Monday, November 30, 2009

Research Bulletin: Reducing Prejudice with Fiction

We have discussed the relation between fiction and empathy extensively in OnFiction, but have not really broached the topic of what the consequences of this empathy might be. Could fiction promote empathy for another group and reduce our prejudice towards this group’s members? There has been some promising research on this topic, but primarily from the 60s and 70s, with respect to children’s attitudes towards African-Americans (Litcher & Johnson, 1969; Katz & Zalk, 1978).

(If anyone knows of other examples, please do let us know in the Comments.)


Recently, however, Elizabeth Levy Paluck (Princeton) conducted the most amazing field experiment in Rwanda, examining whether a radio soap opera could facilitate reconciliation between Hutu and Tutsi listeners in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide. This was a large-scale study, involving 12 different community groups (6 experimental, 6 control), and 480 participants, 99% of whom were in Rwanda at the time of the genocide. Experimental participants listened to a radio drama aimed at exploring themes related to the genocide and reconciliation: the roots of tensions and violence between groups, the importance of open discussion of issues, and intergroup connections. The control condition involved a radio drama directed toward health issues, specifically reproductive health and AIDS. It important to note that the reconciliation radio show made no explicit mention of the two ethnic minorities, but instead talked about two different communities, with each representing in many ways either the Hutus or Tutsis. The programs were listened to as a group, monthly, over the course of a year. At the end of that year Dr. Paluck found a number of differences between the two conditions, with those who listened to the reconciliation radio drama exhibiting different perceptions of social norms, and even different behaviors, all related to open dissent of contentious issues, intermarriage between ethnic groups, trust, empathy, cooperation, and trauma healing. What was not found, interestingly enough, was a change in personal beliefs. With respect to empathy, those who listened to the radio drama on reconciliation expressed more empathy for members of a number of different groups, including Rwandan prisoners, genocide survivors, the poor, and even political leaders.


This is an incredible study on the potential power of fiction to heal and educate. It is worth emphasizing just how difficult these real-world field studies are to complete, and we are certainly fortunate that Dr. Paluck has taken it upon herself to tackle this difficult but absolutely necessary approach. While one may question whether these findings have any relevance for those of us in a Western culture, it is worth remembering that the Canadian National broadcaster (CBC) has been playing a radio drama about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan for some years now: Afghanada. Might listening to this program increase listeners’ empathy for our troops, and their mission, overseas? These findings by Dr. Paluck suggest that this may indeed be the case.


(Anyone interested in reading this article is welcome to contact me for a copy.)


Katz, P. A., & Zalk, S. R. (1978). Modification of children's racial attitudes. Developmental Psychology, 14, 447–461.


Litcher, J. H., & Johnson, D. W. (1969). Changes in attitudes toward Negroes of white elementary school students after use of multiethnic readers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 60, 148–152.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Love Letter to a Book














You make me leave the house hungry and unshowered, clutching your covers, one foot barely before the other. The little voyage from my house to the office a thousand days long. When the life of your words is too much to bear I halt, breathe, and try to hush the background buzz of people and cars and feet all striding confidently somewhere. I abandon your words to my mind, I let them invade me. I devour them one by one, or in dozens, or in herds and flocks and floods. Suck on them like on roasted ribs, turning them this way and that in my mouth, and when nothing is left, lick my fingers with heavy joy. You make me stop on the street, on the corner, on the stairs – perhaps sit shielded from the wind in some building, on my way to somewhere, now I forget where… You make me almost perish under the wheels of a brand new pick-up truck (No need to yell, Mister, can’t you see I’m in love?). I admonish myself for wanting to flare ahead – wanting to have all of your words all at once; chide myself for losing the most delicious details in my great hunger. I cover the next paragraph, the following page with my palm and laugh at myself for with giddiness of a child knowing she will have her cake, and have it, and have it, and will have her cake and eat it too. I finish you (as if there is such a thing, an end of you) sitting in my office. And then close your covers and smile – all that, all that, before my morning coffee.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Looking for Patterns (in Stories), Controlling (Stories) for Patterns

I am looking for a few good stories. I have a number of requirements that I've picked up for these stories, or perhaps what I might more properly call story forms. Most of these requirements have been accrued over a long association with social scientists. However, despite the number of books on social science method sitting here with me at my desk (and lying next to my bed, and weighing down my bag, and my suitcases -- for some reason, I always think I'll have time to read about methods when I'm travelling), I'm trying to pare down to just a few good story forms.

