Monday, June 28, 2010

Review: The Art of Reading

Not a print book but an audio book or, if you prefer and can afford it, a video book, Timothy Spurgin's set of 24 lectures for The Teaching Company, called The Art of Reading, can definitely be recommended. The ground is relatively familiar. There are several dozen books that introduce fiction, that point out elements of its structure, such as narration, characters, plot and so on, and that illustrate the points being made by discussing works of famous writers from Miguel de Cervantes to Virginia Woolf. We review some of them in our Archive of Books on the Psychology of Fiction (click here). Spurgin follows this pattern and he manages to be informal, informative, and to range widely. The lectures reach some places that not all such introductions reach—for instance discussions of metafiction and of Alice Munro's short stories.

A representative example of Spurgin's treatment is the way in which he has taken a cue from Peter Brooks's Reading for the plot to discuss the Russian Formalists' distinction between fabula, often translated as "story" (or the chronological series of events in a story) and sjuzet, often translated as "plot" (or the way in which the writer presents the story). Spurgin suggests that Arthur Conan-Doyle’s detective, Sherlock Holmes is an ideal reader.  He reads the clues (the sjuzet) in order to reconstruct events, including the commission of a crime, as they occurred in chronological order (the fabula).

Principally, what makes this lecture series good, is Spurgin's strong and thoughtful suggestion that reading fiction is an art in something like the way that writing fiction is an art. He introduces what he calls a set of tools that can be used by the reader to think about a piece of fiction during reading. One such tool is that of stopping from time to time to wonder how one feels about a particular character, and about what that character has done and seems likely to do. Another is to consider what parallels there might be between a character and oneself. The emphasis is on how the reader engages with a narrator or character, on how valuable it can be to think about what the meaning might be of a particular scene, or of a particular action or piece of inaction in a story. In this frame of mind the reader can take part mentally in a kind of dialogue with a book.

Peter Brooks (1984). Reading for the plot: Design and intention in narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Timothy Spurgin (2009). The art of reading. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010


Do you ever stand before your bookcase, wanting something, but not quite knowing what? Like having an unnamed food craving and ferreting through the fridge, through the cabinets, hoping that even though you don’t know what you are searching for, you might find it anyway. That is how it feels to me, scanning through the spines, pulling out a book here, only to put it back there, dissatisfied. What is this nameless hunger only a right book will sate?

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Monday, June 21, 2010

Conference: IGEL in Utrecht

In November last year we did a post on IGEL, an acronym for the German translation of the International Society for Empirical Research on Literature (click here). This society has goals that are close to those of OnFiction, and Raymond Mar and I are both due to attend its 2010 conference in Utrecht, from 7 to 11 July. Perhaps some of you are signed up to attend, too. I hope so; it will be good to see you there. To join IGEL go their website (click here) where you will also find a link to the conference program.

This year's conference is organized by Frank Hakemulder (who has contributed to OnFiction, click here). Its keynote speakers give an excellent sense of some of the interesting research in our area, which I thought I might take the opportunity of mentioning in this post.

The first keynote speaker in Utrecht will be Gerry Cupchik, who has worked for many years in psychological aesthetics, studying visual and literary art. In an interesting recent paper with Michelle Hilsher (Hilsher & Cupchik, 2005) the researchers compared responses to poetry presented in three different ways. They found that people preferred to read poetry themselves rather than to listen to it, to hear it, or to see it performed, because in reading they were better able to explore and interpret literary devices in an independent and creative manner.

The second keynote speaker is Joan Peskin (who has contributed to OnFiction, click here). She has been influential in showing how the methodology of expertise can be applied to reading literature. In a 1998 article, for instance, she showed that expert readers (graduate students in English) of pieces of metaphysical poetry that were unknown to them were able to employ concepts that were more useful and more far reaching in understanding a poem than novices (undergraduates), who tended to spend their time worrying over words and phrases.

