Books on the psychology of fiction
Compiled by Keith Oatley

These books cover quite a wide spectrum, from Greek classics and literary theory to evolution and artificial intelligence. All have been chosen because they combine literary and psychological interest. Each is accompanied by a micro-review. Where an author has written a number of books on the same topic, we cite just the first book in the series. This bibliography is far from complete, so if you would like to offer any observations on the list, or suggest a book that should be on it, please do so by adding a comment to our post of 19 May 2008, or indeed to any other post. We will review nominations. If a book you suggest belongs here, we will insert it with your micro-review and an acknowledgement to you. We are happy to receive a nomination of a book you have written, but in such a case we would like to read it and write the micro-review. We would also be pleased to hear of, and correct, mistakes you discover. Reviews are by Keith Oatley, except where otherwise specified.

Plato (circa 375 BCE). The republic. (D. Lee, Trans.). Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin (this edition 1955).
This is the first book in the Western tradition to contain an extensive discussion of art, about which Plato uses the term mimesis. Although The Republic is largely about politics, part of Books 2 and 3, and the whole of Book 10, are devoted to art. Plato says that stories are essential for the education of the young, but his most potent argument is that truth exists primarily in a transcendant world, which we  reach by rational thought. In the everyday world, we do not see truths, only appearances. Art, which consists of copies of such appearances, is thus twice-removed from truth.  Whereas if you want knowledge of say, making a bed, you approach a carpenter, poets know nothing substantive. They know only how to make counterfeits of superficial patterns: word pictures of beds, which you can't lie on. Poetry, moreover, tends to the emotional, which makes for irrationality. Therefore in the best traditions of authoritarian government, poets should be exiled from the Republic.

Aristotle (circa 330 BCE) Poetics (G. E. Else, Trans.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press (This edition, 1970).
This is regarded as the founding work on fiction in the West. (Fiction and poetry have similar etymologies: both mean something made.) Aristotle’s book combines literary theory and psychology. Its central idea is that of mimesis, a term derived from Plato's discussion, that refers to the relation of a work of literature to the world. It is usually translated in English as imitation, copying, or representation. But as Halliwell (2002) explains, the Greek word had two families of meanings. The second family, which is about world-making or simulation, is arguably more important for understanding fiction, and is the one stressed by Aristotle in this book.

Longinus (circa 50 BCE). On the sublime. In Classical literary criticism (Ed & trans. T. S. Dorsch). (pp. 99-158). Harmondsworth: Penguin (This edition, 1965)
This short treatise is about the concept hypsos, usually translated as the sublime, which means something outstanding, unusual, and surprising, in conception and style, so that it can become exalted. The author gives many examples from Homer, Sappho, Euripides, and others, and discusses literary devices that contribute to the effect, which Russian Formalists such as Schlovsky referred to as defamiliarization, and members of the Prague Linguistic Circle such as Mukarovsky referred to as foregrounding. The effect is psychologically important in enabling a reader, sometimes, to loosen preconceptions and achieve a degree of transcendence.

Anandavardana & Abhinavagupta (circa 1000) in D. H. H. Ingalls, J. M. Masson & M. V. Patwardhan (1990). The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
In India there is a tradition of poetics parallel to that of the West. It was founded by Bharata, who probably lived about 100 years after Aristotle. In this tradition, there was important theorizing by two writers, Anandavardana and Abhinavagupta, who lived in the area that is now Kashmir and wrote in Sanskrit about 1000 years ago. The central terms in this tradition are rasa, meaning literary emotion, which can be understood better than an emotion of ordinary life, and dhvani, which means suggestion. Dhvani, these theorists argued, is the heart of poetry, because poetry suggests things it does not say explicitly.

Samuel Johnson (1779-1781). Lives of the poets. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Current edition, 2006).
Although this is primarily a set of biographies of poets such as Milton, Dryden, and Pope, this book by the famous dictionary compiler contains some of Johnson’s thoughts about literature, including his idea that what makes a work of literature great and lasting is its originality. It also contains the idea that a good poet is not necessarily a good person.

