Monday, 31 December 2012

Fiction-Reading Projects: Unexpectedly Rational

This is the time of year when people often come up with, or at least convincingly commit to, projects that they want to accomplish during the coming year. Reading projects are a popular one, and the creativity with which readers impose boundaries on their reading is interesting, sometimes amusing, and, especially in the case of fiction-reading projects, very much in need of explanation. 

It makes sense that one would plan to read, for example, all serious works published in the last five years on Alexander the Great. It makes sense to plan to read all available works published in late 1929 on the economy and the financial markets. In both cases, the reader is likely trying to get at the facts of what happened or to the subtleties of how those events have been interpreted. But what are we doing when we say that we intend to read every short story that The New Yorker will publish in 2013? or read all French novels in our local library by authors with a last name beginning with T, U, V, W, X, Y or Z? or read all the translations of Anna Karenina in any language in which we can read? or read all of the books nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for the 11 years when the jury eventually opted not to award the prize (like 2012)? It would be difficult, for example, to reconcile many readers’ way of thinking of books as friends (or perhaps the recording of the thoughts, feelings, and memories of virtual friends) with a project of this sort. Would we ever consider limiting ourselves to speaking, for a period of one month, only to friends whose first name begins with P? or who have played an instrument for at least ten years? or who wear red quite often? Ridiculous. 

What do fiction reading projects get us, then? One could argue that people planning such projects are more interested in analyzing fiction than reading primarily in order to engage in vicarious emotional experiences. Following this argument, readers are reading with a sort of non-fiction mindset: what facts about the world can I glean, what facts about a particular historical time period can I acquire, how does this incredibly successful writer structure her work, and what can I learn from her to use in my own work of fiction? These are all legitimate reasons to plan such a project, it seems to me. 

But, if you believe that the point of reading fiction is to find stories that engage us in simulation processes that we find emotionally and intellectually stimulating and enjoyable, how could a selection rule of any sort provide the right kinds of fiction? Here is a conjecture. These projects are quite rational in a world in which a reader does not have infinite time to read an infinite number of texts. The fiction-reading project serves two very important functions. It allows the reader to avoid choices that would be made according to whim, friendly coercion by others, or by recent-exposure, salience, or convenience effects, among others. As importantly, if adhered to closely (that is, if the reader doesn’t stop reading a work after only a page or two, but gives it a fair try before abandonment), the project entails exposure to works that the reader eventually finds to be satisfying but that she might never have predicted to be such from all available data, such as author information, a boring cover, sales volumes, friends’ and commentators’ assessments, and the like. Such a reading project expands the sample size of works to be read using some data from the reader, namely, the rule she has come up with, but in all respects not pertaining to the rule itself, it frees her from her own reading-preference prejudices. In so doing, the fiction-reading project is guaranteed to expose readers to ideas, perspectives, memories, and thoughts beyond the thematic zones of those occasioned by individually selected works.

It would be interesting to learn about our readers’ fiction-reading projects. Have you ever put a constraint on your fiction reading? What selection rule did you choose? Did it work out? Was it fun, annoying, enriching, boring? Leave a comment letting us know what your experience was like, and happy reading in 2013!

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Monday, 24 December 2012

Stories Christmas Cookies Tell: Holly in the Windows and a Warm Fire Inside

On my first trip out of North America in my early twenties, I traveled far up into the arctic circle to chase the midnight sun. Once I was so far north, experiencing the somewhat disorienting exhilaration that comes with no respite from sunlight, I became very curious about what the seasonal inverse must be like. My kind hosts in Norway invariably responded to my concerned inquiries about winter with the protest "but we have Christmas," a response I found mysterious, if charming. I had been raised in a fairly Christmas-intensive household, where I was allowed and even encouraged to have my own tree in my bedroom -- probably as a strategy to keep me from sleeping under the family tree -- but despite knowing that my parents keep their tree alive and decorated from November to February, I still felt that a holiday celebrated for a week or so seemed a feeble stay against such a long dark.