The third keynote speaker is Susanne Janssen who studies the way in which literary culture and media are taken up in society. With Giselinde Kuipers and Marc Verboord (2008) she conducted a large study of arts coverage in newspapers in USA and several European counties. The researchers found that international coverage increased in European countries between1955 and 2005 in a manner the researchers called "globalization from within," but this had not occurred in USA. In all the countries studied, non-Western arts remained under-represented.

The next keynote is by Peter Vorderer and Bradford Owen. I first met Peter about fifteen years ago, when he told me about a study he had headed (published as Vorderer, Knobloch, & Schramm, 2001), in which he and his colleagues had used two versions of a German commercial TV movie. In an experiment the film was stopped at one point, and some of the watchers were asked to say whether they would like to see (a) the female character hand some money to the male protagonist, or (b) to see her kiss him, or (c) to see the version that the director preferred. If they chose (c) they saw either the (a) version or the (b) version. After the scene in which the money hand-over or the kiss occurred, the movie was the same for everybody. The researchers found that for those who had not graduated from high school the traditional, more passive, experience produced the most empathy and suspense, while those who had graduated from high-school were able to enhance their experience by making a choice. (Bradford Owen has recently completed his PhD, which was also on effects of cognitive capacity on enjoyment of film.)

The fifth keynote speaker is Sheldon Solomon, whose work I did not previously know. His title is "The worm at the core: The role of death in life and literature." Solomon has concentrated his research on why we suffer terror. A much cited article is of Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, et al.'s (1990) study in which they showed that when people were reminded of their own mortality they became more likely to favour their in-group and to discriminate against an out-group.

The rest of the conference program looks pretty good too!

Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon et al., (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 308-318.

Susanne Janssen, Giselinde Kuipers & Marc Verboord (2008). Cultural globalization and arts journalism: The international orientation of arts and culture coverage in Dutch, French, German, and U.S. newspapers, 1955 to 2005. American Sociological Review, 73, 719-740.

Michelle Hilsher & Gerald Cupchik (2005). Reading, hearing, and seeing poetry performed. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 23, 47-64.

Joan Peskin (1998). Constructing meaning when reading poetry: An expert-novice study. Cognition and Instruction, 16, 235-263.

Peter Vorderer, Silvia Knobloch & Holger Schramm (2001). Does entertainment suffer from interactivity? The impact of watching an interactive TV Movie on viewers' experience. Media Psychology, 3, 342-363.
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Friday, June 18, 2010

Research Bulletin: Neural Bases of Creative Writing

I recently returned from the 16th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, held in Barcelona. By far the most relevant presentation I saw at the conference was conducted by researchers from the University of Greifswald in Germany. Led by Katharina Erhard, the researchers examined neural underpinnings of creative writing. While in an MRI scanner, the participants engaged in a number of different tasks, including reading, copying a text, brainstorming, and creative writing (continuing a given portion of text). Verbal creativity was also assessed in all of the participants. Although a number of analyses were reported, perhaps the most interesting was a correlation between brain areas and verbal creativity. The left temporal pole, mentioned in an earlier post in relation to social semantic information, left inferior frontal gyrus, were correlated with verbal creative processes. The real import of this study, however, is that the creative writing process has become a topic of interest for neuroscientists. I anticipate that the coming years are likely to bring a wealth of new information regarding how the brain processes and creates stories. These are indeed exciting times.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Everyone Has a Novel

One hears it said that everyone has a novel in them. Of course everyone has a life story. But the idea of a novel inside, waiting to be poured onto the page as one might pour tea into one's cup? Even prolific novelists don't have that. The novel isn't in there. It only emerges as the writer offers thoughts up to paper or a computer screen, reads them, finds they weren't yet the thoughts that would make the piece go, changes them, and iterates round this thinking circle many times.