As an ethnographer, I participate in OnFiction with a mixture of fascination and trepidation. I am constantly aware of how much improvement my methods for eliciting stories could use -- and so I read each new finding and report with a teacher's eye for translating what we understand about constructing stories into instructions for the people whose stories I'd like to hear. (For this reason, I am a great fan of the work of Joseph Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Wayne Booth: in their books Style: Toward Clarity and Grace and The Craft of Research, they use cognitive studies of reading to reverse engineer writing practices and suggest ways to revise what might most readily come out as writing to better align it with what's more easily read.)(These books, it turns out, are sitting on the shelf by my desk right next to the Oatley...)

As if the constant tension between the exploratory desire of writing and the simplifying desperation of reading -- between wanting to include enough parameters to compare stories (between people, over time, and across a wide range of topics) and wanting to remain both comprehensible and conversational weren't complicated enough, however, even more overwhelming are the frequent reminders of the deeply embedded nature of many mechanisms for experiencing and constructing stories. This may well be the single most troubling feature of narrative for ethnographers. Any part of our interactions with those we research may be inspiring fragments of character, setting, or plot; although we might painstakingly take notice of our own effects, we are irrevocably written into the story we are trying to hear, usually with as little of our own voices as possible.

Considering these tensions (particularly in the light of many hundreds of hours spent eliciting stories, and then listening to their recordings again and again), it strikes me that there are some forms of stories that are easier to tell than others, and perhaps easier to elicit without overly shaping the story elicited. But these stories often have a polished quality, that quality of well worn pocket stones, and may have a coherence that's in tension with the messiness of a story that's been less crafted. Particularly in the arena of questions exploring contradictions that people experience, it would be interesting to know how these qualities interact. I can imagine one axis delineating how practiced a story is and another showing (in contrast? tending to be in a negative association?) how true to the experience of a contradiction a story remains.

No matter how dedicated to respecting 'mess' social science research becomes, in line with a growing movement to grapple seriously with the implications of the reductions required to tell a research story, we are going to aspire to a tellable story. The very search for a trope that contains the pattern of such a story, though, may be in some ways opposed to the goal of not constraining the telling -- and is there a trope that can help control for this paradoxical tension? Although this seems worth the search and the trepidation, the effort of trying to find a good story form that will produce usable data, interesting stories, and grist for analysis makes me wonder how many ethnographers (as many I've known) become fiction writers, instead.

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams. (1995). The Craft of Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Joseph M. Williams (1990). Style. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

John Law (2004). After Method: Mess in Social Science Research. New York: Routledge.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

National Reading Summit Report

On Friday I had the honour of speaking at the TD National Reading Summit, a conference organized by the Reading Coalition, designed to initiate the development of a national reading policy. It was an amazing event, humbling in so many ways. For one, it was fantastic to see good intentions combine so successfully with drive, talent, and ambition to create such a thoughtful event. This was not a passive affair, but one in which a great deal of debate, discussion, and sharing of knowledge went on, all well-recorded and with a clear eye on defining and meeting achievable goals.

The day began with Canadian sci-fi author Cory Doctorow, a careful thinker fascinated by our future and how the present technology culture will inform it. He gave an absolutely fascinating discussion on issues pertaining to copyright, which have rapidly become altered by a trend toward the licensing of material rather than purchasing. E-books, for example, are not owned once purchased but only licensed, which means their use is highly restricted and subject often to the whims of the licensee. The recent overnight deletion of Orwell’s 1984 from idle kindles, without the permission of users, acting as one stunning example of how different the world has become. It is impossible to imagine a similar event occurring with a bookseller and a newly purchased hardcover. Mr. Doctorow made a number of novel and intriguing points regarding the power of copyright to promote and protect the sharing of media and stories, while also protecting the author from theft and distortion. Part of his argument on the important role of copying for creativity, can be found in this article in Locus Magazine. Mr. Doctorow also practices what he preaches, and you can download many of his books for free from his site.

