided a measure of the overall effectiveness, or collective engagement power, of each movie to induce similar responses across viewers." With three film sequences by different directors plus a 10-minute unedited naturalistic shot of people in Washington Square Park, the researchers found overall percentages of the whole cortex that showed high inter-subject correlations as follows: for a film by Alfred Hitchcock over 65%, for a film by Sergio Leone 45%, for a film by Larry David 18%, and for the unedited Washington Square Park shot less than 5%. They offer a scale of collective engagement for different genres, with real-life shots being the least controlling, art films engendering a moderate degree of control, Hollywood films exerting a great deal of control, and (presumably) propaganda films (about which they speculate although they did not test the idea) being the most controlling.

These interesting results prompt a range of thoughts.

Uri Hasson, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmeyer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin, and David Heeger (2008). Neurocinematics: The neuroscience of film. Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 2, 1-26.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Portrait of the Id as a Young Man

Sitting in the theater last Friday, I found myself trying to figure out how filmstrips had worked. I distinctly remember how fascinating it was to run the narrative both forward and backward -- although it may be unimaginable from such a technological distance. But it was with clear images of the immensely enjoyable filmstrip version of the wonderful children's novel Where the Wild Things Are that I sat with trepidation and anticipation of the newly released film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's story about a boy who has been sent to his room without any supper for behaving badly.

I assume that most readers who may be interested in the film will have read the book, although I will still issue a spoiler warning. (As the OnFiction editors will attest, I am wildly averse to story spoilers; this aversion steers me so clear of film reviews that I had no idea, for example, that this was a live action film and not an animation, as I had expected -- presumably based on my filmstrip experience.) The only thing I had heard was that the film was a bit whiny. And that complaint has inspired my current reflection on how this film may be interesting from the perspective of the psychology of fiction.

The film is a very well constructed psychological portrait of a child -- a boy of perhaps 10. The entire narrative construct the film presents is steeped in the logic of a 10 year old. The humor, violence, and emotions that organize everything that happens, consequently, create a fascinating dissonance. On one hand, I found myself thinking, but you shouldn't do that (express anger by throwing mud clots at people so hard it cuts them), or, that's not the way it should be (getting chocolate cake after running away from home) -- but then catching myself over and over again realizing that that, indeed, is the point: most of these social impulses that govern me now are more recent acquisitions, not necessarily conclusions to which my ten-year-old self would have jumped so quickly, even if I, like Max, was starting to perceive and try out some of them.

As I've mulled the film over all week, I keep coming up against this impulse -- to dismiss the film as somewhat simple seeming, for example. But then I find myself grappling with the narrative again as in its own way quite complex, because it's not easy to put together a whole film from that perspective without sliding into sentimentalism or moralism or something spectacular. The phenomenally non sentimental touch of Maurice Sendak (as co-producer) showed: rather than being merely whiny, it was perhaps instead just as exuberantly and terrifiedly whiny as you might expect a kid facing the complexity of the world might be (on a good day, in a wolf suit -- but also on the day he realizes mortality and grapples with what it might mean that even the sun will die).

The sentimentality in the film functions in a very abstract way -- as perhaps you might expect from the perspective of a scriptwriter reliving 10 year old angst and consequent wild rumpus in the face of uncertainty, although perhaps not as you might expect from a film using giant puppets, unless you are an aficionado of subtle weird Henson puppets. And this abstract sentiment is part of what creates such a supportive framework in the film -- to keep the viewer engaged in the psychological drama that unfolds, while also keeping the viewer held back a bit from jumping in to insert what he or she would do at the moment, even if that impulse keeps creeping back in. This abstract sentiment also creates an emotional spaciousness around what might otherwise feel like a claustrophobic childhood realm of emotion. This film joins my shortlist of fiction that is engaging, in part, because the narrator is so difficult to relate to, and yet rewarding to stick by despite a foreshortened sense of emotional depth (along with, for example Disgrace, and Oryx and Crake).

M. Atwood (2003). Oryx and Crake. McClelland and Stewart.

J.D. Coetzee (1999). Disgrace. London: Secker & Warburg.

Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers, & Maurice Sendak (2009). Where the Wild Things Are. Warner Bros.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Helping A Nation Read

In November of 2008 I was invited to speak at a conference in Amsterdam, on reading versus watching narratives. It was hosted by the Dutch Reading Foundation (Stichting Lezen), a national organization funded by the government to promote reading within The Netherlands. I was shocked, frankly, to discover that such a wonderful thing existed. Why, I wondered, was there not something similar in Canada?

Now it appears that a group of volunteers has taken this task upon themselves. Calling themselves The Reading Coalition, this group of “librarians, parent activists, authors, publishers and corporate leaders” decided to push a national reading agenda. Their first action has been to organize a conference, entitled Reading and Democracy, to open up a discussion about what a national reading policy might look like. Speakers include the award-winning novelist Thomas King, the professor of education and psychology Richard Anderson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), the acclaimed poet and novelist Dionne Brand, John Honderich the former publisher of the Toronto Star, Ana Maria Machado (winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal), Diane McGifford the Minister of Advanced Education and Literacy for Manitoba, and Carol Off, co-host of the popular radio show “As It Happens.” You can find the full list of speakers on their website.

This is likely to be a very interesting and influential event for those interested in helping to create a national reading policy. It is also a stunning example of how a grassroots initiative can quickly snowball into a very meaningful force.

Monday, October 19, 2009

New Beginnings

I have just received the volume New beginnings in literary studies, edited by Jan Auracher and Willie van Peer, which is a selection of papers presented at the 10th conference of the International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature (IGEL) which was held in 2006 on Lady's Isle, on Lake Chiem, near Munich.

The book is a fascinating collection. Its three sections cover research on the new possibilities created by the computer of studying corpora of literary works, studies of effects of culture and background in people's engagement with literature, and analyses of personal engagement in reading. It includes papers by some of the most famous scholars who conduct empirical studies of literary texts, as well as by people who are just beginning their research lives. I shall concentrate in this post on a paper by Willie van Peer, and on the papers of two people who describe their PhD work.

Willie van Peer—one of the first to study psychological effects of literature—presents in his article a very confrontational proposal. One would expect, he says, that university students of the humanities, for instance in departments of literature, immersed as they are in works about humanity and the emotions would be more emotionally attuned than science students. But he reports a study by his PhD student Eirini Tsiknaki which showed the opposite. She measured students' emotional intelligence. There was high variance but, on average, the humanities students had lower emotional intelligence than the science students. Why should this be? Van Peer's proposal is to indict teaching in the humanities which he argues is of a kind that turns them into pursuits that are not of human understanding, but that are of technical analyses of details. Where do we find humanity, then? One place is in the empirical study of the arts, where people's emotional engagement with literature has become a matter of primary interest.

As part of her PhD thesis, Özen Odag (of Jacobs University, Bremen), studied men and women's readings of four literary extracts: fiction and non-fiction, focused on the inner world and on the outer world. Contrary to her expectation, Odag did not find that women were more engaged in fiction and men in non-fiction. Also, contrary to her expectation, men and women were equally involved with the extracts that dealt with the inner world. One prediction was fulfilled, however: men were more engaged than women in the extracts that dealt with the outer world.

Cecilia Therman (of the University of Helsinki) studied, in her PhD thesis, people's reading of a short story in which the narrator recounts a summer at a holiday cottage in which a favorite aunt had a mental breakdown. Therman argued that autobiographical remindings during reading indicated that the story touched people personally. Contrary to her expectation that remindings would tend to occur at particular kinds of situation in a text, she found, instead, that they were prompted by cue words, and were not closely related to comprehension of the text at the points at which they occurred.

Unlike some kinds of literary studies in which authors choose examples to confirm what they are staying, these studies, by people making new beginnings, produced more valuable answers, of a kind that disconfirmed their expectations.

Özen Odag (2008). Of men who read romance and women who read adventure stories ... An empirical reception study of the emotional engagement of men and women while reading narrative texts. In J. Auracher & W. van Peer (Eds.), New beginnings in literary studies (pp. 308-239). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Cecilia Therman (2008). Remindings, understanding, and involvement: A close reading of the content and context of remindings. In J. Auracher & W. van Peer (Eds.), New beginnings in literary studies (pp. 352-371). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Willie van Peer, W. (2008). The inhumanity of the humanities. In J. Auracher & W. van Peer (Eds.), New beginnings in literary studies (pp. 1-22). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

The illustration, the cover of The New Yorker of today's date, is by Eric Drooker and is entitled: "In the world of books."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing About Reading

A friend and colleague of mine writes a review for every book he reads. And he reads a lot. It helps him to read more seriously, he said. No longer could he simply say that he didn’t like a book, he’d have to put his finger on what it was about the book he didn’t like, and be able to put that into words. The reviews go out to a list of friends via e-mail, and I recently helped him create an archive of these reviews online, so that people could search the past reviews. At the time of this writing, there were 182 reviews in the archive, each with a rating of either Poor, Ok, Good, or Great. (Only 8 fall into the latter category.)