What the novel needs is thinking. Writing on paper has provided a way of augmenting thinking so that one's thoughts can not only be communicated to others, but also to oneself.  In the communication to oneself the thoughts can be improved, extended, projected into areas that otherwise one would never have considered. The prose writer who seems first to have grasped this idea explicitly, and turned it into a method, was Gustave Flaubert; his method of writing-as-thinking as widely and deeply as possible in the construction of a story was described in an OnFiction post of 16 February 2009  (click here). The effect of iteration round the drafting circle is that the topics of the writing—characters, events, thoughts, verbal expressions—have been thought about deeply. A poet can spend weeks on a fourteen-line sonnet. A writer of short-stories can take months to write a ten-page story. A novelist can take years to write a novel. So unlike a paragraph in a newspaper, or a news snippet, or many of the pieces one reads on the internet, the subject of such application by an imaginative writer has been thought about all the way down to its fundamentals. This fact alone can separate many books from some of the ephemera of the internet.

But what enables a writer to spend all this time thinking on a single subject? Maja Djikic, Jordan Peterson, and I (2006) explored the idea that it's the emotions, particularly unresolved emotions which provide the motivation to keep iterating round the circle of externalizing and internalizing thoughts (see our article in the Archive of Academic Papers). Phil Johnson-Laird and colleagues have recently shown that people with certain kinds of mental illness, for instance of anxiety states and depression, are not disordered in their thinking about the emotional issues of their illness (see for instance, Johnson-Laird in How we reason, 2006). They actually think better than normal people on these emotional issues. That is to say when offered a problem that has to do with the particular emotion which is at the centre of their condition (for instance anxiety or depression), they construct a larger array of mental models, and make better inferences. By contrast people who are not suffering from an emotional problem, tend to make more mistakes because they do not explore sufficient possibilities of a problem, and they tend stop too soon. According to these results, an emotional disorder does not occur because sufferers are thinking in a distorted way about their problem. Their thinking is not distorted. It is excessive.

It occurred to me recently that writing has some qualities of people in anxiety states, depression etc. Like the person with an emotional disorder, the writer thinks long and hard about an issue's emotional implications. Drawing on the augmentation provided by paper, the writer turns this obsessional thinking not into an illness but into a work of art. 

Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley & Jordan Peterson (2006). The bitter-sweet labor of emoting:  The linguistic comparison of writers and physicists. Creativity Research Journal, 18, 191-197.

Philip Johnson-Laird (2006). How we reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Image: A near-final draft by George Orwell, of his 1984, in which he finally achieves his famous first line: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book Review: The Psychology of Creative Writing

The book I am reviewing today is not a handbook—at least the title does not indicate that it is such. However, The Psychology of Creative Writing, edited by two accomplished psychologists interested in creativity, Scott Barry Kaufman and James C. Kaufman, functions like one. Granted, handbooks in psychology tend to run between 600 and 800 pages, while this tome runs to only 370, although A Handbook of Wisdom: Psychological Perspectives, also published by Cambridge, has only 368 pages of text, and the editors had either the audacity—or the wisdom—to call it a handbook. The point here is that I have found in the year since I acquired this book that I have consulted it many times, as I would a handbook. I’ve read articles, consulted and reconsulted references, and kept it closer to my desk than other works on the psychology of creative writing. That’s what I would call a handbook.

This rich collection of papers by (mostly) psychologists who research creative writing from a great variety of perspectives offers major sections on the writer, text, process, development, and education. The section on the writer treats creative writers’ personalities, psychopathologies, mood variability and regulation among student journalists and creative writers, screenwriters’ psychological characteristics, and personality, intelligence and self-monitoring in comedy writers. All of the papers in this section are strong, but I found particularly interesting Adèle Kohányi’s discussion of her finding that both student creative writers and student journalists experienced lower mood variability than non-writers across a 14-day period of recording their emotions and their intensities. Her discussion is detailed, balanced, and the literature review is excellent.