My own session was shared with Patsy Aldana and Jane Pyper. Ms. Aldana spoke of her work with the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY), an organization that brings books to children during times of trauma, brought on by war or national disaster, for example. Her description of a volunteer reading to shell-shocked children in shelters in Lebanon, as bombs fell all around, was heart-breaking, incredibly humbling, and only one of many similar examples of the incredible work done by this organization all around the world. IBBY relies primarily on volunteers, and the contributions of donors. You can become a member of the organization for as little as $10.

Jane Pyper is the City Librarian in charge of the Toronto Public Library, the world’s busiest urban public library system. I was raised in libraries, and recall with great fondness the trips my family used to take to the library on every Saturday. I loved everything about that place, and knew every inch of it. Each visit would end with me reluctant to leave, but thrilled with the stack of books I could barely carry out on my own. Ms. Pyper spoke about the concrete things that needed to be considered in order to create a reading society in Canada. Her most important point, I think, was to stress that in the context of promoting literacy, we cannot afford to indulge elitist beliefs of good and bad reading. All reading is good reading, be it a novel, choose-your-own-adventure, graphic novel, comic-book, blog, magazine, or fact-book.

Thomas King, the Canadian author, entertained us all during lunch, with a demonstration of his considerable storytelling skill. He explained, in his inimitable fashion, how his path to becoming a writer was merely an accident; seeking refuge from bullies in a library put him on this path. One can only imagine how different world would be if that building he sought out had turned out to be a bakery.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Announcement: Twice-a-week Posting

Dear Readers,

We thank the people who took part in our poll on the preferred frequency of posting in OnFiction. The results were that 11 people thought we should continue posting three times a week, 13 thought we should post twice a week, 4 people thought we should post once a week, and 8 had no preference.

We started to consider our frequency of posting when a friend told us there was too much to read and think about. We were also starting to realize, ourselves, there were periods when we could not easily keep up with posting three times a week.

With these considerations, therefore, we have decided to reduce our rate of posting to twice a week: Mondays and Thursdays. We apologize to those who liked the three-times-a-week posting, but we hope this new schedule works adequately for most people.

Thank you all very much for your support of OnFiction.

Gratefully, The Editors

Science Fiction: I, Robot

Science fiction emerged nearly 200 years ago. The novel generally recognized as its first fully realized work was Frankenstein, or The new Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. It's about an idealistic scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who constructs and brings to life an artificial man.

Mary Shelley came from a distinguished family and lived in a distinguished circle. She was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the social-reformer and novelist William Godwin. She wrote Frankenstein at the age of 18, not long after she had eloped with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the poet, while the two of them were staying in Switzerland with Lord Byron.

Since then, of course, science fiction has thrived, and although often denigrated as mere genre fiction, it has included some fine and thoughtful novels and short stories. Among these is Isaac Asimov's I, Robot. Like Frankenstein before it, and like all the best science fiction, Asimov's novel offers a way of thinking about what it is to be human.

Alex Proyas's 2004 film I, Robot, does a pretty good job in living up to the reputation of the novel that inspired it. It features Asimov's three famous Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
But the film has a new plot, which takes up the theme of Shelley's Frankenstein: what happens if human science and human design have effects that turn to be not quite as designed? The film features the very appealing Will Smith as a detective assigned to find out why the benign father of robotics has been killed, apparently by one of the robots that he designed to embody the three laws. Is there something wrong with the laws? Or was it a malfunction? Or did a robot start to become all too human?

The film, I, Robot, has not achieved the cult success of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, but it's still one of the best science fiction films I know. You can read a longer review of it in our archive of Film Reviews which you can reach by clicking here. I would give the film four stars on a five-star scale.

Isaac Asimov (1950). I, Robot. New York: Doubleday.

Ridley Scott (1982). (director). Blade runner. (film, USA).

Mary Shelley (1818). Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. London: Lackington et al.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Rasas and Self-modifying Feelings

Among the most thought-provoking accounts of how emotions are important in literary reading is David Miall and Donald Kuiken's (2002) theory of self-modifying feelings. David has recently supplemented this account in his chapter in Directions in Empirical Literary Studies (2008).

