Thursday, September 30, 2010

Caring for literary characters

In her new book, Why do we care about literary characters? (2010), Blakey Vermeule argues that novels, and particularly eighteenth century British novels, exemplify the kind of explicit concern with intricate levels of mindreading with which readers care about engaging themselves. Characters read each others’ minds in the interest of self-preservation, flourishing, and status enhancement, and experiencing such fictions allows the reader to learn what she needs to survive and flourish in her own Machiavellian world. Vermeule’s book echoes Zunshine’s thesis in Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel (2006): we read fiction because it stimulates our need for mindreading at several different levels of recursion (e.g., “Emma knew that Ricardo expected Angela to hope that Roger would call her.”) and because partaking of gossip just makes us feel good. Indeed, both Zunshine (p. 4) and Vermeule (p. 99) use the word “craving” to describe the reader’s stance toward social scenarios that require complex mindreading. An important difference though, is that Vermeule purports to speak of “caring” about characters, while Zunshine defends her avoidance of the topic of such engagement in fiction by noting on the next-to-last page of her book that, “[Theory of mind] is always much more than whatever cluster of cognitive adaptations we have isolated to make the discussion of it manageable“ (p. 163). That’s as much ground as Zunshine grants to her reader’s complaint that we can’t mindread without emotions. The reader accepts her hedge because she has presented a solid argument for what does interest her, and she leaves the emotion side of the theory of mind coin to others to explore.

Vermeule, though, claims to address “care,” which she defines as “to be anxious and to exert mental energy” and “expending charity, even passion” (12). She claims an evolutionary psychological parentage for the concept. She notes, in brief, “Why do we care about fictional characters? The very short answer is gossip: we need to know what other people are like, not in the aggregate, but in the particular” (xii). She believes that a genuinely literary moment centrally features a character engaging in Machiavellian reasoning, which “engages some of the things we care about most” (81), and claims that the most celebrated literary characters are Machiavellian (52), that “the most important social information is whether somebody is inclined to cooperate in social exchange or to cheat” (146), and that the “highest power” one has in a social exchange is to get that assessment right (187). What we care about is making sure we come out ahead of others in personally relevant domains, and we care most about literary characters who do just that.

Survival strategies are important, so we care about them. But there is another way to look at caring, one that the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt treats with clarity and power in his essay “The importance of what we care about” (1998). (Vermeule mentions this titular phrase in her book [p. 73] and attributes it to Frankfurt, but she does not engage his ideas, nor cite his work in the bibliography.) Frankfurt says, “A person who cares about something… identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced” (1998, p. 83, Frankfurt’s emphasis). And further, “…if there is something that a person does care about, then it follows that it is important to him. This is not because caring somehow involves an infallible judgment concerning the importance of its object. Rather, it is because caring about something makes that thing important to the person who cares about it” (1998, p. 92). It seems, though, that Vermeule’s reader feels care because she makes an “infallible” evolutionarily-driven judgment that leads her to assess exposure to Machiavellian characters and their actions as important to her own social understanding.

So, why do we care for fictional characters? Frankfurt does not comment on this question, but we might be able to construct a Frankfurtian response. First, he does not deny the important role of evolution in human caring. In his meditation on love, an extreme form of caring, he notes, “What we love is shaped by the universal exigencies of human life,” but then he adds, “together with those other needs and interests that derive more particularly from the features of individual character and experience” (Frankfurt, 2004, p. 47). The character the reader cares for or loves fits who the reader is, today, in the moment of reading, not only as a human who wants to survive and flourish, but as a cultural being with a particular cultural, personal and interpersonal history, which her care for particular characters may help her to understand better. Frankfurt does deny that we can care for an individual only as a token of, even a fine exemplar of, a class: “The significance to the lover of what he loves is not that his beloved is an instance or exemplar. Its importance to him is not generic; it is ineluctably particular” (2004, p. 44). Thus, perhaps we don’t care for literary characters because we get loads and loads of social information from them – isn’t our effort better spent in getting social information relevant to the living, breathing cast of characters in our own lives?—nor because they are exemplars of Machiavellian pursuits which could somehow edify us. Frankfurt’s account of care can thus accommodate those readers who care about individual embodiments of a whole range of characters: the weak ones, the misguided ones, the self-delusional ones, the ones who would very much like to be Machiavellian, but eventually discover that, alas, they are not -- the ones, in short, who make us vulnerable to emotional losses because they suffer while we are identifying with them.

