Monday, 28 May 2012

Proust and Ruskin on Reading

I've been reading Marcel Proust and John Ruskin on reading. Proust began to read Ruskin in 1897, when he gave up work on his novel, Jean Santeuil. After this, it would be ten years before he began making notes for  À la recherche du temps perdu. During these years, reading Ruskin and then translating Ruskin from English into French became his major literary activity. He made the translation not because his English was good. He said, "I do not claim to know English; I claim to know Ruskin." Later, in the final book of À la recherche, Proust was to say that the task of the writer was not to invent in the ordinary sense of the term, but to translate that which is within every one of us.

I had previously read Proust's piece called "On reading" which he had published in 1905 as the preface to his translation of Ruskin's Sesame and lilies. It is a lovely, thoughtful essay, which I have discussed before in OnFiction (click here). It has now been republished by Hesperus, along with a lecture by Ruskin entitled, "Sesame: Of kings' treasuries" (part of Sesame and Lilies) together with Proust's erudite and thoughtful footnotes on it that he added to his translation.

Not far into his lecture, Ruskin says, on the subject of friends of the ordinary kind, that circumstances restrict our choice, and at this point Proust remarks in one of his footnotes, that "the idea seems very beautiful in truth because we can feel the spiritual use to which Ruskin is about to put it." This use is what the lecture is about, the friends we can choose, "the main characters of the lecture: books." Books-as-friends is the idea, too, that Proust made the centre of his essay, "On reading."

A few pages into his lecture, after introducing his idea of choice, Ruskin distinguishes books of the hour—which can be useful, or pleasant, or both—and books for all time. Then, as he begins (on pp. 55 -56 of the Hesperus edition) to talk of books for all time, he says this, which I think is the part of Ruskin's lecture with which Proust would have fallen in love:
A book is essentially not a talking thing, but a written thing; and written, not with a view of mere communication, but of permanence … The author has something to say which he perceives to be true and useful, or helpfully beautiful … this, the piece of true knowledge, or sight, which his share of sunshine and earth has permitted him to seize. He would fain set it down for ever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying "This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew: this if anything of mine, is worth your memory."
This became, I think, part of Proust's theory of art, and of what he would aspire to do for us, his readers.

Proust, M. (1913-1927). À la recherche du temps perdu (In search of lost time). London: Penguin (Current edition 2003).

Proust, M. & Ruskin, J. (2011) Marcel Proust and John Ruskin: On reading. (Ed & trans, D. Searls). London: Hesperus Press.
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Monday, 21 May 2012

Fourth Anniversary, and Experience-taking

This month, OnFiction began its fifth year of publication. I don't know how long most blogs run for, or even how long most blogs-cum-online-magazines run for, but we feel we have become a presence on the internet with, as you can see opposite, more than 200 members, with more than 100,000 "unique" visitors in our first four years, as well as a large number of people who take OnFiction by RSS and e-mail.

We would like to thank all our readers, the people who make comments, and the people who write to us personally. Thank you! 

All this persuades us that although the psychology of fiction is a minority interest, the minority is a substantial one. We are very happy to continue what we have been doing. I hope over the next month or two, to go through our archives, book reviews and film reviews, and bring them a bit more up to date. Please, also, if there is something you think we might do, that would be useful to you and other readers, please let me know. You can find my e-mail address in my Profile.

And, to show that the psychology of fiction is reaching maturity, here's a research bulletin on a new article, published on-line in the American Psychological Association's principal journal of social psychology. It's by Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby (2012), and it draws on the theory of fiction-as-simulation, that we at OnFiction have been exploring.

Kaufman and Libby start their article with the following epigraph from Hayakawa (1990):
In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to lead; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.
Kaufman and Libby report six experiments in which they asked student participants to read short pieces of narrative, in which the protagonist was a college student, and in which information was given about the protagonist's thoughts, actions, and feelings. Their purpose was to investigate what they call experience-taking: entry into the experience of a fictional character, which is often called identification. They say that in experience-taking:
readers simulate the events of a narrative as though they were a particular character in the story world, adopting the character’s mindset and perspective as the story progresses rather than orienting themselves as an observer or evaluator of the character (p. 2 of the pre-publication paper.)
The researchers measured experience-taking from people's responses to a nine-item questionnaire that includes such items as "I could empathize with the situation of the character in the story," and "I understood the events of the story as though I were the character in the story."

Kaufman and Libby chose the term experience-taking to mean a merging with the character, a loss of the self-other distinction. It is to be compared with perspective-taking, in which one keeps one's identity and at the same time understands what another person is thinking and feeling.

In their first three experiments, Kaufman and Libby looked at the relationship between people's awareness of their own self and their level of experience-taking while reading the piece of narrative they were given. In Experiment 1, the researchers found that the higher people's scores were on a measure of consciousness of their own individual experience, the lower were their scores on experience-taking as they read the story. In Experiment 2, readers who were asked to think of themselves generically, as average students, independently of what they were studying, as compared with thinking of themselves as individuals, had higher scores on experience-taking when reading. In Experiment 3, participants who read the story in a cubicle with a mirror in it, as compared to reading in a cubicle without a mirror, had lower scores on experience-taking.