William Wordsworth & Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798). Lyrical Ballads. London: Longman & Rees.
This was one of the most influential books of poetry in English. It included Wordsworth’s “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “Rime of the ancient mariner.” It had a preface, written by Wordsworth, and the version of it that was published in the second (1802) edition of Lyrical ballads became a manifesto of the Romantic movement. It's central idea was that literary art should focus on the ordinary lives of ordinary people (rather than on the high-born), and it included the following: “Poetry is spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced and does itself actually exist in the mind.”

Leo Tolstoy (1898). What is art?  In A. Maude (Ed.), Tolstoy on art (pp. 117-357). Oxford: Oxford University Press (This edition, 1925).
Tolstoy wrote this extended essay towards the end of his life. It has been widely derided because Tolstoy makes a case that art should be capable of being appreciated by everyone, irrespective of intelligence or education. True art, in Tolstoy’s view, is meaningful, and can be easily understood. It communicates itself by emotion and sincerity, and tends towards truth.

Percy Lubbock (1926). The craft of fiction. London: Cape.
Lubbock was a friend of Henry James, and he explains James’s ideas, and accomplishments, of point-of-view in fiction. James thought a novel should adopt a particular point of view, for instance that of a protagonist, and not wander inadvertently into matters that could not be known from that point of view. The craft of fiction is one of the earliest books to treat fiction as an art, and it is thus important in the history of literary criticism. It is also an early example of the genre of how to read fiction. It is distinctive for its analysis of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary  which, Lubbock argues, enables its readers to see the world both through the eyes of Emma Bovary and at the same time from the viewpoint of a spectator.

E. M. Forster (1927). Aspects of the novel. London: Arnold.
This is the best book we know by a distinguished novelist on the substance of novels, and the writing of novels. Forster dissents, rather, from some of Lubbock’s prescriptions. The book is best known for its distinction between flat characters in fiction, cardboard cut-outs that function principally as place holders in a plot, and round characters who take on a life in the imagination beyond that of the book in which they appear.

Virginia Woolf (1929). A room of one's own. London: Hogarth Press.
A room of one’s own is what a writer needs, ideally, to write in. Woolf explores some of the reasons why great writers have so often been men: those who have had the room. She imagines Judith Shakespeare, a sister to William, just as gifted as he, and she explains some of the impediments that Judith would have faced. Woolf then discusses the careers of several women who have been influential writers: Aphra Benn, Jane Austen, the Brontës, and George Eliot. Jane Austen, as Woolf points out, had to write where she could, subject to all sorts of interruptions. She had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with pieces of blotting paper. She had no study to repair to.

I. A. Richards (1929). Practical criticism: A study of literary judgment. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
An account of an early psychological experiment on reading literature: Richards describes how he gave 13 poems to a group of undergraduates who were reading for honours in English. He recorded "an astonishing variety" of responses. "Readers of poetry," he wrote, "frequently and repeatedly fail to understand it." The book was a founding document in the movement of New Criticism, which became dominant in the 1950s and 1960s. The ideal of this movement was close reading of texts, independently of authorial intentions or idiosyncratic reactions by readers and, while acknowledging ambiguity, a striving towards making the best interpretation of each text.

Frederick Bartlett (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
This is the founding book of cognitive psychology, the only plausible earlier candidate being Plato’s Meno. Bartlett asked people to read a story from an unfamiliar culture, and return to the laboratory at intervals to reproduce it. What he found was that, with each reproduction, not only did people forget more, but what they remembered became closer and closer to their own culture. What we remember when we read are a general mood, a setting, and a few details. We incorporate these into a dynamic schema, by means of which we make what Bartlett called an “effort after meaning” of what we have read in terms of our own knowledge about how the world works. When we have to remember, we crank the handle (as it were) of our schema, and out comes our own culturally distinctive and idiosyncratic version. 

Konstantin Stanislavski (1936). An actor prepares. New York: Theater Arts. 
This is the first and most famous of the books by Stanislavski, who was at least partly responsible for making Chekhov's plays a success at the newly founded Moscow Art Theatre. An actor prepares is about the psychology of preparing a part during the process of rehearsal. It deals with creativity and the imagination, with exploring a role to its full, and with the application to the role of the actor's own experience, memory, and emotions. 

