Monday 5 October 2009

Distancing Ourselves from Fiction

In an interview with the French author Marie Darrieussecq this week, in which she discusses her new novel, Tom is Dead, the host of the BBC’s The Strand, Mark Coles, described his own experience of reading the novel: “It’s a very difficult book to read. I’ve got to admit that you had me sobbing at times. Other occasions I was yelling at you. I hurled the book across the room at a wall. I didn’t want to read what you were making me read”. One supposes that he was required to complete his reading of the novel in order to be able to interview the author. Nevertheless, his reaction to the narrative is a powerful example of the ways in which readers sometimes struggle against or try to mitigate the effects of reading the fictions in which they are engaged. I know a woman who enjoys reading detective novels for relaxation, but she has never read one in her first language. She says she prefers the distance she gets on the crime genre when reading in her second language. Some readers say that they slow their reading before coming to the culminating moment in a tragedy. I wonder if book clubs are another strategy that people use to put some distance between themselves and the fiction they read. We simply do not know what we’re coming upon in the wilderness of some stories. If we have the company of others, though, we may feel emboldened to carry on.

There are surely many other ways in which readers try to protect themselves from the images, emotions, and beliefs that they experience while reading fiction, short of simply closing the book and not picking it up again. But why should this be? Much of the work done by members of this blog team underscores the authenticity of the emotions experienced while reading fiction. So, I don’t doubt that a good part of these self-protective strategies buy time, until the reader can sort out what is happening to her emotionally, at which point she will pick the book up off the floor, perhaps putting the torn dust jacket back on, and opening it up again.

It could be that these readers know, perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, that the book could change their beliefs, and not always in a predictable way. The implication of two lines of psychological research is that proceeding with caution in this way may be a wise response. Richard Gerrig, Deborah Prentice, and David Rapp have described the typical process of reading fiction to be “the willing construction of disbelief” (Prentice and Gerrig, 1999; Prentice, Gerrig, & Bailis, 1997; Gerrig & Rapp, 2004). Readers “must engage in effortful processing to disbelieve the information they encounter in literary narratives (as well as other types of narratives); otherwise, that information will have an impact in the real world” (Gerrig & Rapp, 2004, p. 268).

Perhaps strong feelings of rejection toward a story and the resulting strategies for distancing oneself arise because readers somehow know that continuing to read may leave them walking around holding beliefs that they do not want to hold, having thoughts that they do not want to have, and re-experiencing images that they do not want to re-experience. The social psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert, in a much-quoted and very rewarding article, juxtaposes the epistemological views of Spinoza and Descartes, concluding that Spinoza’s view corresponds better to the psychological reality of belief acquisition. Thus, simply comprehending an idea is equivalent to accepting the idea, and rejecting an idea takes additional effort. We do not first comprehend an idea, then make a conscious judgment concerning its validity, as proposed by Descartes. Gilbert (1991) and Gilbert, Tafarodi, & Malone (1993) cite much evidence from the empirical literature suggesting that comprehending and tagging as valid a newly perceived bit of information happen at the same moment, especially when the perceiver is experiencing other sources of stress concomitantly. The Spinozan system would predict that readers of fiction would accept and incorporate into other cognitive operations information that they know to be invalid. Gerrig & Rapp (2004) cite empirical evidence that fiction readers do in fact proceed in this way. Perhaps instead of consciously deciding not to acquire a belief discordant with one’s sense of oneself, or to experience an image or an emotion one cannot bear, one hurls the book against the wall, and asks questions later -- or doesn't.

Gerrig, R. J., & Rapp, D. N. (2004). Psychological processes underlying literary impact. Poetics Today, 25, 265- 281.

Gilbert, D. T. (1991). How mental systems believe. American Psychologist, 46, 107-119.

Gilbert, D. T., Tafarodi, R. W., & Malone, P. S. (1993). You can’t not believe everything you read. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65, 221-233.

Prentice, D. A., & Gerrig, R. J. (1999). Exploring the boundary between fiction and reality. In. S. Chaiken & Y. Trope (Eds.), Dual-process theories in social psychology (pp. 529-546). New York: Guilford.

Prentice, D. A., Gerrig, R. J., & Bailis, D. S. (1997). What readers bring to the processing of fictional texts. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 4, 416-420.


Brian Keaney said...

NSometimes people just find reading certain novels very painful so they have to develop strategies for dealing with that, building in recovery time from each emotional shock. At one end of the spectrum a strategy might be simply stopping reading altogether; then there's a whole variety of slowing techniques as one struggles to cope. Sometimes the pain is clearly worth it; sometimes it isn't. You only really know afterwards.

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

That's a really nice treatment of this process.

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

Thanks for your comments, Brian and Valentine. I think you're right, Brian, that it really is only in retrospect that one can assess whether the pain of reading a particular fictional work was worth it. I suppose that before reading we can ask friends about their reading experience of a work, perhaps paying more attention to the assessments of readers whose emotional thresholds are similar to our own. But once we have taken the plunge, and find ourselves feeling overwhelmed emotionally, those distancing strategies may be all we have to work with.

Fran Caldwell said...

There are words from novels read decades ago that are still imprinted on my brain. Not all were painful, but some were - the ones that made you put the book aside quickly...but then you came back, to check, to see what you were made of.

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