He claims that it is “volitional necessity” that moves us to care and to love. He says that “[caring about something] serves to connect us actively to our lives in ways which are creative of ourselves and which expose us to distinctive possibilities for necessity and for freedom” (1998, p. 93) and ends his essay on care in this way: “The person does not care about the object because its worthiness commands that he do so. On the other hand, the worthiness of the activity of caring commands that he choose an object which he will be able to care about” (1998, p. 94). Maybe the history of human engagement with fiction is less the history of a creature craving mindreading in order to more efficiently usurp the goods of its conspecifics, and more the history of a creature who is exceptionally good at caring, and much in need of more and more things to care about, or to love, than the world could ever make available in the creature’s lifetime.


Frankfurt, H. G. (1998). The Importance of what we care about. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Frankfurt, H. G. (2004). The Reasons of love. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Vermeule, B. (2010). Why do we care about literary characters? Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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

Monday, September 27, 2010

Research Bulletin: Genetics of Reading Habits

Most modern research measures reading habits using what is known as an Author Recognition Test (ART). This measure is simply a list of names, with respondents being asked to indicate with a check mark those names that they recognize as belonging to actual authors. Importantly, they are told that some of the names on the list are fake, or foils, so they cannot simply guess or check indiscriminately in order to mis-represent their own reading habits. The ART constitutes an indirect measure of what is known as exposure to print, since it is not a direct indication of what people read. What it does indicate are general reading habits, and from these measures it can be inferred the types of reading material that people engage with. A recent study investigated what is the genetic contribution of print exposure (Martin et al., 2009). These researchers administered the ART along with other measures to a group of identical twins (monozygotic twins), fraternal twins (dizygotic), and those not part of a twin pair, known as singletons. By comparing the similarity in scores between identical twins to the similarity for fraternal twins, the contribution of genetic make-up to lifetime exposure to print can be inferred. What these researchers found was that print-exposure was moderately heritable (h = .67), and that the same genes appeared to also account for scores on other measures of reading and verbal ability. They also discovered that a separate set of genes accounted for really high scores on the ART, separate from those genes associated with low ART scores and reading ability. These are very interesting results, as they indicate that a separate process or ability could explain those who read a lot, compared to those who read a moderate amount or less. As with any study that employs this method (i.e., looking at twins to infer genetic contribution), it is important to stress that heritability is not equivalent to genetic cause, but more like a correlation or association between genetic variance and variance in tests scores (in this case the ART). So, one cannot conclude that genes cause a moderate amount of the variability in ART scores, nor can any conclusion be made about how pre-determined or amenable to change these ART scores are. It is very exciting to see a diversity of methods being employed with regard to our understanding of reading habits. As with any of the papers we discuss here at OnFiction, please contact me if you would like a copy of this paper (e-mail in profile).

Martin, N. W., Hansell, N. K., Wainwright, M. A., Shekar, S. N., Medland, S. E., et al. (2009). Genetic covariation between the Author Recognition Test and reading and verbal abilities: What can we learn from the analysis of high performance? Behavioral Genetics, 39, 417–426.


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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Two Eyes














Two eyes decapitate me.
Headless, full of joy, I wonder,
Are they my own?
I can no longer tell.

Long strong bones they break,
While keeping the snake of my spine,
Delicately intact;
Each vertebra timed just right,
Not too close, not too far.

Two eyes bleed me,
Until I am light.
Is it ruin they beget?
I cannot tell.

I hope the destroying never ends.
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Monday, September 20, 2010

In Defense of Re-infatuation

I was fascinated by Maja Djikic's recent post In Defense of Torment, and the idea she probes of the work involved in creative reinvention. Pop culture representations of creativity embrace a strikingly opposed (and perhaps equally off-base) pair of ideas about what it means to be creative: on one hand, the tormented artist is chained to her desk, suffering through a frenzy of productivity like what all good workers are supposed to produce, but inspired and irresistible; on the other hand, creative arts are the domain of relaxation and renewal through a sort of surrender to the pleasure of the sensual. The bad attitude of art students (I discovered when I was one) has a lot to do with the resulting two tone look so often sent their way: wary concern about people driven too close to the edge and fawning envy over the supposed life of Riley lived by those who could afford to while away their days in the leisurely pursuit of the muse.

What seems so obviously off about these widely reproduced ideas about creativity is their assumption of an abdication of agency -- the idea of the artist as either possessed or leisurely does not capture any of the process of work that goes into the production of creative endeavors. In a recent commentary on this summer's art reality TV show, Work of Art, Karen Haselmann pointed out that the spectacularization of making art (in which we see artists scrambling to assemble materials to hasty deadlines) leaves out what is, in fact, the most important part of most creative endeavors: the effortful and often agonizing staring into the unknown, in which we wrest patterns of meaning out of the stuff around us.

