Thursday 15 May 2008

The Art of Fiction: Simulation

In September 1884, Longman's Magazine published an essay by Henry James called "The art of fiction." In it James said: "A novel is, in its broadest definition, a personal, a direct impression of life." In December of the same year, the magazine published a reply by Robert Louis Stevenson, called "A humble remonstrance." Stevenson said that:
Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art in comparison is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing, and emasculate. Life imposes by brute energy, like inarticulate thunder; art catches the ear, among the far louder noises of experience, like an air artificially made by a discreet musician.

In our view, James was wrong and Stevenson was right. Four years after his essay Stevenson was still meditating on the subject and, in another article (in Scribner's Magazine), "A chapter on dreams," he said he had always been a dreamer and, when he became a writer, his stories were a kind of transcription of his dreams. Stevenson thus found himself in company with William Shakespeare and Samuel Taylor Coleridge who had, each in his own way, proposed that fiction is a kind of dream: one that is started up by the writer, and carried on by the theatre-goer or reader.

Dream is, indeed, rather a good metaphor for fiction. With a concern to bring the idea up to date a bit, and offer it to cognitive psychologists, I have called fiction a kind of simulation: not a simulation that runs on computers, but one that runs on minds. As a metaphor, simulation is less universal than dream, because fewer people have experience of programming or using simulations. But in some ways this metaphor takes us further. It takes us, for instance, to the point of thinking that just as if one wants to be an aeroplane pilot one can improve one's skills in a flight simulator, if one wants to improve one's skills in the social world one can do so by reading fiction.

In our archive of academic papers we have placed an article called "Why fiction may be twice as true as fact," which explains and explores the idea of simulation. You can access it by clicking here.


Bill Benzon said...

I agree with you, Keith, about coherence. That's what art is about. And emotion is central to that coherence. I think the example of Athenian drama is a good one because, as you indicate, it was a public performance, a collective experience. The coherence thus experienced was mutual among the audience. I've posted an open letter to Steven Pinker at The Valve (along with his reply) that speaks to this mutuality.

Bill Benzon said...

It is the coherence of literary texts that makes them valuable to psychology. For those patterns of coherence contain clues about how the mind works. (This is true of all the arts if it is true of literature.) Interpreting those clues properly, how to do that is not so obvious.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Bill, for these comments. I think you are right to emphasize coherences not just within a work of art, but between the work and audience members, as well as among audience members. I will look up your discussion in The Valve with Steven Pinker; it sounds interesting. My thought is that identification, as it is known in literary theory, which derives from empathy in ordinary life, is one of the clues to how the mind works (as you say), and one of the ways in which binding occurs between a reader and a literary character.

Keith Oatley said...

I have now read, Bill, your open letter to Steven Pinker, and have been reflecting on the interesting distinction you make between public (or shared) knowledge and mutual knowledge. Is not mutual knowledge established, as you suggest, on most occasions when two people have a conversation. Before they move to the next point, they tend to converse until each knows that the other knows what he/she knows on a certain point? An increment of mutual understanding is achieved. In what Steve Draper and I have called practical conversations (with goals outside themselves), this had better be the case. Otherwise, for instance, if the goal of a practical conversation is to arrange a meeting, the meeting won't happen.

Here is a thought, or a question really. If a novel is published, some aspect of it is public or shareable knowledge. If the novel is read and discussed in a book club, then it becomes a prompting towards mutual knowledge among the participants, even though they typically (at least in the book club I am in) have different takes on it. So texts may be canonical, but interpretations of them need not be. Am I following your argument?

Bill Benzon said...

Hi Keith,

I think of interpretations as secondary matters having as much to do with what one has learned to say about texts as with what's in the texts themselves, either explicitly or covertly. And for that matter, interpretations also concern what one is willing to say.

I don't know whether or not you've read Tristram Shandy. If you have, you'll recall the running joke about where Uncle Toby was wounded, a matter of some considerable concern to the Widow Wadman, who had a romantic interest in Toby. When she asked where he was wounded (in a war), she wanted to know where on his body. Unfortunately, he was unwilling to answer that question as it would force him to refer to his groin, something he wasn't about to do with a woman. So he interpreted her question to be about where he was on the battlefield at the time he received his would. His attempt to answer that question blossomed into a hobbyist's obsession with the design of fortifications. He wasn't about to allow any mutual knowledge about such a delicate part of his anatomy.

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