Miall and Kuiken propose that self-modifying feelings can occur when two elements come together to produce “metaphors of personal identification that modify self understanding” (p. 221). One element is the literariness of a text, for instance in its defamiliarizing qualities. The other element is personal, for instance in a remembered emotion evoked in the course of reading. Just as in a conventional metaphor, one thing is, or can become, something else, so, in metaphorical identification, one emotion can become another, or can be experienced in a new way. They say that in literary reading:
Remembered feeling ... does not remain merely replicative; what began as remembered feeling may become fresh feeling. Either the original feeling is modified, or limitations of the original feeling are shown in such a way that a fresh feeling is created in its place. In several previous studies, we have provided evidence of the modifying power of feeling, in particular showing how aesthetic feelings, i.e., moments of defamiliarization in response to foregrounding, instigate an affectively guided search for alternative interpretations that, in turn, shape subsequent understanding (p. 229).
I have, for some time, thought of Miall and Kuiken's theory as a version of the ancient Indian theory of rasas (Gnoli, 1968). Rasas are literary emotions, experienced in reading literature or when watching a drama or hearing poetry. In his (2008) chapter Miall also makes this connection. He points out that, in the Indian idea, rasa has a timeless quality. It is an idea of an emotion as experienced by many people across many circumstances.

One of the accomplishments of literary reading is to locate emotions in a specific place and time, by means of the context of a story. In a particular story an emotional event is attended to by the reader because it has been foregrounded by the writer, and because of the foregrounding it can elicit a particular memory of an emotion in the reader, and this may contrast with the timeless quality of its corresponding rasa. In his 2008 chapter David says this:
… a rasa is also considered as separate from everyday emotion, being an emotion that is experienced only in the context of art (Gnoli, 1968). However, when experienced it is felt to be real in a way that makes ordinary life seem illusory, thus rasa does not involve suspension of disbelief so much as suspension of what we take to be reality (p. 100).
In the experiences of literary art, conjunctions can arise between (on the one hand) the specifics of a story and of a reader's memory, and (on the other hand) the timeless qualities an emotion. It is perhaps, David suggests, in conjunctions of this kind that self-modifying processes may begin to unfold.

R. Gnoli (1968). The aesthetic experience according to Abhinavagupta. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office.

David Miall (2008). Foregrounding and feeling in narrative. In S. Zyngier, M. Bortolussi, A. Chesnokova & J. Auracher (Eds.), Directions in empirical literary studies: In honor of Willie van Peer (pp. 89-102). Amsterdam: Benjamins.

David Miall & Donald Kuiken (2002). A feeling for fiction: Becoming what we behold. Poetics, 30, 221-241.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fiction and Non-fiction

Fiction means something made. Non-fiction is something reported. The old idea was that non-fictional reporting is presented without embellishment, and that indeed was how the first scientists saw their writing. They wrote to report what you would have seen if you had been there. But, as we all now know, things are not as straightforward as that. People may, in a certain sense, see the same thing, but see it differently. One person sees a lump swinging backwards and forwards on the end of some sort of stick, another sees the pendulum of a clock, another sees a case of simple harmonic motion.

The case that Tom Wolfe makes, in The new journalism, adds a further dimension. To enable readers to experience what really goes on in the world, says Wolfe, reporting must use the techniques of fiction. Thus when, in 1966, Leonard Bernstein invited members of the Black power group, the Black Panthers, to his elegant Manhattan apartment for drinks and morsels, Wolfe was there with his notebook, and in his magazine article to report the event, which he entitled "Radical Chic," he did indeed use the techniques of fiction. Just as Bernstein invited the Panthers to his apartment, Wolfe invited readers to imagine themselves into the mind of Bernstein: "Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d'oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs ..." (in "Radical chic," pp. 413-414, of The new journalism). To say that Wolfe couldn't possibly know what Bernstein was thinking would be merely to carp.

Wolfe's essay, "The new journalism" (pp. 15 to 68 in his book of the same name), propounds the idea that to depict properly what it is like to be there, one has to use fictional devices:
... journalists began to discover the devices that gave the realistic novel its unique power variously known as its "immediacy," its "concrete reality," its "emotional involvement," its "gripping" or "absorbing" quality,

This extraordinary power [of the new journalism] was derived mainly from just four devices they discovered. The basic one was scene-by-scene construction, telling the story by moving from scene to scene and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative. Hence the sometimes extraordinary feats of reporting that the new journalists undertook: so that they could actually witness the scenes in other people's lives as they took place—and record the dialogue in full, which was device No. 2. ... realistic dialogue involves the reader more completely than any other single device. It also establishes and defines character ...

