Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Book Launch

Please, if you live in Toronto, come to the launch of my new novel Therefore Choose on Monday 3 May, at the North Ballroom of the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen Street West. It starts at 7.30pm (doors open at 7pm). There is a $5.00 entrance fee at the door, which is refunded with a purchase of the book. (If you can't come and would like to buy the book through Amazon, click here.) Maja Djikic and I will discuss the novel, and how it came to be written. We'll link the writing to the research we have done together on the psychology of fiction writers' emotions, and to the psychology of reading fiction.

I am back in Toronto now, having been detained in Europe for eight more days than I had expected, by a cloud of volcanic ash that hung over us there. I am looking forward to the launch, and I am making this post a day earlier than usual this week.

Therefore Choose is a love story in which an English medical student, George Smith, visits Germany in 1936 with a university friend, Werner Vodn. In Berlin he falls in love with Anna von Kleist who runs a literary magazine there. The book took me about three years to write.

I was born in London, England, six months before the start of World War II and it came as a shock to me recently to realize that of the ten earliest memories of my childhood, eight of them had to do with the war. These memories include being in an air-raid shelter, seeing a doodle-bug (V-1 flying bomb) coming over my house, seeing my father—rather unfamiliar to me—a medical officer in an artillery regiment, come home in uniform (before what I now realize was the Normandy invasion) with a jeep that he parked in the driveway! In part, the book was written to imagine myself into the lives of people at that time, somehow distant but somehow very close. In part, too, it was written to explore some of the complicated effects of this terrible war on everyone, then and since.

Patrick Colm Hogan has written a brilliant book, The mind and its stories, in which he describes reading stories from all round the world from before the age of European colonization. He found that some kinds of story are so common as to be human universals. The most common is the love story: two lovers are impeded from being united, usually by a relative or by a rival. The second most common is the story of angry conflict, usually is experienced as a battle of good against evil; the fight against the Nazis was certainly of this kind. My novel projects the theme of a love story into the theme of angry conflict, and in this story it is the conflict that impedes the lovers' union. Hogan has described how, in stories of conflict, after the killing has stopped, there is often what he calls an "epilogue of suffering" in which the victors feel guilt for the ways in which they themselves have behaved, and empathy for the vanquished. This idea is central to my novel. The question from which my book grew was this: what would it be like, after the war, to be a German who thought and felt in the ways the Allies believed Germans should think and feel at that time? In the novel, Anna does think and feel in this way. She and George are separated during the war. After it, George, on the side of the victors, continues to feel for her.

As I started on the book, I found that I was writing an existentialist novel. One makes choices all the time in life, but how does one choose when one has absolutely no idea what the results of such choices will be? Here is how I start a chapter towards the end of the book: "Life can only be understood backwards. That’s what Kierkegaard said. But then he said, The trouble is one has to live it forwards."

My goal in writing fiction is to put literature and psychology together, to enable readers to experience certain situations as they immerse themselves in the story. My intention is for these situations to resonate with people's ordinary lives, for instance with everyday episodes of love and conflict, but to be different from the ordinary so that readers can experience recurring situations in new ways. I think that, in the imagined scenes of fiction, we can sometimes reach into emotional issues that are closest to us more deeply than we often can in ordinary life.

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

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Monday, 26 April 2010

Encountering Mediation

First, although I'm moving onto what might be a new topic (my copy of Therefore Choose is still on the way, so I can't be quite sure how much of a shift away from Therefore Choose this new topic is), I could not bear to remove the compelling cover, so am maintaining it as the top image for a few days yet, with a link here to the post on the occasion of the release of Keith Oatley's new novel.

In the meantime (while I await delivery), I'm still mulling over some comments made on my recent posts on sublimation regarding tensions between enjoyment of -- and desire for -- unmediated-seeming experiences, on one hand, and, on the other, the enjoyable complexity of thinking about and focusing on mediation itself. Up for discussion in the original conversation was the erotic, and the attractiveness of experiences that seem direct and straightforward, and that offer a sense of being there without having to think too much about how that experience gets formed, or made. (I acknowledge here that my thinking about mediation has been influenced considerably by Kanishka Goonewardena and Thomas de Zengotita, even if neither of them has been preoccupied by this fiction-oriented context.)

