Thursday 18 March 2010

Reading Fiction is like ... Translunar Flight. Part II

If there are similarities between reading fiction and the astronaut’s experience of translunar flight, as I discussed in Monday's post, then, if we extend the analogy, there ought to be similarities between writing fiction and the aeronautical engineers that planned and monitored the mission, many of whom were in “mission control”. Both writers of fiction and these engineers are responsible for the cognitive and emotional experiences, and indeed for the physical effects that accompany such experiences, of other human beings for an extended period of time. But there are differences between the two to be discussed as well.

Some of the engineers originally involved in the American space program felt that it was not cost-effective to try to put a person onto the moon. Extra weight would be added in the form of human consumables and waste, and a great redundancy of systems would be needed to insure the safety of the crew, systems which added weight to the rocket stack (Mindell, 2008). In the end, of course, the human-pilot model won out in the Apollo program, but this piloting would involve computer assistance to such a degree that it could be asked, “how could you teach someone to use a machine that required nothing of him when working, and everything of him when broken?” (Mindell, 2008, p. 160).

On Apollo 8, in which the goal was to fly to the moon, orbit ten times, and return to earth to test all systems at this great distance before the landing missions (Woods, 2009, p. 33), astronaut Jim Lovell was lauded for his outstanding ability to operate the necessary optical instruments to navigate by locating celestial objects (Woods, 2009, p. 139). He probably beamed; his fellow astronauts must have congratulated him; mission control was extremely pleased and then ... promptly uploaded to the onboard computer the “state vector” [the vessel’s current position and velocities] as it had been determined by mission control’s readings from space stations around the world and their own readings and interpretations of the onboard computer’s inertial navigation system, obviating Lovell’s efforts (Woods, 2009). Indeed, mission control “overwrote the onboard numbers before each maneuver” (Mindell, 2008, p. 178). Further, “Apollo crewmen,” Mindell notes, “followed carefully written ‘programs,’ in the form of their timelines, check-lists, abort criteria, and mission rules. These programs governing people’s behavior were as important as the programs controlling the computer, and similarly embodied assumptions and links between organizations... In the human-machine system of Apollo, it often was not possible to distinguish between instructions for machines and instructions for people” (p. 233). Apollo 14’s Alan Shepard railed against the idea that the astronaut would not be able to carry out maneuvers that might go against the advice produced by the computer, declaring to the engineers, “Take out all those inhibitions... if we want to kill ourselves, let us. It may involve saving ourselves” (Mindell, 2008, p. 160).

It is not a far stretch to imagine an editor reminding a tentative fiction writer who has a great story to tell, but who still doesn’t trust the reader, to show and not tell, that if readers want to “kill themselves” that it may involve “saving themselves,” too. But if the imagining required by fiction entails imagining such that the self is the grounding point (Walton, 1990), whether consciously or subconsciously, then how does one submit oneself to the writer’s plan and intentions toward the reader’s intentions? Indeed, we must do this to some extent or we could not speak to one another coherently about a particular novel we had read. One response presents itself immediately in the context of the fiction reading/translunar spaceflight analogy. The astronaut comes to think like the engineer, and similarly, the reader of fiction comes to think like the writer (Barthes, 1975). Mindell (2008) describes a notable difference between the astronauts of the pre-Apollo era who on occasion had balked at the human/software interface and those of Apollo who generally accepted that much of spaceflight involved interacting with the computer: their education. Of the twelve people who landed on the moon, four had PhDs and seven had post-graduate degrees (p. 256) in such areas as interplanetary guidance, navigation, and orbital rendezvous (p. 168). Thus, these astronauts were coming to think more like mission control.

By analogy, I am not suggesting that one needs a post-graduate degree to interact competently with fiction, but rather, in keeping with research findings over the past 35 years, that guided exposure to the reading of fiction in the early years makes us better at understanding the social, cognitive, and emotional processes in stories (Hynds, 1985; 1989) and may enhance our social abilities (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, de la Paz, & Peterson, 2006). That is, when we rely on our own interpersonal capacities to maximize our fiction-reading experience, we are relying, in part, on knowledge that we have acquired concerning these processes through the reading of fiction early in life with people we care about and who care about us, be they parents, guardians, teachers, siblings, or friends.

During the Apollo years, and indeed even earlier in the American space program, it was a less-publicized fact that astronauts who were believed to have changed parts of the flight plan without good reason or not to have followed mission control’s advice at a particular juncture, even on a single flight, never flew again (Woods, 2009). I find it interesting how seldom writers of fiction criticize readers for making incorrect inferences in the reading of their work. I am not aware of empirical work on this question, but my impression is that most usually fiction writers do not assert their vision of the work, nor even insist on the accurate interpretation of details in the work, but suggest time and time again that the fictional work is there to serve the reader. Perhaps this is a tactic intended to not scare us off their work, but I think it may be because, even when they are writing the work, they are already anticipating what other creative minds can do with it.

Barthes, R. (1975). S/Z. (R. Miller, trans.) London: Cape.

Hynds, S. D. (1985). Interpersonal cognitive complexity and the literary response processes of adolescent readers. Research in the Teaching of English, 19, 386-402.

Hynds, S. D. (1989). Bringing life to literature and literature to life: Social constructs and contexts of four adolescent readers. Research in the Teaching of English, 23, 30-61.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712.

Mindell, D. A. (2008). Digital Apollo: Human and machine in spaceflight. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Walton, K. L. (1990). Mimesis as make-believe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Woods, W. D. (2009). How Apollo flew to the moon. Chichester, UK: Springer.

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1 comment:

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Rebecca very much for this post. I like very much your idea of fiction as moon-flight. I do feel as you say in your last paragraph, that at a certain point, my job as the writer of a book is done. Not completely done, perhaps, because there is always some regret at not having been able to make the book better. But it is done in the sense that the book has to make its own way in the world. It's a bit like a child leaving home. And if we writers don't assert any proprietary authority of what readers make of a book it is, I think, because we do intend the book to be able to make its own relationships with others. They are relationships in which the writer has an interest, but in which the writer is no longer an intimate partner in the way he or she once was.

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