Now that I live in the Scandinavian territories of the United States, however, I am beginning to learn how to take this celebratory approach to winter dark to heart. On the day after American Thanksgiving, I found myself gathering up my christmas lights and cards, lighting candles in the windows, and mixing the first of the batches of Christmas cookies to send off to my family for St. Nicholas day. I had a good backdrop for thinking about the significance of the way Christmas is performed. At the time I was unearthing my  whole set of seasonal props (and mine are extraordinarily modest, especially by either family or North American standards), I happened also to be reading literature on "socially engaged art" in preparation for my teaching next term, while being inundated with endorsements for buy nothing day  "because only in America, people trample others for sales exactly one day after being thankful for what they already have."

Especially seeing as my christmas cookie recipient list is so short (4-6 boxes get mailed in a good year), my card sending so sporadic (most cards have at least two to three years of top-up stamps since the first was attached when I had the impulse to send them), and my decorating so functional (although someday I will once again have a tree, no doubt, I have not had one in almost twenty years, and the central theme of all ornamentation except for the calendar and cookies is light provisioning), I felt prompted to consider in some detail why I still, nonetheless, find so much satisfaction in my stripped down holiday observance. 

The idea of socially engaged art has a lot to do with the ways that getting people to do things in certain ways imbues their performances with certain social narratives. In the darkest days of winter, as my mother in law places holly springs in all the windows to keep the dark out--a practice she learned from Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series--and people struggle to tell each other comforting stories amidst bad news, I am struck by the deep if implicit narratives attached to the cookies we keep churning out. After rounds of macaroons, Dan Savage's mom's cookies, rosemary pine nuts, shortbread, molasses cookies, and the alternate universe chocolate chip cookies pictured above, today we will build log homes out of gingerbread biscotti and thumbprint cookies with jam from this summer, and we are cheered to hear that friends have finished the pizelle, the anisettes, the ginger stars, the almond moons--cookies that each have their own trails of stories and traditions. We will eat these cookies to punctuate the celebration of the season, but will we also send these cookies to our families and friends and colleagues and neighbors as they struggle with health issues, with finances, with depression, and both in the practices of performing our care for them and in their receiving this care, we are reinscribing our recognition of the need for extra care and cheer while the light is thin and our social bonds needing extra warming.  

And also in the context of the posada story of great heros born on the generosity of strangers, although we care particularly for those we know are ours in times of challenge, the festival spirit of excess may also (if more faintly) remind of not just of the salving charity stories of the King Wenceslases, but in the very things that holidays encourage us to push out of our minds we might find traces of goals we could better explore to make the new year something that could retain more holiday warmth.

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Monday, 17 December 2012

Research Bulletin: Writing a Better Story

As researchers of narrative, we are often asked by writers how our work can inform their practice. In other words, people want to know if empirical research can tell them how to write a better story. For the most part, I’ve not known how to reply to this question and offer up the verbal equivalent of a shrug. After all, I think the last time I wrote a piece of fiction was probably a decade ago, unless you account my more theoretical papers. Susanne Kinnebrock (Aachen) and Helena Bilandzic (Erfurt), however, have tackled this question directly. In a paper presented at an International Communication Association conference, the two discuss explicitly how psychological theories and research might be incorporated into the writing of compelling stories. Specifically, they combine insight from Melanie Green’s (UNC-Chapel Hill) Transportation Imagery model of narrative persuasion with traditional theorizing on narrativity, in order to isolate those factors they believe increase the likelihood that a story will be engaging. These factors operate at all different levels of a story, from the raw plot points to the way these situations are portrayed in a film or novel. To highlight a few of their proposals, these authors argue that engaging stories should portray events that have lasting consequences, are unique and involve conflict, while representing characters who develop and evolve over time in a way that is likely to evoke emotions in the reader through the artistry of the presentation. As always, we would be happy to send a copy of this paper to those who are interested (e-mail available in my profile). 

