Monday, 23 July 2012


A central issue for understanding how readers engage in fiction is resonance: what themes in a story resonate with a particular reader or audience member? Putting that the other way round, how do writers generate stories with which others can resonate? This issue recurs in the reading group of which I have been a member for 20 years, in which the resonances for particular members, and the occasional complete lack of resonance for others, of  novels we read is frequently striking and thought-provoking. Putting this more generally, why do some people like thrillers, others like adventure stories, others like intrigues, other like family dramas, others like love stories, and so on?

I have been having discussions with several people on these issues recently. I don't feel I have got to the bottom of this, but have reached the following tentative hypothesis. Each of us has a number, perhaps a small number, of themes with which we are most able to resonate in print fiction, plays, and movies so that we can be fully engaged and moved by the story. An exemplar theme is the detective story of the English kind in which (as I heard explained by P.D. James many years ago at an Edinburgh Festival) a crime has been committed that rends the fabric of society. The reader finds this disturbing and can engage in a story in which a somewhat other-worldly detective discovers the culprit, so that people can get back to living harmoniously with each other. In this kind of story, justice and trust are the warp and weft of the societal fabric. It's these that are damaged, and these that are mended by the end of the story. This kind of story appeals most (according to this hypothesis) to those who, perhaps as children, experienced injustice and perhaps loss of trust in a sibling or a parent in ways that were very disturbing. A murder is of course striking. And the trail of clues needs to be, of course, interesting. But murder is a trope that stands for the damage to society. The trail of clues is the grammar of the plot. The idea that the detective enables us to see the world in non-obvious ways is part of the issue, but the soul of the matter is the sense of damage that needs be put right. Without that we wouldn't read stories of this kind. We would do crossword puzzles.

Thinking about the resonances I have experienced in my reading and writing, I have become aware that one very activating theme for me is a protagonist coming to recognize another person in a way that enables a meeting of minds, and thereby enables the protagonist to love that person. The novel that I remember being most moved by as an adolescent was George Orwell's Nineteen-eighty-four, not for the political aspects (though these were of course interesting), but for the love in unpropitious circumstances between Winston and Julia, which ended for them in the tragedy of separation. I am also very affected by love stories in which there is a separation and a reunion, and stories in which a love is discovered that echoes a previous love.
The essential nature of experiences of this kind, and their personal meanings, would not necessarily be discovered in psychoanalytic therapy because, in such therapy, although aspects of previous relationships may be recognized in one's relationship the therapist, the theme-like structure of event-leading-to-event, and the way in which such events resonate with selfhood, may not easily become visible. So here is the thought. Might it be that if one is a reader one could take, say, a dozen novels or short stories, or movies, that have especially affected one, and discern in them a common theme (or perhaps several recurring themes)? From these one might not only recognize something deep about oneself, but be able to choose what books to read, what plays to see, what films to watch, to explore these formative issues further?

Orwell, G. (1949). Ninetten eighty-four. London: Secker and Warburg.

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formerly a wage slave said...

There could also be a down side to this. If I am in denial about fears because of a hard childhood, and like to present myself as always in control, I might steer clear of certain forms of story- telling-- e.g. Those with inconclusive resolutions, or in which characters are so complex as not to be worthy of unqualified praise --- or those in which characters are not clearly seen to triumph over adversity. The problem I see is that our choices become a sort of narcissistic mirror, reinforcing habits of thought. But maybe that need not happen, however to the extent it does, I womder about the value ( of at least some) stories.
However, I guess what you are suggesting is that one should achieve a higher level of self- awareness about the stories one chooses. That would, I suppose, be a way around the problem I have suggested.
Your suggestion seems a good one, something to hold in the back of my mind as I continue to read and watch.

Jim Murdoch said...

It has never ceased to amaze me which poems/stories/novels resonate with readers and which do not. Frequently I’ll stick a poem in with a submission to make up the numbers and that is the one that gets picked. I’d love to say there’s no logic in it but, of course, there is. I never think about a readership, a niche or a demographic when I write. I write for me and accept the fact that there are those out there with certain life experiences that will connect with the work and there will be those who will be left cold. I cannot get into opera for example, the odd aria like ‘Nessun dorma’ perhaps, but I couldn’t sit through a whole opera—and I have tried—let alone be reduced to tears in my private box.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I too think that Nineteen Eighty-Four is a masterpiece and, like you, the politics was something that I was indifferent to. I liked the love story but it was the theme of individualism that really struck a chord with me.

I also see a marked difference between what resonates with me as a reader or a viewer and what resonates with (i.e. inspires) me as a writer. I have always been drawn to coming-of-age stories—it was my last wife that pointed this out to me (I was completely unaware)—but I rarely write about them; none of the protagonists in my novels is under thirty and most are older. It’s the same with science fiction. I will watch anything remotely sci-fi and yet have never been able to, for felt drawn to, try to tackle the subject myself.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much Formerly-A-Wage-Slave (Mark), I hadn't thought of this down side, but you are quite right; thank you. It is, indeed, always difficult to get outside the bubble of our own mind or, as you put it, to stop gazing into our own narcissistic mirror. I suppose one might try and counter the problem you describle by making a list of books that one has started and then thrown away in disgust, or films one refuses to go and see. I'm rather put off, for instance, by shards of violence flying about. Hmmm.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much, Jim, for this comment. I, too, have tried to like opera, but despite taking a course, and then going for two years to the New York Met's cinema showings of famous operas done in what one imagines is the best possible way, I still can't really resonate. The only opera I find moving is Madame Butterfly, but I think that's because I like the music. I am not moved by the whole opera in the same way that I can be moved by a play or film. But, really—and some people do find this—opera should have it all.

I too have had the experience of someone pointing out to me something about myself, that I didn't realize, in relation to stories I like. That experience, itself, has been rather moving.

I find it interesting, too, that you make a distinction between readers and writers in what stories resonate. I'll need to think about this.

formerly a wage slave said...

Keith, Actually as I lay in bed last night, I did run through in my head some books that had grabbed me in the past (say) ten years.....My first impression was that I tend to identify with characters whose problems are like my own. So, for example, after more than ten years abroad, I felt strong kinship for the ambiguity in Fowler's mind (in "The Quiet American") as he thought about leaving Vietnam. But, as I've moved around a lot and I have never had a stable job, I think (guess) that I tend to identify with strong characters who are in difficult situations. That's only a first impression, however. I really wanted to thank you for your post/essay because it will give me food for thought in the future. Best wishes, MarkL

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Mark, for this. I am very glad the idea struck a chord for you. I too have been thinking about this issue, partly as a function of getting old, and wondering what most meaningfully I can write about. All best, Keith

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