Thursday, 28 October 2010

On Yearning

In the most recent New York Review of Books (LII,15), Andrew O’Hagan handles the issue of E.M. Forster’s early retirement from writing with tenderness and insight. By the time of his first sexual tryst at the age of 37, Forster had already written five of his six novels. As his lovers multiplied, his novels dwindled. During the last forty years of his life, he didn’t publish a single novel. O’Hagan says: “With Forster, you are essentially dealing with a novelist who stopped writing novels in order to succeed as a man who could love without inflection." He links Forster’s acute novelistic perception with the kind of yearning that can reach no resolution, yearning that amplifies nuances and evokes compassion for the objects it contemplates. Forster, according to O’Hagan, chose yearning because yearning held life at a distance needed to mould it into something that can transcend its very content.

Yet, the problem with life, and love in particular, is that it’s the kind of battle fought in close quarters. While one cannot doubt the intensity or sincerity of Forster’s yearning or the benefit it had on his art, one can’t help but feel that he abandoned the game just as it got difficult. The facts of love, in their shadowy complexity, often reveal things about oneself (and others) that prefer to elude the pen. The relative artistic failure of Maurice, his only book about homosexuality, published sixty years after it was written, points to this very shadow. What is made clear and transcendent in the act of yearning, takes on a more earthly glow in the act of love, and the compassion, so tenderly given to the foibles of the world, cannot survive a more intimate gaze. So it could be that Forster stopped writing not so that he could love without inflection, but because he couldn’t write without truth, and that something about the truth of love smeared the tip of his pen.

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Monday, 25 October 2010

Research Bulletin: Romance Novels and Unsafe Sexual Scripts

Some recent posts on the romance novel reminded me of a study by Amanda Diekman, Mary McDonald, and Wendi Gardner (2000). These researchers found that frequent readers of romance fiction were likely to have more negative attitudes toward condom use, report less frequent condom use in the past, and less intention to use condoms in the future. These risky sex behaviors were all interpreted as consistent with the “swept away by passion” script embedded in most romance fiction, in which condom-use is rarely mentioned. In a fascinating follow-up study, these experimenters randomly assigned readers to read different texts, including an excerpt of romance fiction that was altered to include mention of condom use. Reading took place once a week over three weeks and at the end of this period those who read these altered pieces of romance fiction reported more positive attitudes toward condom use than those who read the more traditional excerpts of romance fiction. This pair of studies illustrates how romance fiction might not only provide an unrealistic model for love, but also a risky model for sex.

Diekman, A. B., McDonald, M., & Gardner, W. L. (2000). Love means never having to be careful: The relationship between reading romance novels and safe sex behavior. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 24, 179–188.

(Readers interested in a copy of this article may contact me for a copy. E-mail in profile.)

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Thursday, 21 October 2010

Of Violins and Novels

A busy luthier’s shop on a sunny afternoon. An amber cylindrical pat of resin in a modest white cloth rests on a chest of drawers housing sundry bows. Alongside, seven or eight bows lie unsheathed, plastic wraps in a jumble. Closed cases of larger instruments run like dominoes down the central aisle into the back rooms. Open cases abound, too, as players are sampling instruments not their own. Rows of violins and violas hang high on the walls, classed by size, certainly, but perhaps also according to some other quality which those not privy do not see. Maker? Country? Age? Condition? Bits of concertos float through the shop, along with bits of Go Tell Aunt Rhody and Twinkle Twinkle. Students and experts alike test their potential purchases or rental fare playing pieces they have been practicing, or those that they are convinced will demonstrate the full range of the instrument. It stands to reason that one has to play the violin before deciding to take it home.