In their second group of studies, Kaufman and Libby manipulated the experimental conditions. In Experiment 4, they found that narratives told in first-person voice induced more experience-taking in readers than narratives told in third-person voice. In Experiments 5 and 6, they found that later as compared with earlier introduction into a narrative of information that indicated that a protagonist was a member of a group (respectively homosexual or African-American) of which the reader was not a member, increased experience-taking.

This paper is an important step in understanding conditions of narratives that encourage identification in terms of entering lives other than just the ones given to us by chance and circumstance.

Samuel Hayakawa (1990). Language in thought and action. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Geoff Kaufman & Lisa Libby (2012). Changing beliefs and behavior through experience-taking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027525
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Monday, 14 May 2012

Travelogue: Limerick

On a visit for a conference at the University of Limerick, in Ireland, I was charmed by the Aer Lingus cabin crew on the flight from Heathrow to Shannon Airport. Even their announcements about what to do in an emergency seemed to be made with a kind of concern for us passengers that was different from the recitations one generally hears on aeroplanes.

Ireland was strongly affected by the visit of the Celtic Tiger, an economic boom that began around 1995 and ended abruptly with the world economic recession of 2008. Speaking with feeling about the Tiger's departure, a taxi-driver who took me from Limerick to the University pointed out, as we passed it, a curious archeological site of concrete walls and half-erected buildings that had been intended, he said, to be the largest shopping mall in Ireland. Whereas Limerick had become well-off, now there is a sense of sadness and anxiety. The city advertises with large electronic signs the spaces in its many new car parks. A lot of car-parking space was available; this is a place without enough cars.

The University of Limerick is very large, and it's beautiful, in a park on both sides of the River Shannon. People who worked there were fond of it, which I could understand. But with the economic recession a question hovers: how to move forward? I didn't mention it to anyone but my thoughts about the place issued in this limerick on Limerick.
An itinerant chap from Toronto
Wondered wherever he'd gone to;
Some was old, some was new,
Didn't once have to queue,
What next should the folks here get on to?
As a group talked together on the conference's last evening, several of us admitted that we had vowed not to mention limericks. At that moment, evidently no longer able to contain the inner emotional pressure to express oneself in verse, which Chinese poets of the Tang period called huai (click here), a fellow conference attender let slip:
A young law professor from Nashville
Said, "Now I'm not going to be bashful;
It's just blurting out,
I might even shout …"
This limerickateur said she would think of the last line the next day, but see how much more interesting this fragment is than my feeble effort. Her ancestors came from this part of the world, so it's clear she was drawing on some inherited ability. I didn't see her next day, so we may never know what she would have found to rhyme with "Nashville" and "bashful."

The limerick is a populist, sometimes improvised, form and of course poetry-written-by-poets isn't improvised. Ireland's greatest poet, W.B. Yeats, said it would take him many days to write even the shortest poem. On the first day no rhymes would come at all, then, he said: “when at last the rhymes begin to come, the first rough draft of a six-line stanza takes a whole day" (Parkinson, 1964, p. 76).

Parkinson, T. (1964). W.B. Yeats: The later poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Image: A modern bronze statue of this one-time port city's dockworkers, on the quayside in Limerick

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Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Traits of Character

Here at we’ve often discussed how empathy helps us to understand the minds of fictional characters. But readers don’t just work to understand the momentary thoughts of feelings of characters, they also form rich models or representations of what characters are like. Just as we can think of a close friend and predict how he or she might respond in a certain situation (e.g., a loud party) based on his or her personality, we similarly form expectations for story characters based on past behavior (either earlier in the story, or in a previous book). David Rapp and Richard Gerrig conducted research on this topic and published it in a paper that is now a classic of the field (Rapp & Gerrig, 2001). In their first study, readers read a series of stories in which characters behaved in ways consistent with one trait or another and then judged the plausibility of different story endings. An example story follows below:
Suzy planned on meeting her family at the park. They were having a huge family reunion that had been in the planning for months. The park was almost 40 minutes away. She knew she needed to leave soon if she wanted to get there on time. Along the way, Suzy came to a stop to let a baby squirrel cross the road. When she arrived at the barbecue Suzy saw a few family members she was looking forward to talking to. Pretty soon they were laughing and reminiscing about things they did when they were younger. Suzy was having a wonderful time talking about old memories, and she didn’t want the day to end. Her 8-year-old nephew William ran over and interrupted the conversation by tugging on Suzy’s dress. William asked Suzy if she would take him to play on the park’s swings. 
After reading this story, they judged one of two possible outcomes:
Suzy took William to play on the swings. [trait-consistent outcome]
Suzy didn’t take William to play on the swings. [trait-inconsistent outcome]
Reader who read about Suzy being caring responded quicker to the story ending that was consistent with this model or representation of Suzy’s personality. A follow up, Study 2, found that readers applied trait-based models of characters in a specific rather than general way, indicating that they were judging individual characters based on particular traits rather than simply bad or good. In two additional studies, Studies 3 and 4, the researchers demonstrated that readers apply these models of characters during normal reading (as evidenced by their reading times) and that they are able to quickly update their models of characters as they learn new information. These studies demonstrate once again that many of the social processes that take place in the real world can also be applied to the fictional one.

Rapp, D. N. & Gerrig, R. J. (2001). Readers’ trait-based models of characters in narrative comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 45, 737–750.

* For a copy of this article, please contact Raymond Mar (e-mail address in profile). Apologies for the late posting.

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