On one hand, fiction is highly sought after for precisely the clarity of its immersive experience: we lose ourselves in stories, and often judge them by the capacity they offer for this immersion. On the other hand, we also relish language for its richness, something that may support our experience of stories at the same time it draws attention to the textual character of a text. It's easy to say that perhaps there's a sweet spot of balance between the desire for beautiful text and the desire for encompassing story -- but I suspect that rather than some predictable balance, what we would find instead would be a range of different profiles of preference. An indicator for such profiles might be something such as how much a viewer was bothered by or enjoyed the violation of the 'fourth wall' in the film Magnolia -- a move that disrupts the realism of the film and demands that the viewer consider what is being constructed and not merely enjoy or believe in the narrative as it unfolds.

Recognizing that affection for complexity is a matter of both taste and capacity, I close this reflection on mediation with an additional recognition that I find helpful, if prosaic: the ways one encounters mediation (exploratorily, impatiently, delusionally, etc.) have a lot to do with the demands of the situation. Simple, direct ideas may leave more space for thinking, which in some cases is crucial or at least desirable. But it might be possible to categorize the desire to experience texts 'directly' or in an 'immediate' way as demanding. In contrast, complex layered ideas that demand consideration of their provenance, intent, and the conventions and tactics of storytelling at play in a given story may construct rich interactive affordances that reward a more generous approach, one that may require more bandwidth for reading (and particular features of personality?), but that has its own rewards.

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Thursday, 22 April 2010

Therefore Choose

Tomorrow my new novel, Therefore choose, will be published. The publisher, Goose Lane Editions, has written the following blurb, which appears on the front flap of the cover.
“Life can only be understood backwards. That’s what Kierkegaard said. The trouble is one has to live it forwards.”

On a summer visit to Germany, George, a young medical student at Cambridge, meets Anna von Kleist, whose intellectual force, beauty, and self-assurance smite him full in the heart.

It is 1936. Hitler is already in power, and a shift has occurred in Germany that Anna, George, and their friend Werner have not fully grasped. Europe is on the cusp of war when the three find themselves in a painful love triangle that plays between England and Germany.

A love story on a grand scale, Therefore Choose is set in a world where a single choice can affect the direction of a life, a country, or even a continent. Facing decisions that will forever alter the course of their lives, George, Anna, and Werner must choose and live with the irrevocable consequences.
I would like to be home in Toronto for the publication of my book but, due to a cloud of volcanic ash, I am involuntarily confined to Europe at least until the weekend.

Therefore choose is my third novel, my most personal so far. You can get it at Amazon, for which click here. I also hope that from tomorrow onwards you can get it from bookshops in Canada. When I have returned home, I'll write another post on the background to my writing of the book.

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Monday, 19 April 2010

The Living Room

The long legs of the table, curved gently, elegant and still, like legs of an antelope in the long grass, her head raised high - remembering some long forgotten question. The heavy, immobile worn out couch, an elephant unwilling to budge its tree-like trunk. The sharp edges of books, long worn out by too much touch and still lovingly calling for more. The chair, its black rollers, hooves of a horse – not just any horse, but a dark-honey-colored mare with a white streak across her nose and neck. I close my eyes, hoping they would quiet down. There’s work to be done.

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Thursday, 15 April 2010

Tedium of Tea

“If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for tedious.”

So writes Janet Malcolm in her Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography in the recent The New York Review of Books (XVII, 7). Invention and self-love – these are secret ingredients that Malcolm claims make the best autobiographical brews. Indeed, we have all suffered through autobiographies bursting with unwarranted detail that could be of interest only to the author, or done in a severe spirit of self-castigation that would make even the hardiest reader wince in embarrassment. It is a story of the extraordinary, then, of great drama, that we want to read, no? Not being able to acquiesce with this rather reasonable statement made me squirm a bit.