Or, to speak more precisely, it must be played so that one can hear the sound that it makes. Sound emitted from an f-hole centimeters from the ear is louder than the same when heard from several feet or many meters away. Experts know how to work with this difference and still achieve the emotional expressiveness they hope for. But this skill takes time to acquire. So the student must test the instrument for size and comfort, surely, but the luthier’s assistant, too, plays a piece of her choice on each candidate instrument for the client. In this way, the client may listen and discover which is most pleasing to the ear. The capacity for emotional expression of the instrument is given a fair chance to shine in expert hands. The point is to have the opportunity to separate the act of listening from the act of playing so that the client can focus on the comparative sound quality, and ultimately discover which sound touches her most.

It might be interesting to now compare what we do when we are thinking about purchasing or borrowing a novel. We identify the section of the store or website where it is located. Is it just plain fiction, or specifically mystery, historical, romance? We glance at the author’s photo, read about him or her. We look at the critics’ blurbs on the covers and front pages. But isn’t this somewhat like looking at a violin and learning only about its maker? Country? Age? Condition? We assume that just by being able to read the words and comprehend them, we will be able to interpret and enjoy the book in a way that merits the time spent reading it. And so we may even read a bit of it right then and there to help us decide, like the student violinist who tries out the violin for the basics, size and comfort. The trouble, of course, is that just that portion read out of context is not going to tell me what I really want to know, which is how this novel is going to make me feel. Yes, I know, one might say we really want to know what happens, or what one can learn from the book. Perhaps this is true, but these, I believe, are not our first concerns.

Could it be that in spite of the declarative knowledge concerning the novel, which publishers routinely make available (maker, country, age, summative blurbs), what is most pressing is that we get a chance to experience a portion of the novel through the “playing” of a performer of novels? Someone who would read to us a section of the novel we are considering and who has read the novel before. We would then have the opportunity to experience a portion of the work without the constraints of our own lack of in-depth knowledge of the genre, the particular story, or style, because we would be borrowing those of someone else as manifested through the performance. Or we could go to an author’s reading of the work. But that is not good enough, on two counts: the author is not the best performer of her work, and if you are going to a reading, you already like the work. What is needed is someone who could expressively read the selected passage knowing the context of the novel’s full emotional expanse and acuity, and on the spot. Perhaps booksellers should hire professional readers for just this purpose…It might do wonders for our capacity to choose a novel that fits our emotional needs of the present.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Syncing Story Worlds

I saw the new film RED last night in mind of recent OnFiction posts (and subsequent discussions) about romantic fiction and Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer's work on the romance genre (the much commented-upon alchemy of love post). Given this back story, I was delighted to discover that a central narrative device of the film's setup is a somewhat elaborate, if simple, pattern in which the male romantic lead inquires about the current habits of the female romantic lead (shown here reading at work); he then proceeds to read along with her trashy romance novels (and you'll have to see the film for yourself; to my disappointment, I could not find any images of Bruce Willis reading romance novels in bed).

As an academic and a bit of a bookworm, I take a certain delight in this representation of the syncing up of story worlds: in addition to the obvious usefulness of shared references in prosaic domains, there is something fantastically intimate (romance novels aside, even) about the experience of reading something someone else is reading. (Psychologists: there must be interesting work on how different people experience the process of imagining other people reading -- or there should be...)

In a somewhat less fictional domain of story syncing--although every bit as literary--I was also graced this weekend by the chance to attend the wedding of two wonderful friends (also longtime friends of OnFiction). This was an extraordinarily literate wedding, with a number of eloquent speeches extolling the various participants and greatly impressing those of us with considerably less verbal families. This was a superb example of the real-world performance of story syncing, in which two sets of family tales, childhood and shared experiences, relational parables and fond (and distressing) memories are told and re-told into the hybrid mythology that becomes a new family, as well as a new synced-up story lexicon.

Robert Schwentke (director), Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (screenplay), Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner (graphic novel) 2010. RED. Summit Entertainment, Di Bonaventura Pictures, and DC Entertainment.

