Friday 10 October 2008

Who to Read

A question that comes up with our findings of beneficial effects of reading fiction, is this: Who are the writers to read?

We have not yet done a systematic study, but clues may be available from the method used by Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, de la Paz, & Peterson (2006; you can access this paper by clicking here). To find out who were readers of fiction, we adapted Stanovich and West’s Author Recognition Test (known to be a good proxy for the amount of reading people do) by making a mixed list of names of authors of fiction, authors of non-fiction, and non-authors. We estimated that people who recognized more names of fiction writers read more fiction, and those who recognized more names of non-fiction writers read more non-fiction. It was the people who predominantly read fiction who had better theory of mind and social understanding.

Among authors on our fiction list were:
Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Albert Camus, Patricia Cornwell, Sue Grafton, P.D. James, Judith Krantz, John Le Carré, Ursula Le Guin, Thomas Mann. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rohinton Mistry, Yukio Mishima, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, José Saramago, Sidney Sheldon, Carol Shields, Amy Tan, John Updike.
Theorists who have tried to identify fiction that is psychologically worth reading include Jon Elster in Alchemies of the mind. For him George Eliot is in, and Charles Dickens is out. In her book, Why we read fiction, Lisa Zunshine argues that our enjoyment of fiction derives largely from the exercise of our theory-of-mind faculties; writers she identifies include Virginia Woolf. In his book The uncommon reader, Alan Bennett has Queen Elizabeth II become, as a result of reading Henry James, aware for the first time of the feelings of her servants.

We think that the kinds of fiction that have beneficial effects may involve these themes:
• Understanding the minds of others,
• Understanding relationships,
• The dynamics of social groups,
• The problematics of selfhood in the social world.

In our group (Valentine Cadieux, Maja Djikic, Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley), the eminent authors of literary prose fiction, who wrote before 1940, whom at least one of us has read, and who seem primarily concerned with one or more of these themes include:
Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Theodore Dreiser, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf.
Among writers active since 1940 whom we would nominate in the same kind of way are:
James Baldwin, Pat Barker, Raymond Carver, J.M. Coetzee, Anita Desai, Margaret Forster, William Golding, Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Penelope Lively, Frank O'Connor, Brian Moore, Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yukio Mishima, Alice Munro, Kenzaburo Oe, Philip Roth, Georges Simenon, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Wallace Stegner.
These lists are just a start. We hope that readers will make comments, and add to, or amend them. In a week's time we will offer some micro-reviews of novels that we think are particularly good on the four themes that we suggest.


Anonymous said...

I'm mystified by your categories ("kinds of fiction that may have beneficial effects"). I cannot think of a single novel that doesn't fit into one of your categories. Not one - Surrealist novels, Dadaist poems, Harlequin romances, pulp thrillers, the "Left Behind" series, Uncle Tom's Cabin -- they all fit one of your categories.

After looking at your paper, I am only more perplexed. We've had centuries of discussion (since Aristotle, more or less) about the moral value of fiction, and a good four-hundred years to talk about genre. Your study seems to suppose that the study of literature began around 2004 with a psychologist's survey of readers.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you very much, Maria, for your comment. I am sorry to be mystifying and perplexing. I agree with you. There have been centuries of discussion about what might be worthwhile about reading fiction from, as you say, Aristotle onwards, and also in Indian poetics, from Bharata onwards. We decided to turn this into a question: Can we see, empirically, what might be worthwhile about reading fiction? That is why we came up with our first list of representative fiction-writers, to help us find which of our participants read mainly fiction and which read mainly non-fiction.

Then, inferring backwards from our results, we tried to come up with categories that would help crystallize the effects we found. So, I am less sure than you about some of the genres you mention. In both Harlequin romances and pulp thrillers, for instance, do not these depend on taking the reader for familiar rides on schemas that are well established and repetitive: the longing for a perfect romance which is then attained, and the resentment that ends in violently excessive revenge? These, it seems to me, are a like rides on roller coasters at Disneyland. On the rides, you feel a bit of cardiac perturbation, but when you get off you are exactly the same as you were when you got on. So, I would predict that reading novels that are typical of the Harlequin romance and pulp thriller genres would not have the potential for personal change that we are exploring. But I may be wrong; our research is at an early stage. We have not yet studied effects among different kinds of fiction. That is why discussion of these issues, in the way that you are doing, is helpful to us.

We are certainly fascinated by the question of what it is in fiction that makes it important psychologically. I wonder how you might think of this question.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I may just be repeating the questions in the first comment, but I also don't see how your 4 categories exclude anything. What novel written before 1940 is not primarily concerned with one or more of those themes? It's as if you have some other qualifications that you have omitted.

I'm worried that "eminent" is one of those qualifications. From the point of view of effecting psychological change, why should eminence matter?

A methodological point: If you need to stick with famous writers for some reason, you should develop an objective way to make your list. Counts of apperances in article titles in leading lit journals, or use in classrooms, or something.

Anonymous said...

My particular field of research is the history of the book, so perhaps you'll understand my initial surprise at your project.

In response to your analysis of genre fiction, I wonder what you think of the research on extensive versus intensive reading (see Rolf Engelsing). Intensive readers typically re-read a single work (the Bible, the Koran), often with the intention of undergoing a deep personal transformation. Other intensive readers may read the same book a dozen times, finding new insights or meditating on the same lessons each time. And another group of intensive readers read the same format (almanac, prayerbook, even romance or mystery) repeatedly. The practice is in one sense repetitive. But mysteries, for instance, usually have a strong moral component, something we associate with reflection, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising.