I got up from my chair and went to the bookshelf. From among my shabby paperbacks stood out a few dignified library hard-covers, still stubbornly collecting fines. One that I was searching for - Fragrant Palm Leaves – was a set of journals from 1960s written by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. I settled back in my chair and opened the book, randomly.

“I prefer to stay in during the afternoon. I read, write, prepare lessons, and answer letters. Sometimes David comes to the apartment with Steve, and we eat dinner – quietly and peacefully – in the living room. Steve and David continue their conversation while I wash the dishes. When I wash the dishes, I feel relaxed. The water is warm and soothing. Sometimes I even play with the soap bubbles and hum childhood songs. I wipe the stove clean, put things away, and then take a hot shower, change clothes, and join Steve and David."

Really? Washing dishes? I opened the book on another page.

“When Auntie finishes ladling the broth, she sprinkles fish sauce and fresh herbs into the bowl and sets it on the tray. Then she wipes a pair of chopsticks with the clean cloth that hangs on her carrying yoke, and hands them to the customer.”

I closed the book, knowing well that no matter which page of the book I were to open, there would be another inconspicuous detail, ensconced gently between the more properly dramatic themes of the book – political exiles, hunger strikes, and Buddhist revelations. I realized, then, that rather than the background of the story, these details were really the foreground, and that the endless cups of tea that the author had prepared and enjoyed and then told us about preparing and enjoying, that these were the sumptuous feasts which stimulated the appetite, that presented the challenge inherent in any good autobiography – to live better.

I got up from my chair. I can have tea, too. And it can be every bit as rich as one I have read about. I walked to the kitchen. Yesterday’s dishes were piled in the sink, and the sight repelled me so, that I wanted to give up my tea. But, no, if a Vietnamese monk could enjoy his tea in a forest where tigers and ticks abound, I would not be deterred by a sink full of dirty dishes. I flipped the switch of the kettle, wondering with irritation whose turn it was to do the dishes. The click of the teapot signaled I should put the teabag into the cup, and within a few seconds, I had a steaming cup of tea in my hands. I stood there happy with myself. Except… I should really have a cookie with it. And so loaded with the cup and the cookie, and some cashew nuts (for later), I arrived back into my living room and slipped back into my chair. Then I opened the Fragrant Palm Leaves again and read, while sipping on the tea and snacking on the cookie, wondering all the while why it all seemed so much more sumptuous in the book.

Perhaps the quotidian is tedious to others only if tedious to oneself, only if it fails to enrich, deepen, and broaden the experience. It is a rare person and a rare book that can make us understand that nothing is tedious in itself no matter how quotidian, and that what stands between us and joy in everyday experience is our own mindless self. And so Thich Nhat Hanh’s book managed to show me, ever so gently, that if I didn’t know how to drink my tea – it was not tea’s fault.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1966). Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.

Malcolm, Janet. Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography. New York Review of Books, April 29, 2009 (Volume LVII, Number 7), p.16.

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Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Research Bulletin: Social Concepts in the Brain

A number of papers have reviewed the neuroscience work pertaining to the processing of stories (Mar, 2004; Ferstl et al., 2008). These articles have revealed a network of brain areas that seems to be consistently involved when people either read or hear stories. The functions performed by each individual region, however, have been the subject of much debate. Recently, however, a study has helped to greatly disambiguate one particular brain region, the anterior temporal lobes (see picture). While some have hypothesized that this region helps us make connections between individual sentences, others have argued that this region acts to represent semantic information, irrespective of the domain of knowledge. Simmons and colleagues (2010) examined the brain’s response to learning facts about different people, buildings or hammers. They found that the anterior temporal region demonstrated a selective response to facts about people, indicating that this part of the brain might be key to processing social information. In a separate analysis, they also found that this brain region was closely associated with other parts of the brain also implicated in social processing. This study adds to the growing body of evidence that story processing and social processing are closely related.

Ferstl EC, Neumann J, Bogler C, von Cramon DY. 2008. The extended language network: A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies on text comprehension. Hum. Brain Mapp. 29:581–593.