As Maja so eloquently pointed out, being able to approach this task does not merely mean being chained to our desks. (Although producing a lot does seem to help.) In addition, as she points out:
It means probing, and sometimes destroying, the inner landscape that has grown insensitive to the elusive caress of art.
It seems worth underlining this sentiment because our habituation to the stimuli and motives around us is so powerful, and the arrangement of our inner landscapes is not something we necessarily consider reorganizing. Especially in the mechanized but oh-so-customizable matrix of our social media devices (who has not learned the palpitations of a lover's text message or an interesting email's arrival in a dull moment?), our receptivities are rapidly reorganized without necessary attention -- and the things that provoke us to meaningful (if sometimes tormented) effort are often all too easy to fail to adequately prioritize. I have an inordinate fondness for a billboard near my house that is much like the one illustrating this essay: the purple rectangle is simultaneously painfully mundane and also dramatically pointing out the novelty of the giant images that insert themselves into our consciousness. Some deserve our infatuation more than others, and we should engage in the repeated effort to sensitize ourselves in ways that satisfy our desires for creative exploration.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Romantic Fiction

An important book that I dipped into years ago, but have only now read completely, is Janice Radway's Reading the romance. It's brilliant in its thoughtfulness about a subject—women's reading of romance novels—that is usually dismissed without much thought.

Radway studied a selection of women's romance novels and, more importantly, had a series of conversations with an informant, Dorothy Evans, who worked at a Mid-Western branch of an American chain bookstore and published a monthly newsletter in which she reviewed newly published romances. Dorothy believed that "a good romance focuses on an intelligent and able heroine who finds a man who recognizes her special qualities and is capable of loving and caring for her as she wants to be loved" (p. 54). Radway also had  informative conversations with 16 of Dorothy's customers, and analyzed 42 responses to 50 questionnaires she sent out. It seemed to be a surprise to Radway to find herself performing a psychological study of readers' experiences, and to come to respect readers' opinions.

Part of the brilliance of this book is that, in it, Radway leaves telling trails of footprints along paths she traced and retraced in her approaches to her material. One of Radway's paths was that, as a literature professor influenced by the New Critics, she was supposed to study the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text. So she took a rather sniffy attitude to the romance texts, which she describes as "dominated by clich√©, simple vocabulary, standard syntax, and the most common techniques associated with the nineteenth-century realist novel" (p. 189). A second path was from her feminist perspective. She says: "it is tempting to suggest that romantic fiction must be an active agent in the maintenance of the ideological status quo because it ultimately reconciles women to patriarchal society and reintegrates them with its institutions" (p. 217). A third path was her interest in psychoanalysis, especially in Nancy Chodorow's work, The reproduction of mothering (1978). She wonders whether the romance's underlying appeal is based on regressive fantasies in which women "feel particularly happy, [as] they escape figuratively into a fairy tale where a heroine's needs are adequately met"  (p. 93).

Here are two readers' descriptions of romances, which Radway says were echoed again and again by Dorothy's customers:
Generally there are two people who come together for one reason of another, grow to love each other, and work together solving problems along the way—united for a purpose. They are light easy reading and always have a happy ending which makes one feel more light hearted.

I think [a romance] is a man and a woman meeting, the growing awareness, the culmination of the love—whether it's going to jell or if it's going to fall apart—but they [the heroine and the hero] have recognized that they have fallen in love [emphasis added]. (p. 65).
Radway says most of her respondents were middle-class women with children, who saw reading as making time for themselves apart from the insistent demands of their families. Here's what she writes:
Romance reading … is a strategy with a double purpose. As an activity, it so engages their attention that it enables them to deny their physical presence in an environment associated with responsibilities that are acutely felt and occasionally experienced as too onerous to bear. Reading, in this sense, connotes a free space where they feel liberated from the need to perform duties that they otherwise willingly accept as their own. At the same time, by carefully choosing stories that make them feel particularly happy, they escape figuratively into a fairy tale where a heroine's needs are adequately met. As a result they vicariously attend to their own requirements as independent individuals who require emotional sustenance and solicitude. (p. 93).
In the end, it's the path taken by the readers that Radway herself comes to tread with most confidence. She explains how, in identifying with the heroine in romance fantasies, a typical reader first explores how the man in the story is aggressive and insensitive (as men often are!) but of then being loved by him with the kind of care and tenderness that she herself gives to her family, but which the family by no means always gives to her. Perhaps, Radway suggests, romances have the effect of helping women to maintain and develop this kind of love in themselves and to develop it, too, in their marriages and among their children, female and male.