The third device was the so-called "third-person point of view," the technique of presenting every scene to the reader through the eyes of a particular character, giving the reader the feeling of being inside the character's mind and experiencing the emotional reality of the scene as he experiences it ...

The fourth device has always been the least understood. This is the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene. Symbolic of what? Symbolic, generally, of people's status life, using that term in a broad sense of the entire pattern of behaviour and possessions through which people express their position in the world or what they think it is or what they hope it to be (pp. 46-47).
Tom Wolfe (1975). The new journalism, with an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe & E. W. Johnson. London: Picador.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Usefulness of Research on Literature

The International Society for Empirical Research on Literature and Media was founded in 1987. The name by which it is usually known is IGEL an acronym of its name in German, Internationale Gesellschaft für Empirische Literaturwissenschaft, and this name (I understand) also means "hedgehog," which is why the Society's logo is as it is. The Society was formed to promote empirical research on all aspects of literature and media, its history, sociology, and anthropology, as well as its psychology.

Although the aims of OnFiction include extensions beyond the academy, IGEL is the academic society that is closest to our heart, because it promotes the idea of understanding how fiction works, how it really works in people's minds, and this necessarily has a secure basis in empirical research.

This post is to announce the next IGEL conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands, from 7 to 11 July 2010, which is being organized by Frank Hakemulder, and which will include, as a keynote speaker, Joan Peskin, both contributors to OnFiction (for Frank's contribution, click here, and for Joan's click here).

The principal aim of the 2010 IGEL conference in Utrecht will be discussion of how empirical research on literature can contribute to society. Research councils in a number of countries try to direct scientific research into channels from which direct economic benefits are likely to flow. There is debate, therefore, as to the role and benefits of the humanities, including literature, in education and society. Among claims made in this debate, few are supported by empirical research. The website in which the announcement is made of the upcoming conference therefore stresses the idea that empirical research will have an important role in the debate, because, as the announcement says:
IGEL’s unique combination of members from the Humanities (e.g., literary studies, media studies) and the Social Sciences (e.g., sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists) makes it an excellent forum for exchange and cooperation to make our research socially useful. Some use it to work together on testing hypotheses formulated by literary theorists. Others explore the relevance of laboratory studies for complex stimuli like movies and literary texts. Still others study behavior within social institutes in order to inform other disciplines like literary history.
Although the usefulness of empirical research literature is the principal theme of the upcoming conference, other issues are not excluded. You are invited to submit symposia, papers, and posters in the following (or related) fields, with a submission deadline of 1 February, 2010.
• Literary reading processes (emotion, cognition, personality, etc.);
• The social role of literature and related media (e.g. film, theatre, Internet, multimedia, virtual reality);
• Literature and media from an evolutionary perspective;
• Early literary / media socialization;
• Pedagogical and educational aspects of literature and the media;
• The processes of literary/media production, distribution and reception;
• The role of literary and other cultural institutions: past, present and future;
• The empirical study of historical reception and historical readers;
• Historical reception studies;
• Digital methods of research on literature and the media (corpus studies, hypertext models, etc.).

Membership of IGEL is inexpensive and open to everyone with an interest in empirical research on literature (click here for the Society's website). The 2010 IGEL conference website can be reached by clicking here; the site will shortly allow submissions to the conference to be made. This promises to be a really good meeting.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Interpreting Storied Landscapes

The negotiation of life paths--past obstacles, toward goals, through environmental interactions--leaves a record of these goals, obstacles, and interactions in the landscape that might be read by observers. The American landscape has been slighted as a particularly incomprehensible--or even boring--text; curmudgeons such as James Kunstler and Peter Blake call it "placeless" and complain, in books such as The Geography of Nowhere and God's Own Junkyard, that the suburban landscape, particularly--driven by relentless exploration and escape--has too much clutter, too much change, and too little commitment to make good reading. Four centuries of consumption of new landscapes and flight to greener pastures has certainly not made for the carefully composed landscape poetry of the Japanese hill village or the tightly organized novel of European urban fabric, but American literature has a particularly rich history of shaping and being shaped by the landscape, and Canadian literature, facing a much more daunting wilderness from a more urban perspective, has paralleled this storied landscape with its own strong tradition of place literature.