Kinnebrock, S. & Bilandzic, H. (2006). How to make a story work: Introducing the concept of narrativity into narrative persuasion. Presented at the International Communication Association conference in Dresden. 

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Monday, 10 December 2012

Tolstoy's List

The New Year is coming and with it the inevitable List. I’m so naturally predisposed to jotting down self-improvement principles that I was rather taken aback to find another, famous, list maker, in comparison to whom my yearly principles appear soft and fluffy, like a cappuccino foam. Not at all like Tolstoy’s Rules of Life, a lifelong obsession, according to his biographer Henri Troyat. Tolstoy’s Rules procreated so rapidly and to such excruciating detail that the only thing more painful than the Rules was the self-castigation Tolstoy inflicted upon himself as he proceeded to violate each and every one of them.

Reading Troyat’s biography, I couldn’t help thinking that in Troyat, Tolstoy had met a formidable match. Troyat unforgivingly places Tolstoy’s pettiness, selfishness, hypocrisy, martyr-complex, hypochondria, misogyny, and remarkable self-centredness, in plain contrast with his Rules (though, to be fair, some of these, like misogyny, are explicitly mandated by the Rules). It is as if Troyat were Tolstoy’s externalized conscience, pointing to his inconsistencies and contradictions at every turn. As I read on I felt increasingly indignant until I thought about what my own life would read like if someone like Troyat combed through it, re-reading and analyzing my old Lists full of principles and rules I can no longer even remember. It reminded me that the List exists because of the discrepancy of ideals with reality, and as such makes each one of us a hypocrite.

Toward the end of his life, Tolstoy’s Rules finally morphed into a full-fledged religion – Tolstoy was now making not just Rules for himself but for the whole world, feeling more righteous and divinely-inspired along the way. A vulnerable human hoping to become a better person had turned into a prophet prescribing rules to humanity. We should be grateful to Troyat for highlighting how easily means of self-improvement can become a club with which to beat the world.

Troyat, H. (1967). Tolstoy. New York: Doubleday and Company.

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Monday, 3 December 2012

Research Bulletin: Spiderman versus Batman

Narrative fiction takes many forms. One medium that often remains undiscussed and under-researched is the realm of comic books. Comic books have a somewhat storied history, blamed early on for the moral disintegration of youth and derided as a low-brow form of entertainment, suitable only for adolescent boys. Recently, however, comics have experienced a bit of an artistic rebirth, in the form of award-winning graphic novels like Art Speigelman’s Maus and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. Empirical research has also begun to take an interest in comic books, with a fascinating article recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Ariana Young, Shira Gabriel, and Jordan Hollar (SUNY Buffalo). These researchers were interested in how a deep identification (i.e., parasocial relationship) with a muscular superhero might affect a man’s self-perceptions. Male undergraduates were pre-selected to participate based on whether they liked Batman or Spiderman, and then these individuals were shown pictures of either superhero in either a muscular or non-muscular form. Men who saw a picture of a muscular superhero that they liked actually demonstrated stronger grip strength, as measured by a special device known as a dynamometer, than those who were exposed to a non-muscular superhero. Importantly, these results were only observed when the participant had a strong liking for the target superhero. In cases where men saw a muscular superhero they didn’t have a strong liking for, these men actually felt worse about themselves and their bodies. These results share parallels with those previously observed by Markus Appel for unintelligent characters in a written work (Appel, 2011; see our post here), reminding us that although narratives take diverse forms their effects are often similar and familiar.

Appel, M. (2011). A story about a stupid person can make you act stupid (or smart): Behavioral assimilation (and contrast) as narrative impact. Media Psychology, 14, 144–167.

Young, A. F., Gabriel, S., & Hollar, J. L. (2013). Batman to the rescue! The protective effects of parasocial relationships with muscular superheroes on men's body image. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 173–177.

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