Nancy Chodorow (1978). The reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Janice Radway (1984). Reading the romance: Women, patriarchy, and popular literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Travelogue: Amsterdam

Early on a Tuesday morning in July, before the tour boats had started their rounds, I left the hotel at which I was staying in Amsterdam, and walked along canal-sides and little streets. Amsterdam is one of Europe's most inviting cities. It's not too large, and it has everything one could want in a city. The people are decent and, for foreigners like me, extra decent in that as well as Dutch they all speak other languages, like English. The canals constantly remind one of Holland's seafaring. Like many other great European cities—Paris, Lisbon, Venice, London—Amsterdam prospered from its colonies, and as I look along the canals at the wonderfully shaped Dutch houses, each with its beam and hook at the peak of its roof to haul up furniture that would be too wide for the stairs, I imagine each house being built by a merchant who was successful in importing and exporting, spices, cotton, diamonds, tobacco, mahogany, or other kinds of goods that enabled Europe to prosper. Such goods, of course, were good for the Europeans, not so good for the Africans, Americans, Indians, and Chinese from whose countries they came.

In medieval times, the Christians of Europe knew that, since the Fall, they were all born into sin. There was nothing they could do by their own efforts to escape this state. The only salvation was to recognize their sinfulness and to allow themselves to be saved. It was an individual matter of grace, which means gift: between God and each of (capital H) His creatures. Since the Enlightenment, and the since the last convulsions of internecine war between the colonizing nations of Europe, the Fall seems to have become less a matter of the individual and more of society. The moment one puts on almost any piece of clothing, one takes part in a nexus in which what has gone into making the clothing has involved someone on the other side of the globe working for wages not far removed from slavery. None of us, producers or consumers, can free ourselves.

How do Amsterdamers deal with the societal sin of Western consumerism? Perhaps there is a clue in their favorite form of transport: the bicycle. Along the canal sides and in the special bicycle lanes that run along almost every street one sees people pedaling: women in cotton skirts, men in white trousers, elderly people in elderly-looking clothes, all going at exactly three times walking pace. This morning I saw one man with a largish upturned table on his handlebars. Some people take passengers, either young children in child-seats, or people perched side-saddle on the pannier-carrier at the back. Cars are in a minority, and there are no SUVs. The cars one does see seem to have got the idea of being small and quiet, not congregating in traffic jams, and not annoying pedestrians or cyclists. As a society the people of Amsterdam may be as sinful as city-dwellers elsewhere in the West, but they sin in a modest way.

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Love and Character

How do literary characters come to be loved? In a 2004 paper on the nature of love, Maja Djikic and I started with an epigraph from Margery Williams's The velveteen rabbit. “'Real isn’t how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It’s a thing that happens—to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'” The same can happen with literary characters, with Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, or Pierre in War and peace. It takes a long time, and this point was made also by Wendi Gardner and Megan Knowles in their study of young people's liking of favorite characters in television series, which Raymond Mar discussed in a previous post (click here). Gardner and Knowles also quoted from The velveteen rabbit.

Here's a question. Does a piece of fiction need to be as long as a novel or a television series for a fictional character to become real, to be really loved? Right from the first story, "The death of a clerk," (of 1883) in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translated collection, Anton Chekhov: Stories, the focus is on character. Chekhov is able to introduce us to a character and then to show us that person in a glimpse or two that is so characteristic that, as well as the episode of outer behaviour that is depicted, we see something of that person's soul. But it remains as if from the outside. We don't really (do we?) come to love any character in Chekhov's stories, even any of the admirable ones, or ones whose predicaments move us. We take up Chekhov's phrases and images and, with them, start to build a mental model of the character, as we do with someone who interests us whom we've recently met, and then meet again a few times. We don't come to know this character, as the Skin Horse says, "for a long, long, time."

Perhaps E.M. Forster's discussion of character in Aspects of the novel might help. He distinguished between flat characters whose characteristics can be summed up in a single sentence, and round characters who come alive beyond the page. But I think we might need an extra term, something between flat and round, for characters who are seen as more than flat, who do come alive (in the way that Chekhov's characters do), but who do not become fully round, who can't yet be fully loved.

Forster says we often like flat characters because they are recognizable and permanent, and  because permanency is comforting. But what about characters who come alive beyond the flat, but are not yet round? Forster himself offers a suggestion. Dickens's characters are not round, he says, though some of them do vibrate. The fully round character can sometimes be loved, because with love one takes the person into one's inner life, to become a part of the self.  What would the series be?  Flat character—vibrating character—round character. Flat  character—caricature—round character.