Mar RA. 2004. The neuropsychology of narrative: Story comprehension, story production and their interrelation. Neuropsychologia. 42:1414–1434.

Simmons WK, Reddish M, Bellgowan PSF, Martin A. (2010). The selectivity and functional connectivity of the anterior temporal lobes. Cereb. Cortex. 20:813–825.

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Thursday, 8 April 2010

Actor and Observer

Actor-observer bias is a concept used by psychologists to indicate how we tend to see others and ourselves in different ways. I like to think of it like this. If I see someone walk across a room and nearly trip over a child's toy that has been left on the floor, I tend to think that person is clumsy. If I walk across the room and almost trip in exactly the same way myself, I tend to think that it's because the toy shouldn't have been there. So although this trait may be called a bias, often it's a complete discrepancy between the way we see others and the way we see ourselves. The idea is related to the so-called fundamental attribution error in which, when we observe another person, we tend to make the error of discounting the causes of that person's behaviour that arise from the situation the person is in.

This set of ideas derives from Fritz Heider, who formulated the theory in social psychology that is known as attribution theory, about how we try to understand the behaviour of others and ourselves in terms of its causes.

Fiction enables us to overcome the actor-observer discrepancy, to understand from the position of being inside someone how that person might act in a particular situation. The way I have put it is that in planning and acting in our own lives we use an aspect of our mind that I've called the planning processor. With it, we use our knowledge of how the world works to understand the effects of possible actions and, as we pursue our goals, we can thus plan what to do. When we read fiction and identify with a protagonist, we enter mentally into a quiet space and put aside our own goals. Instead, we insert the goals and plans of the story's protagonist into our planning processor so that, when the story indicates that this happened, or that, we experience emotions—our own emotions—in response to the happenings and in relation to the protagonist's goals and plans that we've taken on. This is one of the ways in which we can start to see what it is like to be someone else. I am tempted to say that this is the best way in which we can see what it is like to be someone else.

I can't speak French. And because people are often so eager in their speaking that they forget to leave spaces between their words, I usually can't understand more than the occasional phrase of spoken French. But with a dictionary and with mental application over a sufficient period of time, I sometimes like to read and translate written pieces from French authors. In this way I have made the following translation from Proust (1913) about the not-yet-invented actor-observer discrepancy. In it, Proust takes the issue even further than did the gallant Heider.
A real human being, however profoundly we sympathize with him, is perceived largely by our senses. This means that he remains opaque to us, and offers a dead weight that our perceptions cannot lift. If a misfortune should strike him, it is only in a small part of the total understanding we have of him that we can be moved by this. Even more, it is only in a part of the total understanding he has of himself that he can be moved by himself. The discovery of the writer of fiction is the idea of replacing those parts that are impenetrable to the mind by an equal quantity of immaterial parts, that is to say parts that our minds can assimilate (p. 84).
Fritz Heider (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York: Wiley.

Marcel Proust (1913). Du côté de chez Swann. Paris: Gallimard (current publication 1987).

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Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Quick Hit: Online Lit-crit

Emma Roberts has e-mailed me to draw attention to an article—a blogliography really—she has just posted on her site of 50 places at which you can find literary criticism online. You can reach it by clicking here. We are pleased that OnFiction is on her list, even though it's less that we do lit-crit, more that we do psychology of fiction.

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Monday, 5 April 2010

Narrative Therapy

Two pursuits that run parallel to the psychology of fiction are the narrative theory of personality and narrative therapy.

The narrative theory of personality was developed by Dan McAdams (e.g. 2001). His idea is of identity as life-story: people give their lives unity and meaning by constructing them into narratives. Among the interesting results of this approach is the finding by Kate McLean (2006) that in adolescence people stop thinking of themselves in terms of what they like and dislike ("my favorite colour is yellow, and I don't like pizza") and start thinking of themselves in terms of a story of their actions and the outcomes of these actions extended in time.