R. G. Collingwood (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The best book we know of on the Romantic theory of art, for which Wordsworth and Coleridge (1798) wrote the manifesto. Collingwood argues that art is the expression of emotion in a language of some sort—poetry, prose, music, painting, dance, or whatever it may be—so that the emotion can be explored and understood. True art can then be distinguished from craft, which is dominated by technique and aims at a product that is specified in advance. It can also be distinguished from other forms of pseudo-art, such as propaganda, which aim at prescribed effects on their consumers.

Louise Rosenblatt (1938). Literature as exploration. New York: Noble & Noble.
This is the founding book of reader response theory, which was in part a reaction to the New Critics, as exemplified by Richards (1929). The New Critics saw literature solely as a matter of interpreting texts. By contrast, Rosenblatt argued that literature involves a transaction between the author, the text, and the reader. Her book became influential, and she followed it with a number of others that focus on how readers respond to and evaluate what they read.

M. H. Abrams (1953). The mirror and the lamp: Romantic theory and the critical tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
In this fine and thoughtful book, Abrams shows that art is not a mirror in which we can see a copy of nature, but a lamp that illuminates, and allows attention to be drawn towards what is significant in the world. During the Romantic era (that is since 1750 or so, and continuing today) the technologies of copying have multiplied, so it has been clear that the idea of art as copying or imitation won’t do. But we need artists to throw light on, and draw attention to, aspects of our world.

Erich Auerbach (1953). Mimesis: The representation of reality in Western literature (W. R. Trask, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
With no close competition, this is the most important book of literary theory and analysis of the twentieth century in the West. Although it concentrates on literary analysis, it is full of psychological insight. Auerbach’s method is to offer a series of chapters, each beginning with a quotation of a page or so from a work that he treats in the history of Western literature. The book starts with Homer’s depictions of “uniformly illuminated” action, and ends with inner consciousness as depicted by Virginia Woolf. Each chapter begins with some analysis of the language and then, in a moment, one is inside the thinking of the writer and the society of that time.

Bruno Snell (1953). The discovery of the mind in Greek philosophy and literature. New York: Dover (modern edition 1982).
This is an influential book in which Snell points out that in Homer there is not much mindstuff, merely behavior, with motivations attributed to outside agencies, the gods. Several hundred years after Homer, we see mind being invented by Aeschylus and Sophocles, in plays that depict people choosing for themselves how to act and being responsible for their actions, even though they (unlike gods) are unable to foresee all the consequences.

Roman Jakobson & Morris Halle (1956). Fundamentals of language. 'S-Gravenhage: Mouton.
It is a mild delight to find that the fundamentals of something as momentous as language are contained in a book of only 82 pages. The part that concerns us here is even shorter, 31 pages, by Jakobson. In it, he explains that language involves using words according to two principles, selection and combination. Selection is the choice of a word, a semantic operation. Combination has to do with the ordering of words, a syntactic operation. Jakobson points out that in certain kinds of brain damage one of these functions tends to be disturbed while sparing the other. He goes on to argue that these functions give rise respectively to metaphor, in which one thing is selected to represent another on the basis of similarity, and combination, which works by juxtaposition, so that, for instance Tolstoy uses Anna Karenina's handbag to suggest something about her.

Ian Watt (1957). The rise of the novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. London: Chatto & Windus.
This is a classic text on how the development of the novel in Eighteenth-Century England accompanied, and perhaps even stimulated, a growing consciousness of human individuality and an emphasis on human experience. At the same time, Watt discusses a growth in the numbers of people reading fiction during this period.

Mikhail Bakhtin (1963). Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics. (trans. C. Emerson). Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press ( Current edition 1984). 
Bakhtin was a Russian literary theorist who worked primarily in the first half of the Twentieth Century, but was only recognized in the West after he died in 1975. Since then his work has become extraordinarily influential. In this, his best-known book, Bakhtin argues that Dostoevsky invented the idea of fiction with multiple centres of consciousness, including that of the reader, and the possibility of dialogue among these centres. 