One need think only of Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Sarah Orne Jewett, or Laura Ingalls Wilder to call to mind how important literature has been for experiencing and understanding the environment. And tourism-shaped development of storied places like Montgomery's Prince Edward Island or Thoreau's Walden Pond demonstrates the way that landscapes are shaped and experienced through narratives; landscapes are changed constantly to reflect what people have read about them, and the way they interpret them now. This literary understanding of the world extends down to a quite basic level: psychologists' understanding of the way human experience of the world is experienced rests on concepts such as "narrative" and "metaphor." In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explicate how people organize ideas about the world in narrative form, and how basic concepts of thought are metaphorically structured. Narrative understanding of experience is built by drawing on more basic experiences to organize more complex ones, making metaphors central to the organization of experience. In this way, the meaning that individuals experience in, or attribute to, the environment is often symbolic, or metaphorical--some aspect of the environment triggers an association or stands in for something else.

Seeing that something is a metaphor or a symbol doesn't falsify or diminish it. Instead, it provides multiple layers in which to look at what sort of stories we tell ourselves and each other about the way we live and the way we want to live, and from what perspectives. This understanding of metaphor--something often discussed in the pages of OnFiction--is increasingly appearing in discourses of environmental planning and management. The metaphorical perspective also opens opportunities to decide--and change--how to tell and participate in those stories, rather than just be swept along by them. Understanding experience as narrative also makes the stories and metaphors of experience themselves richer, because it helps provide a framework for viewing human activities within the context of cultural and natural history--and for drawing on what other people have done facing similar opportunities and obstacles. Recognizing the ways human experience has been woven into the environment in this way may also help us to see our lives as much a part of as in opposition to the natural environment.

Peter Blake (1964). God's own junkyard; the planned deterioration of America's landscape. New York: Holt.

James Kunstler (1994). The geography of nowhere: the rise and decline of America's man-made landscape. New York: Simon & Schuster.

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Photo: Walden Pond.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Not Just Black and White

Crash, directed and co-written by Paul Haggis, is about collisions of people of different ethnic backgrounds in Los Angeles. It’s about the maiming of lives by the accident of race: biologically nugatory but culturally potent.

The film is a story of the lives of 14 main characters. It starts with the car of Ria (Jennifer Esposito) being rear-ended by that of an Asian woman, and with the drivers yelling racist invective at each other. Ria is the Latina working partner and bed partner of black detective Graham (Don Cheadle).

How does one make a film about race that is both engaging to watch and informative about some very fundamental issues in modern Western society? This is a pretty good attempt. The film's 14 characters range across black, white, and Asian, born in the USA and immigrants, high earners in glamorous occupations and people who scrape by. Every one of them is affected by race, and in the course of the film, one of the 14 characters kills another of them, in a way that few would predict.

The events of the film take place within a day and half. The drama is based (I imagine) on Aristotle's idea, in Poetics, of unity of time: "as far as it's length is concerned, tragedy tries as hard as it can to exist during a single daylight period, or to vary but little" (p. 24). And this film is a tragedy. The idea that occurred to me as I thought about the film was of Thornton Wilder's novella, The bridge of San Luis Rey, in which five people died at the same time, seemingly by chance, when a rope suspension bridge on the road between Lima and Cuzco collapsed in 1714. Did the event happen to just these five people because they were especially wicked, so that God decided to punish them? Were they especially loved by God so that as they were crossing the bridge he decided to call them all to His side? Wilder's story approaches these questions by tracing the lives of the people as they made their way towards the bridge. Was there anything that connected them apart from chance?

In a comparable way Haggis traces the lives of the 14 people in Los Angeles. They are connected by the cultural forces of racial difference. They are caught up in these forces, not because they are especially wicked or especially good. In the film, criminals and racist cops are at times moved to acts of generosity, and even the kindly characters are compromised by race.

Crash won the 2006 Oscar for best film. In my view it gives the physical beauty of the actors—who all seem rather film-starlike—too large a role in its appeal to us the viewers, and this may detract somewhat from its psychological insights. But it's still very good with memorable scenes and images. You can see a longer review of the film in our archive of Film Reviews, which you can reach by clicking here. It's watchable and thought-provoking; I would give it three stars on a five-star scale.

Aristotle. (c. 330 BC). Poetics (G. E. Else, Trans.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press (Current edition 1970).