Narrative therapy is another approach that takes up ideas from the psychology of narrative. Its founders were Michael White and David Epston (1990). I recently watched a recorded session from a family therapy conference held in San Francisco in 1989 in which Michael White was invited as a master therapist to interview a family: a mother, a father, an 18-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. Six years previously the son had set fire to a garage in the street where the family lived and recently, in the psychiatric facility in which the son was now living, he had set fire to two garbage cans. This was, as it were, the official story. An adolescent given to fire-setting was embarked on a trajectory in which he might be a danger to others. What should be done with this young man? Should he be involuntarily contained?

When Michael White interviewed the family he asked the son about his experience of the facility in which he was living. The son said that members of the staff had maltreated some of the other residents, and that he felt like "going on strike" on his friends' behalf. Part of White's reading-with-approval has been Michel Foucault (e.g. 1979) who identifies the state as able to impose a power-backed truth on its citizens. White was evidently pleased to hear the idea of a strike.

What struck me, however, was something different, more integral with the idea that narrative brings us close to who we are. White identified the idea of a strike as the son's loyalty to his friends. Parallel to this, he asked the daughter of the family about herself. She said she wasn't a kid anymore, and White asked her to say what she had noticed in herself that let her know this. He started, in other worlds, to co-write the son and the daughter as agents in their lives: he as someone loyal, concerned about injustice, and she as becoming more responsible, for instance in keeping her room tidy. They were the authors of their actions, feelings, and thoughts. So, rather than being the behaviour therapist who suggests that people take new kinds of actions and hence have new kinds of experience of themselves, and rather than speaking psychoanalytically to offer interpretations of unacknowledged motivations so that their actions might become comprehensible, White identified people as authors of their actions and—like literary characters—with thoughts and feelings about these actions, which had implications for the future.

One of the sources of Michael White's ideas was Actual lives, possible worlds (1986) in which Jerome Bruner describes narrative as a fundamental and distinctive way of thinking about human agency and intentions, and the vicissitudes these intentions meet. Bruner says it contrasts with paradigmatic thinking, as in science, philosophy, and history, which involves categories, mechanisms, and formal operations. Bruner also writes about the landscape of action and the landscape of consciousness in fiction. (The actions and thoughts-about-actions of the son and daughter in this family reflected these two landscapes.) Bruner emphasizes, too, that in narrative there are always alternative interpretations. If this is so, White was encouraging the members of this family towards a mode which is, perhaps, the fundamental way in which we think about what we are doing in our lives and—because of the idea of alternatives—towards the idea of choice.

Using the part of our mind that I have called the planning processor, we are able to project the effects of actions into the future and, running the processor the other way round, to understand the intentions and character of others (and ourselves) from sequences of actions.

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

Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Harmondsworth: Peregrine.

Dan McAdams (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5, 100-122.

Kate McLean (2005). Late adolescent identity development: Narrative meaning making and memory telling. Developmental Psychology, 41, 683-691.

Michael White & David Epston (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.

Photo: The Dulwich Centre, Adelaide, Australia, home of Narrative Therapy (click here).

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Thursday, 1 April 2010

Leave It to Oprah

Readers get seriously exercised by memoirs that turn out to be fictional. There is furor and indignation. There are hurt feelings and betrayed trust. Frequently, writers chime in, bemoaning (a bit too loudly) the self-promotion of morally challenged authors and questionable motivations of sloppy publishing companies who don’t research their memoirists well enough. All are incensed that the eternally elusive mistress of literature – truth – has been violated.

Truth in the world of the arts, however, defies our usual categorical frameworks. Many literature lovers would say the most truthful things they have known exist between the covers of their favorite book. The ‘real life’, on the other hand, at times brims with falsehoods of so many shades that it can make you want to shut your eyes real tight, and stumble toward literature once again. It is the everyday facts of life that should be on trial, not literary fictions (please see Oatley, K., 1999, Why Fiction May be Twice as True as Fact in our archives).

Let us not judge fake memoirists because they have invented, created, imagined their characters. Let us leave the detective work of ‘realness’ and accompanying indignation to Oprah. Instead, as lovers of literature, we can take each word on each page and read it as any other word on any other page – looking for truths that transcend the persuasive apparitions brewed by our primate brains that we so casually call facts.
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