The next section, the briefest, is on the text and includes papers on the evolution of creative writing, literary creativity and physiognomy, and Shakespeare’s developing creativity as evidenced in a close analysis of the language of the plays and sonnets. Examining creative writing from an expert performance perspective, Dean Keith Simonton empirically demonstrates that, across Shakespeare’s career, he used less archaic and more colloquial words and expressions. Simonton sees this as the playwright’s drive toward originality. He shows that it is possible to predict a play’s date from stylistic qualities, and popularity is greater for those sonnets that treat a distinctive theme, employ a large number of varied words-to-total words ratio, more adjectives, more “primary process imagery” (p. 138), and use more common words in the latter part of the sonnet. Finally, he examines the question of Shakespearian authorship of those works attributed to the bard. This is the sort of exemplary article you’d want to assign to a research methodology class in either psychology or English.

The section on the writing process examines stages and processes of creative writing, distributed cognition in writing, writing as a vehicle for self-expression and problem resolution, and the writing of science fiction and fantasy from a cognitive science perspective. I particularly enjoyed this last chapter in the section. Thomas B. Ward and Thomas Lawson take a “creative cognition approach” in which their objective is to examine how the retrieval of knowledge at different levels of specificity and abstraction contribute to the believability of the fiction and quality of the reader’s processing of science-fictional worlds. Breadth of both specific and abstract levels of knowledge allow the writer to escape the “path-of-least-resistance” phenomenon, in which individuals “retrieve and use highly specific, basic-level instances of stored concepts when they create novel ideas within conceptual domains” (p. 198). They also explore concept combination, in which two concepts not previously joined in the mind of the writer, and likely the reader, are joined to great effect. On the whole, I found their points concerning knowledge-based constraints on writing convincing and well argued; they also happen to cite a book chapter with one of the more amusing titles around: “First sew on a tentacle (recipes for believable aliens)”. . .

The papers in the section on development address flow in writing, the use of imagery to enhance creativity, relationships among pretend play, emotional processes and creative writing, and the health benefits of expressive writing. In this last chapter, Janel D. Sexton and James W. Pennebaker review much of the research paradigm undertaken by Pennebaker and colleagues since the 1980’s. The intervention used is simple: ask participants to focus on and write about a traumatic event they have experienced. The health benefits shown to follow this and variations on this intervention have been noteworthy: less doctor visits, reports of greater well-being, stronger immune functioning, reduced symptoms and medication use, improved self-image, reduced depression, and the list goes on. This line of research has also established that certain usages of language are linked to health and others not. For example, users of the pronoun “I” more often than others, tend to be less healthy and more depressed. This chapter doesn’t really address creative writing, if one takes the phrase to mean the writing of fiction, plays, screenplays, and poetry. The authors do cite an older study that showed benefits to those who wrote about an imaginary trauma, and a more recent study addressing one’s writing about one’s own best possible self. Granted, these are forms of writing based upon one’s imagination of non-existent entities, but that’s not the kind of creative writing that most of this collection is about. To my knowledge, there has been no study of what a structured fiction-writing exercise based in part on Pennebaker’s intervention might achieve in health benefits. Such studies would make an important contribution to theory in the psychology of creative writing and would likely have useful practical applications as well.

I began reading the last section, on education, with somewhat lowered expectations. Sometimes, in addressing the educational aspect of a field of psychology, theory exposition becomes imprecise and empirical work is not as detailed as it might be. This education section is refreshing. The theory is substantial and nuanced and the reports of empirical work rigorous in chapters on how rewards undermine creativity, the influence of the writer’s belief on the development of the writer’s persona, and the importance of the teacher’s response and evaluative techniques on student writing success. The concluding chapter, on instructing adolescents in the identification and production of creative metaphor among Chinese learners, is particularly strong empirically, and makes an important contribution to the field of creative metaphor pedagogy.

I learned a lot from this book. Upon reflection, it seems to me that the only thing missing here that one usually finds in handbooks is a chapter on the history of the development of the subfield at issue. However, although there is a substantial psychological literature on creative processes across domains, and on creative writing in disciplines other than psychology, the science of psychology has only very recently (in the last 15 years) turned its methods and tools to the process of creative writing. It is an exciting time to be working in this area, and this volume a good one to have at hand.