He recently sent me this article from the New York Times, about a woman who intends to read one book a day, for a year, and write a review for every single one. She’s currently at 352 books (and reviews), so I suspect she’ll reach her goal.

All this led me to think about writing about reading. When I studied books for school, I greatly resented having to write about what I was reading, having to discuss the metaphors and authorial intent. Writing, and thinking, about what I was reading ruined my enjoyment of the book, and I looked forward to when I could read more for pleasure without the taint of an assignment. Which is why I was a bit surprised to find my friend and others assigning themselves a review for the books they read. But, upon reflection, I certainly recognize the merit. The times when I have attempted reviews, such as for this site, it has certainly helped to crystallize my thinking about the piece and I do feel my understanding and appreciation grew as a result of making my evaluation more formal. However, in all these cases the decision to write a review came afterward. I worry a bit that entering into a book with the knowledge that a review will have to be written would bias me towards searching for flaws, would place upon my head the critic’s hat whilst knocking off the reader’s. In the end, I am undecided as to whether the foreknowledge of having to think carefully about a novel will ruin one’s enjoyment of the book, or increase it. For those of us that already think seriously about narrative, its elements, and how it works and does not work, this exercise may prove especially fruitful. For others, however, I can see how it would only serve as an unwelcome reminder of our elementary school days.

(Photo of Nina Sankovitch, who is reading a book a day for a year.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Remembrance and Imagination

A recent move in neuroscience has been to link thinking about the future with episodic memory (autobiographical memory of past experiences). I am grateful to Brian Boyd for drawing my attention to the work of Dan Schacter, Donna Addis, and Randy Buckner (e.g. 2007), who have found that people who have episodic memories that are detailed and specific in terms of time and place tend also to make predictions of possible future events that are detailed and specific in the same way. When cued by particular words, patients with neurological problems, and patients with schizophrenia, were less good at giving detailed and specific information about past events and were also less good at imagining future events in detail. Of course, when imagining the future, things do not necessarily turn out as expected, but the point is that imagination, which the authors discuss in terms of simulation, seems to involve drawing flexibly on remembered events, and how they have worked, and when, and why.

Schacter et al. write:
According to this idea thoughts of past and future events are proposed to draw on similar information stored in episodic memory and rely on similar underlying processes, and episodic memory is proposed to support the construction of future events by extracting and recombining stored information into a simulation of a novel event (pp. 659-650).
In neuro-imaging studies, common parts of the brain are involved in predicting future events and in episodic memory. For instance, Karl Szpunar, Jason Watson, and Kathleen McDermott (2007) have found in an fMRI study that one set of regions (e.g. in the left lateral premotor cortex) was more active while envisioning the future than while recollecting the past, but more active in both these conditions than when thinking about someone else. They found that a second set of regions that included both sides of posterior cingulate, parts of the hippocampus, and the left occipital cortex, were equally active in future envisioning and past remembering. Differences between tasks based on the future and the past.seemed to be due to different demands on motor imagery of bodily movements.

Schacter and his colleagues propose what they call a core brain system that is responsible for prospective thinking. It includes medial prefrontal regions, posterior regions in the medial and lateral parietal cortex, the lateral temporal cortex, and the medial temporal lobe. They suggest that this system is the basis of the integration of information about relationships and associations from past experiences, in the construction of mental simulations. The system is also involved in theory-of-mind. In their article, the authors don’t write about the relevance of this system for fiction, but from their argument this same core system would be central to both writing fiction and reading or viewing it.

Daniel Schacter, Donna Addis, & Randy Buckner (2007). Remembering the past to imagine the future: The prospective brain. Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 8, 657-661.