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Thursday, 14 October 2010

Character in Biography and Fiction

Biography and fiction seem entirely different genres because in biography one wants to know certain facts of what actually happened, whereas fiction is a world of possibility. But these genres seem to be twins, or at least siblings. Both are about selves in the social world and, for both, the centre is the idea of character. On writing biography, Leon Edel (1957)—famous as the biographer of Henry James—put it like this: the biographer "must perform the unusual … act of incorporating into himself the experience of another, or shall we say, becoming for a while that other person" (p. 7). This seems close to what one does as a novelist in depicting a fictional character.

I have just finished reading Hermione Lee's (2009) engaging introduction to biography in which she gives us a whole sweep of what it is to write a Life, from the doings of Gilgamesh to the repeated attempts to write the being of Marilyn Monroe. In Lee's book and in Edel's we read of the influence of psychoanalysis, which is not only the quest to enable each of us to achieve a conscious realization of our own biography, but which has had an enormous influence on the writing of biography. No biography is now complete without some view of the subject's early life and traumas, or without some commentary on his or her later sexual relationships.

In his book, Edel has a chapter on the importance of psychoanalysis in biography, in terms of what he calls the "symbol life" of the subject. In this chapter he writes an uncommonly interesting analysis of The professor's house by Willa Cather, and some biographical thoughts about her writing of it. The novel's protagonist is a professor who, despite considerable success, becomes depressed. He wants only to regress in his sequestered study—symbolic of the womb. Edel proposes that the theme of a place of one's own where one feels a lonely comfort was prompted by Cather's own displacements from home, her failures to write in various houses and studies that were offered her and, despite her considerable success, by her own painful feelings of rejection and insecurity.

Recently, there has been an entirely new contribution that promises to be as influential as symbol-based approaches. It also derives from psychoanalysis (as well as ethology) in the work of John Bowlby: the development and maintenance of attachment relationships. The first book based on this work to accomplish psychological biography successfully is by Carol Magai and Jeannette Haviland-Jones, (2002). It is called The hidden genius of emotion. In it, the authors depict the character of three men, each the inventor of an influential school of psychotherapy. One is Carl Rogers, founder of the counselling approach to psychotherapy. The second is Albert Ellis, founder of rational-emotive therapy, one of the tributaries of cognitive behavioral therapy. The third is Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt therapy, a dramatized version of psychoanalysis.

The core idea of Magai and Haviland-Jones’s book is of preoccupying emotional themes, which grow out of each individual's attachment relationship with parents or other caregivers. In our relationships, and in our lives more generally, one set of emotions becomes predominant, and forms an emotional style of character which, because of its one-sidedness (which we all have), sets a pattern, which affects how others relate to us, and which tends to be expressed in distinctive patterns of behaviour. Because, almost inevitably, one has restricted one’s emotional repertoire in one’s first close relationships, one has to deal with implications of that restriction, which tend to lead into particular avenues of adult relationship and preoccupation.

Attachment has become perhaps the strongest idea in psychological research on child development, but it has yet to be fully employed in analyses of character either by biographers or novelists.

John Bowlby (1969). Attachment and loss, Volume 1. Attachment. London: Hogarth Press (reprinted by Penguin, 1978).

Willa Cather (1925). The professor's house. New York: Knopf

Leon Edel (1957). Literary biography, the Alexander Lectures 1955-56. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hermione Lee (2009). Biography: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carol Magai & Jeannette Haviland-Jones (2002). The hidden genius of emotion: Lifespan transformations of personality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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Monday, 11 October 2010

Kieslowski's Decalogue

Not many films seem designed to prompt the kind of reflectiveness that can occur with the best print fiction and, among those are designed with reflectiveness in mind, few achieve it. One set of films that does achieve such effects is The Decalogue, written by Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and directed by Kieslowski. In these ten one-hour films made for Polish television about the effects of human actions on other people, the Ten Commandments act as starting points. The films are so good, and sufficiently important in the history of cinema, that they are often shown at festivals and suchlike. They are available in a DVD set.