Kaufman, S. B., & Kaufman, J. C. (2009). The psychology of creative writing. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Research Bulletin: Scene in the Imagination

How does a writer enable a reader to imagine a scene? A paper by Jennifer Summerfield, Demis Hassabis, and Eleanor Maguire (2010) has offered a step towards answering this. Recent studies of brain imaging have identified what researchers call a core network of brain areas that are involved in: memories of events from our lives, imaginings of future possibilities, and navigating in the world (click here). Researchers study these processes to understand how we negotiate the day-to-way world, but it seems likely that they are also involved in sustaining the simulation that a reader constructs when reading a novel or short story.

Summerfield et al. have—as they put it—slowed down the constructive process of imagination by presenting to participants in an fMRI machine between three and six spoken phrases, each of which is an element of a naturalistic scene. Here is an example of three phrases (elements) they used: "a dark blue carpet" … "a carved chest of drawers … "an orange striped pencil." As they heard each succession of phrases, participants were asked to imagine a scene containing the elements, and later to report on the vividness of the result. At the same time, the researchers were looking to see which brain areas were activated as each element was presented. They identified three brain areas of the core network that were important: the hippocampus (plus some associated areas), the intra-parietal sulcus (plus another area), and the lateral prefrontal cortex.

When the first element was presented, the hippocampus and associated areas were most activated but, with the presentation of the second element the activity of these areas decreased. With presentation of the third element activity in these areas increased again. A different pattern was seen with the inter-parietal sulcus: with the presentation of each additional element from one to three, the activity of this area and an associated area increased in a stepwise fashion. The lateral prefrontal cortex showed yet another pattern. It became activated only with the presentation of the second element, and its activity was sustained with the presentation of subsequent elements. For all three of the core brain areas, presenting phrases (elements) beyond the first three did not produce additional changes. The participants confirmed that three elements were sufficient to construct a scene to its maximum vividness.

The idea of this study bears a striking parallel to the ideas of Elaine Scarry (1999) who has proposed that, to enable a reader to imagine a scene, a writer must offer what she calls instructions. She says Thomas Hardy and Marcel Proust are particularly good at this, and she gives some helpful ideas about the kinds of instructions that work well for constructing scenes (see micro review in our Archive: Books on the Psychology of Fiction).

I find it interesting that Summerfield and her colleagues used descriptive phrases rather than just words as their elements. This reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez saying in an interview that in fiction it's no good writing "There was a butterfly." One must write: "There was a yellow butterfly."

I don't know whether anyone has counted the number of phrases different writers use to prompt their readers mentally to construct a good scene. I happen to be reading and re-reading my way through Anton Chekhov's short stories. As I was writing this post, it  occurred to me to count the elements in a scene that was sufficiently vivid for me to remember from a story that I had read an hour previously. The story is "Gusev" in Richard Pevear's and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation of Chekhov's stories. It is about a discharged private solider, Gusev, who has been in the East for five years. He is on a ship supposedly on his way home. Although neither Gusev nor we the readers know it at the beginning of the story, he is dying. He imagines a scene from his homeland:
He pictures an enormous pond covered with snow … On one side of the pond, a porcelain factory, the color of brick, with a tall smokestack and clouds of black smoke: on the other side a village… Out of a yard, the fifth from the end, drives a sleigh with his brother Alexei in it (ellipsis points in the original, p. 110).
Is this three elements? It depends, I suppose, on how you count. I count the pond, the factory, the village with a sleigh. In the story, the ex-soldier starts to elaborate the scene in his memory. His brother is tipsy, and in the sleigh are his brother's children. Each element is more elaborate than any used by Summerfield and her colleagues. And—as is usual in a story—in the scene, actions begin to occur; the sleigh driving out is one such, and the next is one of the children in the sleigh laughing while the other's face can't be seen because it is wrapped up. Gusev thinks the children might be getting chilled. Perhaps the fMRI researchers are right.  Perhaps three elements are enough to get a good scene going. But perhaps the writers are right, too: the next thing for research might be that, after establishing parts of a static scene, they might consider an experiment in which actions occur. Elaine Scarry also has good things to say about giving readers instructions for imagining actions.