Karl Szpunar, Jason Watson, & Kathleen McDermott (2007). Neural substrates of envisioning the future. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 104, 642-647.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Travelogue from Home

I have lived for nearly 20 years in the Annex, in Toronto. It's a rectangular area, the southern border of which stretches about 12 blocks from the Liebeskind-enhanced Royal Ontario Museum in the east, along the edge of the University of Toronto downtown campus, to Mirvish Village in the west. Its northern border is the Canadian Pacific railway tracks, and within some of its northern part there is a piece of Davenport Road which follows a native trail that used to run along the bank of the once-much-larger lake that is now Lake Ontario.

This area is called The Annex because about a hundred years ago it was an annex to Toronto. It's the area in which Toronto's most distinguished writer—Jane Jacobs—lived before she died in 2007 (I never spoke to her but I used to feel proud to see her in a greengrocer's shop that I used to go to), and in which Toronto's second most distinguished writer, Margaret Atwood, continues to live. Its an area of leafy maple trees, quite a few beautifully kept front gardens, and wonderful domestic architecture. Houses here were built mostly for single families, with living rooms and kitchens on the ground floor, and bedrooms above. Only a few were grand enough to have a mews or coach-house, and some of the larger houses have been replaced with apartment buildings. The whole neighbourhood was brick-built. it shows the same Victorian exuberance as the more famous family houses made of wood in San Francisco. The house we live in, built in 1906, is one of the plainest in the Annex, but it's position is good, just a hop and a skip to Jean Sibelius Park, and five minutes walk to a subway stop that will take one north, south, east or west.

Toronto is an immigrant city. White people are a minority. The city is a patchwork of little village-like areas in each of which there tends to be a concentration of a particular ethnicity. Bloor Street, as it runs near where we live, used to be Hungarian, I am told. But along the street now, shops and restaurants range from Thai and Nepalese to Japanese and Italian. There are, I think, six sushi restaurants, and two shops where you can buy futons. Further west past our strip the street becomes Korean, just near to corner where this occurs, there is a large Caribbean hairdressing salon.

The south west corner of the Annex is occupied by Honest Ed's, a huge department store, founded 60 years ago, with a dollar-store atmosphere, where immigrants can come and buy everything they need at very low prices. It is a rambling place of upstairs and down, along and around. Everywhere on the walls, outside and in, there are terrible jokes on big posters: "Honest Ed's: Only the floors are crooked," and "Honest Ed's: Unfair to low prices. They never get a raise," and so on. Ed, who died recently, also owned theatres and was in love with the theatre. On wall spaces devoid of jokes there are theatre posters and big signed photos of stars, which say, in each star's handwriting across the photo things like: "To Anne and Ed, from Frank Sinatra," and "To Anne and Ed, Best always, Dean Martin, and "To Anne and Ed, with good wishes and thanks, Ingrid Bergman." There is even is a photo of Ed with the Queen Mother who used to be a stalwart of a piece of theatre called The Royal Family whose run has outlasted even The Mousetrap. It's sad, however, that the Queen Mum seems to have forgotten to sign her photograph.

Some of Honest Ed's departments are excellent. The kitchen department is an example. At a price of $1.99 I found a little plastic colander that fits neatly over a medium size can. How it works, I understand, is that than once you have opened the can and removed the lid, you can place the little colander upside down on the top of the open can, invert the can and colander, pour out the liquid, and retain just the solid contents. And if you wish, in the kitchen department, you can also buy, for quite a bit more money, impressive stainless steel pots that are large enough to cook a stew for a whole third-year university class.

A fond memory of the Annex is from one December when my daughter was about seven. I was walking along and heard someone call to me from the other side of one of the smaller roads. It was a Chinese woman who had a seven-year old son with red hair. I knew her from chats we had as we waited to pick up our kids from a Suzuki music class held at the Jewish Community Centre on Bloor Street. "Hi," she called. "Happy Christmas!" She paused for an instant, and then said: "Are you Christian?"