The first Commandment is: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” Decalogue 1, the film associated with it, is about a university professor (Henryk Baranowski) for whom the computer has become the new god. He is constantly making calculations. It is winter. Ice covers the lake near where he and his ten-year-old son (Wojciech Klata) live in a relationship of tender affection. The father asks his son to phone the weather bureau to find what the temperature has been on each of the last few days. He takes the data, makes a calculation on his home computer, and tells the boy that the ice will bear a person three times his weight. The father has just given his son new pair of skates. A surprise thaw occurs and the ice does not support the boy’s weight. With our knowledge and technology, might we over-reach ourselves?

In his introduction to the screenplays of The Decalogue (Kieslowski & Piesiewicz, 1991), Kieslowski said that the mid-1980s, when these films were made, was a difficult time in Poland. Dissatisfaction contributed to the Solidarity movement. Martial law was imposed. Socially, everyone suffered hardships, shortages, constant problems with the bureaucracy. The bleakness of the times comes through, but the writers of these films wanted to treat neither politics nor the daily grind. They wanted something universal: to make films about “extraordinary situations for [their] characters, ones in which they would face difficult choices and make decisions that could not be taken lightly” (pp. xii-xiii).

Fiction generally, I think, can invite us into situations that are both universal and extreme, so that we can imagine ourselves making choices in them. A full review of the first five films of The decalogue can be accessed in the OnFiction Archive of Film Reviews (to the right of the screen, or click here). The best of these films are brilliant, and overall the collection gets four stars on our one-to-five rating scale.

Krzysztof Kieslowski (director). (1988).The Decalogue 1 to 5. Poland.

Krzysztof Kieslowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz (1991). Decalogue: The Ten Commandments. London: Faber & Faber.

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Thursday, 7 October 2010

The Alchemy of Love

A few weeks ago I wrote a post (click here) on Janice Radway's Reading the romance, and Laura Vivanco kindly made an informative comment on it, in which she recommended recent reading on romances. It included a 2010 article she has written with Kyra Kramer (that you can access by clicking here). In this post, I'd like to report on this article, which makes some very interesting proposals.

A romance is typically a story of man and a woman who fall in love, enter a sexual relationship, and get married, not necessarily in that order. Vivanco and Kramer start their survey with Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Jane Austen's Pride and prejudice, and they take us, via Harlequin romances, up to modern examples of the genre. It might seem that just two people are involved in a romance but Vivanco and Kramer point out that to understand the genre properly we need to see each participant as having three bodies: physical, social, and political. The physical body is always important. Vivanco and Kramer give modern examples of the male protagonist described as having a "broad back that went on forever" and of the female protagonist as having "unblemished skin [that] glowed with health" to stand for the sexual organs, which they call, respectively, the Mighty Wang and the Glittery HooHa. Romance writers expend a good deal of energy and euphemism to imply these not-so-private parts and to suggest how they will perform. Then there are the participants' social bodies. The male protagonist must generally be rich and of high social status. The female protagonist must be of independent mind and be well turned out. Vivanco and Kramer call these social bodies the Phallus and the Prism. The participants also have political bodies, generally manifested in marriage and the woman's legal accession to wealth. A story's subtlety can depend on the ingenuity with which the different bodies affect each other, both within and between the persons involved.

The part of Vivanco and Kramer's account that I found most provocative (if I may use that term) is the idea of incompleteness. Although the man in a romance may have a fully functioning Mighty Wang, his Phallus can be incomplete. Thus in Pride and prejudice Mr Darcy's Mighty Wang is right there—the decorous Jane Austen writes of his "utmost force of passion" (p. 228)—but although he is rich and high-born, his pride prevents him from being a fully formed man. The story is about how Elizabeth transforms his social self. Vivanco and Kramer put it like this: "Elizabeth Bennet’s blunt honesty about Darcy’s arrogance inspires him to become more self‐aware and kind." They also point out that this motif is exactly that of alchemy. Instead of the alchemist who, by means of the philosopher's stone, transforms base metal into gold, the romantic heroine, by means of her Glittery HooHa, transforms the incomplete Phallus into gold.