Anton Chekhov (1883-1903). Anton Chekhov: Stories (Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, Trans.). New York: Bantam (current edition 2000).

Elaine Scarry (1999). Dreaming by the book. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jennifer Summerfield, Demis Hassabis & Eleanor Maguire (2010). Differential engagement of brain regions within a ‘core’ network during scene construction. Neuropsychologia, 48, 1501-1509.

Image: From Summerfield et al.'s paper, showing the activation of the hippocampus as greatest with the first element (1E) and third element (3E) in the presentation of a series of descriptive phrases.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Blogging as Renaissance-Style Correspondence

Last month OnFiction had a birthday. We have been on the web-waves now for just over two years, and this is our 282nd post.  We generally have between 50 and 100 unique visitors a day to our site. We are read also by the many people who take OnFiction as Followers and who receive it by e-mail, RSS, and other feeds. We would like to thank all of you, our readers, for being with us, for contributing with your interest and your comments.

A group of us started OnFiction because we had met every two or three weeks over a few years as a writing group. Then one of us moved away from Toronto and another had a new baby. OnFiction became a way of continuing to share our intellectual life on the topics of writing and reading, and also a way of opening it to others whom we did not know.

Until I read Johan Huizinga's biography of Erasmus, I had not realized that, before the coming of print culture which Erasmus was one of the first to use, although people would address handwritten letters to particular people they often intended them to be read more widely. Alongside formal readings at churches and synagogues, and lectures in universities, and before the emergence of magazines and newspapers, letters were means by which ideas could circulate. People would pass them around. You can see a vestige of this practice in some scientific reports called "Letters"  to the journal Nature. In the nineteenth century, letters became more exclusively personal and intimate. Sealing wax, and subsequently envelopes, became normal. The purpose of letters had narrowed to become the continuation of conversation of the kind that functions to maintain close relationships.

The blog, therefore, is the perfect descendant of the kinds of letters that circulated before the age of print.  No longer tied to the physical, thoughts in the form of electronic words can now be passed around more widely than previously. Our blog is written with particular kinds of readers in mind to offer you ideas that you might find worthwhile, and to keep you to date with news. When I write a post, it is for the group who run the blog and at the same time for those of you who share our interests in the psychology of writing and reading fiction.

So—once again—thank you, all of you.

Here, below, is a  snippet of a letter by Francesco Petrarch about his ascent of Mount Ventoux. My attention was first drawn to it by Valentine, one of our group. You can read the whole letter online at the Medieval Source Book, by clicking here). It is dated 26 April 1336. Petrarch says his letter  derived from "hurriedly jotting down these experiences on the spur of the moment," at an inn after he had returned from his all-day climb, while the servants prepared supper. Although he may have jotted down some notes at that time, we can infer that he subsequently reworked them carefully to achieve his final 3400-word version which is elegantly phrased with many correct quotations. Although addressed to his confessor, he seems to have intended it to be read also by others. It has now been read by many, and represents an important moment in Renaissance self-reflection.
To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer. I have had the expedition in mind for many years; for, as you know, I have lived in this region from infancy, having been cast here by that fate which determines the affairs of men. Consequently the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes, and I conceived the plan of some time doing what I have at last accomplished to-day … [we] started off at a good pace. But, as usually happens, fatigue quickly followed upon our excessive exertion, and we soon came to a halt at the top of a certain cliff. Upon starting on again we went more slowly, and I especially advanced along the rocky way with a more deliberate step. While my brother chose a direct path straight up the ridge, I weakly took an easier one which really descended … no human ingenuity can alter the nature of things, or cause anything to reach a height by going down. Suffice it to say that, much to my vexation and my brother's amusement, I made this same mistake three times or more during a few hours.
Petrarch takes this as a metonym for how, in his life, he had often taken wrong turnings.

Johan Huizinga (1924). Erasmus and the age of Reformation. New York: Harper Torchbooks (current publication 1957).

Image: Mont Ventoux, from La ligne verte
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