Friday, October 9, 2009

Sontag Homage to Revision

On September 27, Keith and I had a brief exchange about compulsive editing following my last post about the ways in which writing can lose interest once we feel we've figured out the troubling mysteries it presents.
"I seem to remember that Nietzsche said something like, "As soon as I've written it down it's dead in my heart," but I ... can't find the quote, so perhaps I am confabulating. In any event, I agree that the quest is sometimes more more engaging than the result. But what do you think of the opposite disease? For me this is that, as soon as I have written something, I find myself continuing to develop and revise it, and then keep on some more, and then some more. It's often a relief to send it off to whomever it should be sent off to, because then I can get on with something else."
This Nietzsche semi-quote sent me on a similarly fruitless quest for a Susan Sontag quote about how very many times she would rewrite essays. Although I did not find the quote I had imagined (At best, I found the frequently cited lines: “I do not write easily or rapidly. My first draft has only a few elements worth keeping.”), I did find a fascinating interview with the writer James Marcus, in which Sontag called herself a “compulsive, or let's say fanatical, reviser.”
"But that's the whole point of those essays," I suggest. [This is Marcus, interviewing Sontag] "The reader gets to watch you thinking through the ideas, rather than simply delivering them in prefabricated form.
"They're certainly idea-driven," she agrees, "in the sense that the subject is always a pretext. If I wrote about something, it was really to enable me to write about something else. Take this piece I'm doing on Sebald. My problem with his new book is that I just love it--I don't have any ideas about it. I'll find some ideas about it if it kills me." She breaks into laughter and fiddles briefly with her black frame glasses. "But my enthusiasm for his work doesn't really have a discursive quality. So that's rather alien to me, writing about something without having some idea that I can actually fold the work back into."
Marcus points out that non-discursive writing is hardly that alien to Sontag, given her prolific writing of fiction, and this is where her comments may be most interesting for our purposes.
"Of course I rewrite the fiction, too," she says, "but it's about 80 percent there the first time through. And even while I'm revising, it does feel like I'm taking something down. The story has the quality of a real history to which I need to be true, and which I can change only with a great deal of trepidation. I know it sounds totally wacky, but writing fiction does strike me as a kind of performance, or transcription, of some preexisting reality."
And in another, earlier interview (with Wendy Lesser, from Conversations with Susan Sontag, p.193), she further describes a fascinating difference in the way she considers writing essays and fiction:
"The fact that I may have other ideas now doesn’t make me want to alter an old essay. At most, it might make me want to write another essay. But the novels and stories are not part of an ongoing argument but objects, language—whose flaws, when I perceive them, torment me."
I am captivated by these insights about the difference between, on the one hand, discursive writing about ideas that can be exhaustively revised and revisited with new writing and, on the other hand, exploratory writing capturing a pre-existing fictive reality
—that can be gotten right. So Keith, perhaps those of us compulsive editors ought take a break sometimes, giving in to the trepidation related to tampering with that pre-existing fictive reality and striving occasionally toward just getting it right. (She said, resisting revisionat least after the first several times through.)

Wendy Lesser and Susan Sontag. (1995). Conversations with Susan Sontag, ed. Leland Poague. University Press of Mississippi.

James Marcus and Susan Sontag. (2000). Has fiction ruined Susan Sontag? Desperately Seeking Susan: A 2000 Conversation with Susan Sontag.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Literature and the Brain

Norman Holland is known for bringing a thoughtful psychoanalytic perspective to understandings of literature, and he was among the first to treat reader-response by making psychological studies of reading. His 1975 book Five readers reading is an important landmark in the reader-response movement. He runs the PsyArt Foundation (which you can reach by clicking here).

Holland's approach In his engaging and wide-ranging new book Literature and the brain, continues his work in literary analysis over the last 40 years. He summarizes it like this.
When we read, then, two systems are at work. The form of the literary work provides the first. It establishes what we are likely to pay attention to and what we will perceive when we do pay attention. The second comes from within us, our own defenses. We perceive the work in such a way as to use our own defenses to guarantee our pleasure (p. 159).
The newer facet of Holland's work is from brain research, first of all from analyses by Jaak Panksepp (1998) of sub-cortical brain systems that relate us to our evolutionary origins, and that continue to provide the bases for current human experience of emotion. The system that Holland takes to be central for our understanding the psychology of literature is Panksepp's Seeking system, which is responsible (says Panksepp) for intense interest, for engaged curiosity, and for eager anticipation; that is to say for the kinds of experience we hope to find in a novel or at the movies. And, says Holland, when we are reading or at the movies, we turn on and turn off parts of the brain in different ways than usual. We turn on the Seeking system, and allow our curiosity to become fully engaged. We turn off the motor system, so that we don't try to affect what is going on in a story. We allow the wider associations of meanings that are available in the right hemisphere, which can become bases for effects of literariness.