The theme of alchemical transformation has strong appeal, and not just because of its narrative thrust. If we take its frequency of appearance in romances as evidence, we may conclude that this theme is primary, and resonates with an erotic desire that seems to be of a rather psychoanalytic kind. The womanly phantasy seems, thus, not only to be about achieving physiological effects on the man's body, not just about achieving union because of what the man has got, but about achieving transformation of someone who, as well as being incomplete, is an insensitive bully. And, although Vivanco and Kramer don't discuss the question, is there not another phantasy equally at work? Could it be that the man desires to transform a damsel in distress by rescuing her and bringing her to a fulfillment that will be expressed in bounteous gratitude?

Psychotherapists tell us that transformation of the person is very difficult. Romances tell us it's just the thing.

Jane Austen (1813). Pride and prejudice. London: Penguin (current edition 1985).

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

Samuel Richardson (1740). Pamela. Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 2001).

Laura Vivanco & Kyra Kramer (2010). There are six bodies in this relationship: An anthropological approach to the romance genre. Journal of Popular Romance Studies, 1 (Online 4 August,

Image: Colin Firth as Mr Darcy in the BBC Television version of Pride and prejudice.

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Monday, 4 October 2010

Doing Therapy, Writing Fiction, by Noam Shpancer

This is the second post in the series by psychologists who are novelists. We are asking such people to write a post for us on the relationship of their psychology to their writing of fiction. The first in this series was by Elaine Hatfield (click here) a well known social psychologist and researcher on emotions who, with her husband, Richard Rapson, has written six novels. Anyone who is a psychologist who writes fiction, or a knows of such a person who might be good for us to approach, please get in touch with Keith Oatley (e-mail in my Profile).

Today we are posting the second such piece, by clinical psychologist, Noam Shpanser, whose novel The good psychologist has just been published. It's about a psychologist who leads a solitary life, and starts to treat a stripper who has panic attacks that prevent her from performing. The good psychologist's detachment starts to break down. The novel has a very nice endorsement by Jonathan Kellerman: "Noam Shpancer portrays the oft-hidden world of psychotherapy with unparalleled authenticity, compassion, and wit . . . An astonishing debut." Here is his piece for us.

Doing Therapy, Writing Fiction: Common Themes
For me, being a psychologist has to do with a curiosity about the internal human architecture. My fiction is propelled by the same curiosity. I think the work of a clinician is quite similar to that of a novelist, in several ways. First, therapy is in part about mending narratives. Troubled people are those who have lost the thread of their story. The work of therapy is to create a narrative that sets the events of their lives in a coherent order and creates a space within which they can thrive. When you write a novel, your job is to find the right path for the story, the right structure, order, and pace, so that it can thrive.

Second, therapy involves paying attention to several levels of experience at once. You listen to what the person is saying, the content, but also to how they’re saying it—the process. Small nuances of expression matter a lot. The process of writing is quite similar. You have to pay attention to the words, but also to the music.

Third, writing involves both conscious and unconscious movements. There’s conscious work of thinking about the plot, the characters. There’s a lot of carpentry, of effortful problem solving. But then there’s also the unconscious work. The deep core of the story resides in the unconscious, and you need to go there and listen, let the story tell itself. This is the most pleasurable aspect of writing, when the characters begin to live on their own, and you shift from inventing to reporting. Writing feels effortless when that happens. And it’s a sign that the story has a life. If you have to force yourself, to make stuff up, you’re wasting your time; it’s like making love to someone you despise. Picasso once said “I don’t search. I find.” That’s the place you want to get to, where you find without searching. This is true in therapy as well. You have to have a conscious plan, a direction, and a structure for your work. And you have to remain mindful of that. But in the therapy encounter, you need to go with the flow of the moment, the living dialogue with the client. The best therapeutic moments happen when you stop trying to do therapy.
Noam Shpancer

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