Monday, 26 March 2012

The Passionate Muse

Published now, or about now, is my new book The passionate muse: Exploring emotion in stories. It's a hybrid book made up of a piece of my fiction in the form of longish short-story of seven parts, with each part accompanied by a nonfiction psychological discussion of the emotions you may experience while reading. The short story is called "One another." The challenge in writing it was to move across a variety of emotions so that the psychological discussions could range widely. It starts in the mode of a story of smuggling a prohibited manuscript out of the Soviet Union in 1988. Then it changes to a love story, then through a period of anger and sadness to a different kind of love story. And, although these emotions become centres for the story's characters, the most important emotions are the readers own. If we didn't hope to feel moved by a novel or short story we wouldn't read it. If we didn't expect to experience our own emotions at a film or play, we wouldn't go.

The kind blurb-writers of the book's publisher, Oxford University Press, have said:
Oatley … provides insight not only into how people engage with this particular story, but into how people respond to fiction in general. Equally important, he highlights the value of emotion and the importance of stories for our psychological well-being. He explains why people who read a great deal of fiction have a better understanding of others than those who tend to read nonfiction. Humans are intensely social, and fiction transports us to imagined social worlds, enabling us to meet more people and feel for them in many more situations than we could if we lived to be a hundred.

The Passionate Muse offers readers a fresh and exhilarating perspective on the importance of emotion to our appreciation of fiction—and to the vital contribution that fiction makes in our emotional lives.
I'm very grateful to Patrick Colm Hogan, Mary Beth Oliver, Suzanne Keen, and Peter Vorderer for having written complimentary recommendations for the back cover.

The first review, from Library Journal, says this: "This book will appeal to anyone curious about how and why literature (and art in general) can have a significant therapeutic impact."

You can get the book from Oxford University Press (click here) or from (click here) or (click here). 
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Monday, 19 March 2012

'Your Brain on Fiction': Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley, and colleagues in the New York Times this weekend!

Annie Murphy Paul has written a lovely piece this weekend on 'Your Brain on Fiction' on page SR6 of the New York edition of the New York Times.

You may read it there, but I have provided the references described (but not cited) in her essay.

Boulenger, V., Hauk, O., &  Pulvermüller, F. (2009). Grasping ideas with the motor system: Semantic somototopy in idiom comprehension. Cerebral Cortex 19: 1905-1914.

González, J., Barros-Loscertales, A., Pulvermüller, F., Meseguer, V., Sanjuán, A., Belloch, V., & Ávila, C. (2006). Reading cinnamon activates olfactory brain regions. Neuroimage, 32(2), 906–912.

Mar, R. A. (2011). The neural bases of social cognition and story comprehension. Annual Review of Psychology, 62, 103–134.

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, 34, 407–428.

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.
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Monday, 12 March 2012

Research Bulletin: Fact based on Fiction

The world of publishing has been rocked by numerous examples of writers passing off fictional accounts as fact. Perhaps the most memorable transgression of recent memory is when James Frey’s autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, was found to contain a number of elements that were completely fabricated. Another recent example is Greg Mortensen’s autobiography Three Cups of Tea, the details of which have come under serious question. In both cases, this deception on the part of the author has greatly upset readers and often evoked profound anger. Oprah Winfrey, for example, angrily confronted Frey on her show and accused him of betraying his readers. Jon Krakauer, a renowned author himself, went so far as to write a short book describing in detail the falsehoods put forth by Mortensen (all proceeds of which went to charity). Although authors have clearly been subject to derogation and mistrust following these incidents of deception, what isn’t clear is how this new information affects readers who have already read these books. That is, if someone changes their attitudes or opinions toward drug addiction after reading A Million Little Pieces, do they then correct this attitude after learning that the events described were fabricated? Dr. Melanie Green (UNC—Chapel Hill) and John Donahue examined this precise question, by presenting readers with an article labeled as either fact or fiction (Green & Donahue, in press). (As it turns out, the text used was a Pulitzer-prize winning Washington Post article by Janet Cooke that was later found to be a fabrication.) For some of the people who read the article labeled as fact, they were later told that the article contained inaccuracies: it was actually a piece of fiction. All of the articles resulted in changes in belief, in that regardless of whether something was labeled as fact or fiction, readers changed their opinions based upon what they read. Fascinatingly, although readers who were informed that the previously factual piece was actually fictional developed a negative opinion of the author, they did not change their opinions regarding the content of the story. That is, attitudes and opinions that were changed as a result of reading a supposedly factual piece were not altered when that piece was revealed to be fictional. This article demonstrates the power of fiction, in that understanding a story often entails incorporating that information into our own beliefs and this process can be difficult to reverse. More broadly, this study is a great example of how interesting real-world phenomena with respect to media consumption can be put to empirical test.

(As always, for a copy of the original article, please contact me.)

Green, M. C., & Donahue, J. K. (in press). Persistence of belief change in the face of deception: The effect of factual stories revealed to be false. Media Psychology.

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Monday, 5 March 2012


Angelina Jolie’s screenwriting and directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey shares more than the obvious with Steven Galloway’s novel The Cellist of Sarajevo. Yes, both narratives are about genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In both narratives the Western writer speaks through voices of Bosnians. But there is another, uncanny similarity.

It is easy to imagine why Westerners, as they become intimately familiar with horrors of war, feel the stories they hear, all of them, become equally important to tell. Watching Jolie’s movie, one is struck by the thought that she couldn’t bring herself to omit a single awful thing that had happened in Bosnia. The realistic portrayals of mass rape, murder, humiliation, mass killing, torture, concentration camps, snipers, all follow one another vertiginously. It seems that Jolie felt responsibility to tell the story of all the horrors she had heard about and that she was beholden, responsible, to those whose stories she had shared. It ends up feeling too much, so much, that one ends up anesthetized by the shock.

Galloway, through helped artistically by choosing a narrower slice of the story - sniping in Sarajevo - seems also, at times, unable to omit. He takes us through the deadly intersections of Sarajevo with what can at times border on geographical monomania. He wants us to make sure we know every single corner, every single deadly stretch of the street. And so the tight string of his story occasionally slackens.

Yet, how is one to pick – between the responsibility to those whose stories you tell and the quality of the art you create? Is this trade-off even necessary? We can say no, yet still understand the pressure of feeling beholden to those in whose suffering the story was conceived. It seems that it was the very sensitivity of Jolie that cornered her to tell more than a viewer can possibly handle. And it seems that, while implicitly choosing whether to awe the Western film reviewers, or the Bosnian survivors, she chose the latter. And who can blame her.

Jolie, A. (2011). In the Land of Blood and Honey.
Galloway, S. (2008). The Cellist of Sarajevo. Knopf Canada
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