Paul Haggis (Director) (2005) Crash. USA.

Thornton Wilder (1927). The bridge of San Luis Rey. New York: Boni.

Monday, November 2, 2009

OnFiction Poll: Frequency of Posts

Dear Readers,
We are considering changing the frequency of our posts to this site. Please take a second to vote in our poll (right column) and make your opinion known. Your feedback will be highly influential when we make our decision. The poll will end in 2 weeks.
Thank you, as always, for your continued interest and support.
Sincerely,
The OnFiction Editors

Writing as Thinking

Maja Djikic and I were pleased to get our article "Writing as thinking" into print because we'd had a bit of a struggle with the reviewers, and because we thought we were onto a good idea.

Here's the idea. Writing enables one to externalize thoughts and, out there on paper or the virtual paper of a computer screen, one can perhaps do different things with these thoughts than one can usually do with them inside one's head. Is there anything that can be done better? This is one of the questions we ask in the paper.

I have already written a post on part of our "Writing as thinking" paper, in which I discussed Gustave Flaubert's inventions for writing prose fiction (for which please click here). In the current post, I'll tell you a bit more about the paper, and also put it into the archive of Academic Papers (for which please click here).

After an introduction on the general theory of how writing might enhance mental capacities, there is a section of the paper about the approach of research psychologists to understanding what goes on in the minds of writers. The most compelling work is by John Hayes and Linda Flower (e.g. 1986). They studied contrasts between expert writers (journalists) and novices (high-school and university students). Their model is that writing has three phases, planning, sentence generation, and revision. They found large differences between experts and novices in all three phases. During planning experts had more concern for their readers; during sentence generation they produced longer sentence parts; during revision they made more alterations that changed the meaning of what they were writing.

So, here is a potential answer to our question about what can be done better in thinking-by-writing than by internal thinking. During revision, an old thought on paper or virtual paper can prompt a new thought in a different way than by internal thinking. And, because old and new thoughts are fixed by writing, one can get a sense of development that is not muddied by how well the thoughts of yesterday can be remembered.

An element we added to the experimental work of Hayes, Flower, and others, was from an interview I conducted with a fellow writer, Howard Engel, who is, I think, Canada's most distinguished author of detective fiction. One summer morning in 2001, Howard went out to fetch his newspaper from his front porch and found that it seemed to be written in what he described as "Serbo-Croatian." He had had a small stroke. His ability to write was unaffected, but except for the very smallest words, he couldn't read.

After his stroke, Howard's next mystery novel, The memory book, was about his detective, Benny Cooperman, being hit on the head while working on a case, and sustaining symptoms of the exactly the kind that he (Howard) has. It's an excellent book. But how was it completed? Here is part of a paragraph from "Writing as thinking" on my interview with Howard.
Engel described how he wrote a first draft [of The memory book] fairly quickly by typing into a word-processor, but then needed more input than usual from editors. A copy-editor with whom he had worked before tidied up the manuscript. Then his usual commissioning editor marked up his draft to show where to concentrate, for instance where the prose was “a bit soft,” or where he was being too wordy. At these places he spelled out his words, letter by letter, and turned them once again into language that was intelligible to him. Then he could work to improve the local area indicated by the editor. After this, the copy-editor worked on such matters as repetitions, and he corrected these. Then the copy-editor read the resultant draft aloud to him in its entirety. This allowed Engel to see where paragraphs had gone in unintended directions, and to see where to make larger alterations. He said: “It gave me a chance to stare it [the whole book] in the face, which was something I couldn’t do for myself” (p. 14).
Since that interview Howard has written a memoir, The man who forgot how to read. While he was writing it, I met him on the street one day, and he said he was feeling a bit miffed because he had wanted to write a memoir about several aspects of his life, but his editor wanted "the stroke, the whole stroke, and nothing but the stroke." In the book he has sneaked in something of his very interesting life, as well as what happened in the aftermath of the stroke. Between them, Howard and those who read his externalized thoughts back to him have written a wonderfully insightful and engaging book.

Howard Engel (2005). Memory book: A Benny Cooperman detective novel. Toronto: Penguin Canada.

Howard Engel (2007). The man who forgot how to read. Toronto: HarperCollins.

John Hayes & Linda Flower (1986). Writing research and the writer. American Psychologist, 41, 1106-1113.

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