Caricature seems to be in the right domain (and the word is used by Forster), but it doesn't fit perfectly. Perhaps it could mean character seen, as with Chekhov's stories, from the outside, sometimes with contempt sometimes with profound sympathy and understanding: one only has to think of the work of some of the great caricaturists. Caricature might be a good middle term if its connotations were not so derogatory. Perhaps these connotations need to be revised.

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

Maja Djikic & Keith Oatley (2004). Love and personal relationships: Navigating on the border between the ideal and the real. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 34, 199-209.

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

Wendi Gardner & Megan Knowles (2008). Love makes you real: Favorite television characters are perceived as "real" in a social facilitation paradigm. Social Cognition, 26, 156-168.

Margery Williams (1922). The velveteen rabbit. New York: Avon.

Image: Anton Chekhov by David Levine
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Monday, September 6, 2010

Preparing for National Novel Writing Month

Today is the day to begin preparations for National Novel Writing Month, when 150,000 + enthusiastic writers begin writing a 50,000-word-or-longer novel on November 1 and submit it before midnight local time on November 30. But why, why, prepare now? Because you can’t start writing until November 1, but, according to the NaNoWriMo website, before that date “outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people’s works”. It’s just that none of the writer’s own “previously written work” can be included in the work that’s uploaded in your official submission to the website between November 25 and November 30. The genre is up to the writer. The organizers note, “If you believe you’re writing a novel, we believe you’re writing a novel, too.”

It may be a good idea, then, to take part of this Labour Day to plan. Make the shopping list for writing utensils, paper, pencils, computing necessities, necessary comestibles, feel-good snacks. Put the dictionary and thesaurus you already own where you can get to them without tripping over the laundry baskets. Put away the magnetic darts and the Rubik’s cube. You won’t need them during November. You’ll be writing, not thinking about writing. Book the babysitters. If your cousin from Portland could visit before or after November, that would be best. If the neighbors will be renovating, plan your writing hours around the noise. Ditto for music practice. The goal is to optimize your chances of getting to 50,000 words. The NaNoWriMo website reports that in 2009, there were 167,150 people writing briskly to get to the 50K; 32,178 got there. If you’re going to try it, you’ll want to be in the second group. They walk away with a winner’s certificate, and most importantly, of course, the knowledge that they completed a novel in a month.

Then, once the basics are taken care of, re-establish cordial relations with that character who has not been happy to be kept waiting on the sidelines while you worked on the novel destined to be an international bestseller... when it’s complete. Read NaNoWriMo’s Pep Talk Archive. Remind yourself that 56 published authors started their novel during National Novel Writing Month, and at least one, Sara Gruen, wound up with a New York Times #1 bestseller, Water for Elephants. Finally, don’t even think about writing just one word 50,000 times. It’s not allowed. Good luck. Good luck. Good luck.

Gruen, S. (2007). Water for Elephants. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Announcing A New Journal

An exciting announcement was made at the recent IGEL conference in Utrecht. (We have been enjoying some wonderful essays over the past few weeks from the "Stillness Contest" also presented at this meeting.) The society has decided to launch its own journal, entitled the Scientific Study of Literature (SSOL), publishing the very best empirical work on literature. Willie van Peer will act as head editor, working alongside Max Louwerse, Joan Peskin, and myself, as associate editors. Together we have assembled a very impressive review editorial board, which includes OnFiction's own Keith Oatley, along with some other names that might sound familiar to our readers (e.g., Steven Pinker, James Pennebaker). Below is a brief description of the journal from our publisher, John Benjamins:

Literature has an important role in human culture. Broadly interpreted, literature is defined as all cultural artefacts that make use of literary devices, such as narrativity, metaphoricity, symbolism. Its manifestations include novels, short stories, poetry, theatre, film, television, and, more recently, digital forms such as hypertext storytelling. This new journal, Scientific Study of Literature (SSOL), will publish empirical studies that apply scientific stringency to cast light on the structure and function of literary phenomena. The journal welcomes contributions from many disciplinary perspectives (psychological, developmental, cross-cultural, cognitive, neuroscience, computational, and educational) to deepen our understanding of literature, literary processes, and literary applications.

Our first issue should appear mid-2011, and will include a number of short pieces from leaders in the field with their thoughts on the future of the empirical study of literature. It promises to be an exciting collection. Members of IGEL receive the journal for free, so if you are interested in these topics please consider becoming a member of this society. More importantly, if you are a researcher, please consider submitting something to our new journal!

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