If you wish to see the criticisms of extensive reading, just look at any of the criticisms of reading in general. Extensive reading may promote change, but it might just as easily testify to a lack of seriousness, impatience with ideas, or a distracted mind.

I'd also suggest that you might want to post some of your questions, if you haven't already, on the SHARP-L listserv or search their archives. Historians of the book and of reading will have many comments for you.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, anonymous reader, for your comment. I think that lots of what we read and watch calls up a schema, cranks its handle, and evokes the mood or emotion appropriate to that schema. That is why, in the video rental store there are often sections that are appropriate to the emotion that is intended to be invoked: horror, anger (in action stories), romance, and so on. In our research group, Laurette Larocque and Patricia Steckley found that people chose videos to rent with a view to the kind of mood that they wanted to be invoked. All this, of course, is perfectly fine. It's entertainment. Art, I take it, is different in that although it often moves us, it's goal is not primarily to invoke some particular mood or emotion. Also, it contains possibilities for change, for instance modification of the schemas it invokes, though in the best instances without specifying what changes might occur (i.e. it is not like persuasion). Thus Hamlet is based on revenge, but invites us to modify, for ourselves, the revenge motif. So perhaps the reason why it is difficult to think of pre-1940 handle-cranking novelists is not that there weren't any, but that what you call "eminence" has filtered them out. Perhaps they are no longer even entertaining.

One of the insights for our research group was that fiction tends to have a rather specific subject matter: interacting in the social world, and as Jerome Bruner says, the vicissitudes of selves in that world. So, War and Peace, is not really about war and peace. It is about Pierre and Andrei and Natasha, their social world, and the vicissitudes they meet. In the course of the novel, Tolstoy breaks off to offer reflections on war, and these become something more like sociology, not uninteresting, but different, tending to what we think of as non-fiction.

Thanks, too, for your methodological suggestion.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Maria, for this very informative comment. I did not know of the distinction between intensive and extensive readers that you describe. I did know of the emphasis of reading in medieval times on devotion and personal transformation, for instance by monks. But what you say extends that in a very interesting way. I suppose that one aspect of what we are trying to do is to explore the possibilities of extensive reading for something like a modern version of personal transformation. So, I shall look up Rolf Engelsing, and the SHARP-L group.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Maybe I should say at this point that I have had some direct experience with a project involving social scientists poaching on the turf of the humanities. The howls of the humanities scholars (art historians, in that case) were unpleasant to hear.

Having said that:

1. It is very easy to think of pre-1940 "handle-cranking" novelists. Gothic novels, novels of sensation, Treasure Island, H. Rider Haggard, H. P. Lovecraft, Agatha Christie. Every one of these examples is still read and still enjoyed by some group of readers. Many of these readers are literary scholars.

How do your 4 criteria exclude any of these books? Every one of them is about some combination of the self in the social world, or interpersonal relationships, or understanding the minds of others.

2. "Eminent" was your word, not mine. It's not a fixed concept. There's now a Library of America volume of H. P. Lovecraft (and Philip Dick, and Raymond Chandler). There are Norton Critical Editions of Anne of Green Gables and Ragged Dick. Zane Grey and H. Rider Haggard are now published as Penguin Classics.

Today, in literary scholarship, Little Women is clearly eminent (read a lot, studied a lot, and taught a lot). Vanity Fair, to refer to another discussion, has been eminent since its publication. There may be good reasons to exclude these books from your list (although Alcott sounds perfect for you). You should say what they are. It will help minimize the howling.

3. Interactions in the social world and the vicissitudes of the self in the world do not sound like "rather specific subject matter" to me. They sound incredibly broad. Fiction is a big thing.

I understand that for the purposes of the study, the exact list of texts used may not really matter. But that is not the impression I am getting from the language of this post.

PS Jon Elster read Bleak House and Great Expectations and concluded that they were not "psychologically worth reading"? How is that possible? I've added Elster's book to my reading list.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Amateur Reader. I am interested in the phrase you use, "poaching on the turf of the humanities." Of course the kind of metaphor we prefer is something more like bridge-building but I, too, have encountered some territoriality at this border, so I understand the point you are making, and I am grateful to you. And you are right. It was me who used the word "eminent." I had forgotten that I did so. And I agree; it is not a fixed concept.

I am grateful, too, for the list of authors who may be thought of in terms of handle-cranking, and who are still read. I have felt a bit diffident about identifying them, so your list is helpful. We are certainly interested in the distinction between art, which can have a potential for transformation, and entertainment which on the whole, I think, might not.

Here is the problem of categorization as I see it. When we started our research, a central idea was that fiction is a kind of simulation of the social world. Then we started to find some empirical results of engaging in this. Then people started asking: "Do you mean all fiction?" So that is how we have reached the current point.

Like you, we do see fiction as broad. But there is also something specific about it. Aristotle thought that poetry (he meant what we would now mean by fiction) is about "the kind of thing that can happen." We are arguing that the main stream of fiction has tended not to about everything that can happen so, for instance, it tends not to focus on what can happen with developments in genetics or what can happen in elections. Its principal focus is on things that can happen within and between people, in their lives together. It is at this point that one can ask: what kinds of things might these be? And that is how some categories emerged, to sharpen the focus a bit, with an eye also to correspondences with the kinds of effects we have found. Maybe the four themes proposed in my post are not just broad, but too broad. Do you have any suggestions for narrowing them? In any event, your arguments have made me think. I'll think some more.

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