And so, says Holland:
I see one overarching principle. When we are experiencing literature, we turn brain systems on and off in ways that we do not in ordinary life. In real life, we do not separate the “what” from the “where,” we do not stop testing reality, we do not inhibit planning for action, and we do not give free rein to our wish-fulfilling fantasies, except when we are daydreaming. With literature, we take pleasure in something that gives us only imaginary gratifications. In short, when reading and creating literature, we use our brains very differently than when we are simply taking a walk, shopping at the mall, meeting lovers, or any of our daily activities directed to survival and reproduction (p. 322).
Holland's is a bold hypothesis. It's very boldness is a bit shocking to me, as I haven't fully understood how the brain would allow its parts to be turned on and off like this.

An alternative hypotheses (with which I work) is that reading fiction does not depend on brains being re-organized in such a radical way between every-day life and reading, but rather that fiction derives from, and is an extension of, the universal activity of play. Also important, I think, is simulation as the principal cognitive activity of engaging in literature. It is based on the every-day and central activity of making mental models of how the world works, and on empathy. I can't, at the moment, see how to test, critically, the implications of these different approaches. It is possible the difference is a matter of emphasis so that, for instance, we might see empathy in terms of a switch from brain systems involved with one's own concerns, to those of another person.

Holland's book is lovely, thoughtful, and informative, on issues that we discuss in OnFiction. His hypothesis about different parts of the brain being turned on and off has certainly made me think. Could it be, perhaps, that our entry into literacy tunes the brain in new and different ways? This would be a new and exciting departure in the question of how literacy affects mental abilities.

At the end of his book, Holland draws this conclusion:
Fully engaged with and thinking through works of literature and the arts, we uncover our own individuality. We open ourselves to the largest truth of who we are, who we have been, and who finally we will be. In the last analysis, understanding a literary work means understanding our own humanity (p. 359).
Norman N. Holland (1975). Five readers reading. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Norman N. Holland (2009). Literature and the brain. Gainesville, FL: PsyArt Foundation. (available online or by mail by clicking here).

Jaak Panksepp (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Distancing Ourselves from Fiction

In an interview with the French author Marie Darrieussecq this week, in which she discusses her new novel, Tom is Dead, the host of the BBC’s The Strand, Mark Coles, described his own experience of reading the novel: “It’s a very difficult book to read. I’ve got to admit that you had me sobbing at times. Other occasions I was yelling at you. I hurled the book across the room at a wall. I didn’t want to read what you were making me read”. One supposes that he was required to complete his reading of the novel in order to be able to interview the author. Nevertheless, his reaction to the narrative is a powerful example of the ways in which readers sometimes struggle against or try to mitigate the effects of reading the fictions in which they are engaged. I know a woman who enjoys reading detective novels for relaxation, but she has never read one in her first language. She says she prefers the distance she gets on the crime genre when reading in her second language. Some readers say that they slow their reading before coming to the culminating moment in a tragedy. I wonder if book clubs are another strategy that people use to put some distance between themselves and the fiction they read. We simply do not know what we’re coming upon in the wilderness of some stories. If we have the company of others, though, we may feel emboldened to carry on.

There are surely many other ways in which readers try to protect themselves from the images, emotions, and beliefs that they experience while reading fiction, short of simply closing the book and not picking it up again. But why should this be? Much of the work done by members of this blog team underscores the authenticity of the emotions experienced while reading fiction. So, I don’t doubt that a good part of these self-protective strategies buy time, until the reader can sort out what is happening to her emotionally, at which point she will pick the book up off the floor, perhaps putting the torn dust jacket back on, and opening it up again.

It could be that these readers know, perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, that the book could change their beliefs, and not always in a predictable way. The implication of two lines of psychological research is that proceeding with caution in this way may be a wise response. Richard Gerrig, Deborah Prentice, and David Rapp have described the typical process of reading fiction to be “the willing construction of disbelief” (Prentice and Gerrig, 1999; Prentice, Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997; Gerrig & Rapp, 2004). Readers “must engage in effortful processing to disbelieve the information they encounter in literary narratives (as well as other types of narratives); otherwise, that information will have an impact in the real world” (Gerrig & Rapp, 2004, p. 268).

