Currie's first reason for doubting the value of literature is that it draws on people's ordinary understandings, known as "folk psychology," in which we think we know why we act as we do. But, says Currie, in the psychology laboratory there have been many demonstrations that we don't always know why we act, and that motives can differ from any that folk psychology would suggest. One of his examples is that, "if you hold a hot cup of coffee; you will probably judge them [other people about whom you are thinking] to have 'warmer' personalities" (p. 14). Currie is right. Experimentation of this kind has shown that we don't necessarily have introspective access to why we act or speak in a particular way, and also that we are not always good at imagining emotional effects in the future. Currie concludes that if you want to understand why people act as they do you shouldn't rely on folk psychology or imagination, as you must if you read fiction. You should read Nature Neuroscience rather than Middlemarch.
Currie's second reason for doubting that we can learn anything useful from fiction is that fiction writers often suffer from serious mental illness. There is, says Currie, "a mid-1990s study of creative groups which found that only one in fifty writers (Maupassant) was free of psychopathology." (The article, which Currie doesn't cite, is by Felix Post, 1994, who reports on diagnoses based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, DSM, of the American Psychiatric Association, that he made of 291 famous men, derived from biographies he read of them.) In this study, Post found that 48% writers had severe psychopathology, whereas among scientists, statesmen, thinkers, artists and composers, percentages who had severe psychopathology were lower. So, says Currie:
to the extent that creative writers are subject to the emotional distortions we associate with bipolar disorder, we can expect that they, on balance, will be more prone than the rest of us to misjudge the emotional impact of imagined scenarios (p. 15).
Should one accept these arguments? Folk psychology is the ordinary-language way in which we think about and communicate our intentions, beliefs, and emotions, to others. Yes, fiction is based in folk psychology, and psychological researchers have shown, in certain restricted situations, that folk psychological understandings can be wrong. But psychologists also know that when we say we will do something, for instance write a piece on the psychology of fiction, we are telling someone of an intention that we can then carry out. If our folk-psychology had no relation to our actual goals and plans of action, Greg Currie could not have arranged to write an article for the TLS, and I wouldn't know why I wrote this reply. As to Currie's proposal that writers of fiction have higher-than-normal levels of psychopathology, he makes no comparison with levels in the ordinary community. The best recent study of psychiatric conditions in the community, based on DSM diagnoses, is by Terrie Moffitt et al. (2010), who found that the proportion of people who had suffered an anxiety disorder during their lives was 49.5%, the proportion who had suffered from depression was 41.4%, and the proportion who had experienced alcohol dependence was 31.8% (a substantial number of people had more than one disorder). So it's not clear how different the fiction writers in Post's study were in their rates of disorder from members of the ordinary population. I would suggest that the lesson of research on the mental disorders of creative writers isn't that anything that emotionally disordered writers write is wrong, but that fiction writers who suffer from disorders can sometimes invite us to reflect on circumstances that we may suffer ourselves, or on circumstances we haven't encountered, which we may usefully imagine ourselves into. Most mental disorders (anxiety and depression being the most common) don't start because something has gone wrong in people's brains. They start because something has gone wrong in people's lives.
Currie ends his piece with "a suggestion about how to read the literary canon." He suggests we should read it as pretense, not real, and says: "when we engage with great literature we do not come away with more knowledge, clarified emotions, or deeper human sympathies" (p. 15).
I disagree. Fiction writers such as Marcel Proust (diagnosed by Post as having severe psychopathology) and Henry James (diagnosed by Post as having marked psychopathology) whom Currie offers as examples of canonical authors, don't say: "here is what you should believe about the emotional impact of this situation." They say: "Here's a situation. Imagine yourself into it. How do you feel about this?"
Fictional literature isn't empirical description of human behaviour, as Currie assumes. It is simulation of selves in the social world (click here). As evidence that fiction-as-simulation is reliable and valid about understanding interactions with others, I would cite our laboratory findings (e.g. Mar et al. 2006; 2009) that reading fiction is associated not with worse understandings—as Currie would predict—but with better understandings of others (click here).
Currie, G. (2011). Let's pretend: Literature and the psychology lab. Times Literary Supplement, September 2, pp. 14-15.
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., & Peterson, J. B. (2009). Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes. Communications: The European Journal of Communication, 34, 407-428.
Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Taylor, A., Kokaua, J., Milne, B. J., Polanczyk, G., et al. (2010). How common are common mental disorders? Evidence that lifetime prevalence rates are doubled by prospective versus retrospective ascertainment. Psychological Medicine, 40, 899-909.
Post, F. (1994). Creativity and psychopathology: A study of 291 famous men. British Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 22-34.