Perhaps strong feelings of rejection toward a story and the resulting strategies for distancing oneself arise because readers somehow know that continuing to read may leave them walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold, having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience. The social psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert, in a much-quoted and very rewarding article, juxtaposes the epistemological views of Spinoza and Descartes, concluding that Spinoza’s view corresponds better to the psychological reality of belief acquisition. Thus, simply comprehending an idea is equivalent to accepting the idea, and rejecting an idea takes additional effort. We do not first comprehend an idea, then make a conscious judgment concerning its validity, as proposed by Descartes. Gilbert (1991) and Gilbert, Tafarodi, & Malone (1993) cite much evidence from the empirical literature suggesting that comprehending and tagging as valid a newly perceived bit of information happen at the same moment, especially when the perceiver is experiencing other sources of stress concomitantly. The Spinozan system would predict that readers of fiction would accept and incorporate into other cognitive operations information that they know to be invalid. Gerrig & Rapp (2004) cite empirical evidence that fiction readers do in fact proceed in this way. Perhaps instead of consciously deciding not to acquire a belief discordant with one’s sense of oneself, or to experience an image or an emotion one cannot bear, one hurls the book against the wall, and asks questions later -- or doesn't.

Gerrig, R. J., & Rapp, D. N. (2004). Psychological processes underlying literary impact. Poetics Today, 25, 265- 281.

Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist, 46, 107-119.

Gilbert, D. T., Tafarodi, R. W., & Malone, P. S. (1993). You can’t not believe everything you read. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 221-233.

Prentice, D. A., & Gerrig, R. J. (1999). Exploring the boundary between fiction and reality. In. S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 529-546). New York: Guilford.

Prentice, D. A., Gerrig, R. J., & Bailis, D. S. (1997). What readers bring to the processing of fictional texts. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 4, 416-420.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Something Wrong

Something was wrong. I looked over the newspapers. Jane was quiet, eating her toast. She was quiet. She’s never quiet. In the thirty-six years of our marriage, she was never quiet. I had gotten used to tuning out her chatter while scanning the business portion of the morning paper. I looked at her over the paper again. She was still eating her breakfast - quietly. A welcome relief. But certainly something must be the matter.


She didn’t even look up. She must be angry. Maybe it’s her birthday? Our anniversary? I scanned the landscape of our important dates. Nothing.


She got up and took her cup and plate to the sink, saying nothing.

‘Well, fine then, if you’ll be like that.’

I straightened out my folded paper with some noise and pretended I was greatly absorbed by it. And then the doorbell rang. I wondered whether she would ignore it, just to make me get the door. No, she quickly dried her hands, and went straight to the door, stopping only to touch up her hair. That’s my Jane – never angry for more than a meal. She opened the door, and Mark, my business partner, walked into the hall. I rose from the table. What could be the matter? He never came in the morning. Maybe there was an emergency at the office. He gave her a rather overly familiar hug, I could see that much from the table. I made a mental note to mention to her just how inappropriate that was later. I was still standing at the dining table when they started talking. I couldn’t hear much, it all sounded muffled. Why don’t they come in? I cleared my throat, khmmmmmm. That should be enough. But they kept talking and even walked couple of steps into the hall, moving away from my direct view. What on earth is happening? Maybe there was a fire at the warehouse and they don’t want to upset me.

I walked two steps toward the door and could hear Mark’s baritone. I resented feeling as if I’m eavesdropping in my own house.

‘I know, Jane, it was such a surprise to us all. It all happened so fast, we never had time to say good-bye. But at least he would have liked to know that his friends are there for you. Such a pity, for a vivacious woman like you…’

Good-bye to whom? Who would have liked? What the hell is going on?

‘Oh, it’s all right. I had gotten used to it – it has been a year already. Funny how quickly things change, one moment you are a married woman, and the next, you’re a widow.’

I heard Jane’s voice, as if through the glass door. It was warm and moist, just as it used to sound at the beginning of our marriage.

They walked into the dining room, right next to me, right through me.

‘You know, Mark, sometimes I forget he’s gone. I keep thinking he’s still there at the other side of the table, reading his papers, drinking his coffee. Funny how thirty-five year habit plays tricks with my mind.’

She glanced at him, sweetly, the way she used to glance at me.

‘But, anyway… why don’t you come in, I was just about to bake a lasagna, you mentioned you liked my lasagna…”
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