Frank O'Connor (1963). The lonely voice: A study of the short story. New York: World Publishing Co (reprinted 2004, Melville House).
This book, by the great Irish writer of short stories, is the best we know on the short story. O’Connor argues that the literary short story is a relatively modern genre that was established by Turgenev and Maupassant. The modern short story is distinct from older forms such as the yarn or the fable. And it is not defined merely by being short. It is usually about one person, who often is on the edge of society, who undergoes a change of some kind. Perhaps some small event prompts an epiphany. The short story is characterized by a form in which, as O'Connor says, “a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes.” 

Frank Kermode (1966). The sense of an ending: Studies in the theory of fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kermode, among the most thoughtful of literary critics, here discusses how fiction is one of our more important attempts to make meaningful sense of a world which often seems to be, and which may indeed be, driven by chance and contingency. Fiction tends to have, as Aristotle (330 BCE) proposed, a beginning, middle, and—as discussed here—an end which is both a conclusion and an aim towards which a work of fiction tends, in a way that life may not seem to do. Although fiction is not life, it may nonetheless be a principal way in which we understand life psychologically, by projecting ideas of this kind onto it. 

Norman Holland (1968). The dynamics of literary response. New York: Columbia University Press.
In this book, Holland explores emotional responses to literary works. He offers a psychoanalytic interpretation, and argues that readers’ responses depend on their unconscious fantasies, as stimulated by the works they are reading. In his subsequent work Holland joined the movement of reader response theory, as begun by Louise Rosenblatt (1938), and discussed the idea of readers developing their identities.

Roland Barthes (1974). S/Z: An essay. (trans. R. Miller). New York: Hill & Wang.
In this influential work, Barthes gives a structuralist analysis of Balzac's short story, "Sarrasine." He offers five codes by which meaning is discovered, not just in this but in any work of fiction. These codes are (i) the hermeneutic, the means by which a reader solves mysteries of the text, (ii) the semic, a metonymic code by which material objects suggest abstract entities, (iii) the proairetic, a code of actions and sequences, (iv) symbolic, a code by which ambiguities are read into a text, (v) cultural, the code by which a text refers to shared meanings within a culture. Emphases on different sets of codes can occur in different ways with successive readings. In this book, Barthes makes his famous distinction between a readerly and a writerly reading, with the one being largely receptive and the other being one in which the reader creates a reading as a kind of rewriting.

Wolfgang Iser (1974). The implied reader: Patterns of communication in prose fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Iser here develops the idea that a piece of fiction is brought into being as a communication between an author and a reader who knows the same codes as the writer and who, as it were, fills in the blanks to make meaningful sense of the text. It is thus in the reader’s participation that a text becomes a work of art.

Colin Martindale (1975). Romantic progression: The psychology of literary history. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.
Martindale argues that gifted artists do not work mainly in response to the public, but are driven to create novel variations on productions of their predecessors. He treats two series of poets whose work has been selected for anthologies, an English series from 1700 to 1840 (from around the time of Pope to that of Keats), and a French series from 1800 to 1940 (from around the time of Hugo to the surrealists). He analyzed poems by computer counts of words in poems in categories such as emotions and indications of psychoanalytic regression. He argues that the French poets were more isolated from the public and he found, over 140 years, a significant increase in the frequency of regressive terms and bizarrely incongruent metaphors. The less isolated series of English poets showed non-significant trends of the same kind. 

David Lodge (1977). The modes of modern writing: Metaphor, metonymy, and the typology of modern fiction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
This book was prompted by the proposal by Roman Jakobson that metaphor and metonymy are not just literary figures, but two poles, or modes, of thought. Whereas metaphor (a semantic operation in which one meaning is projected onto another) is characteristic of theatre and lyric poetry, novels written in the style of realism typically employ metonymy (a syntactic operation of juxtaposition, which includes synecdoche, part-for-whole). In novels written in the mode of realism, for instance, metaphors are usually infrequent, but metonyms, such as depictions of how characters dress or speak or act (parts) indicate the person’s character (the whole). 

Roger Schank & Robert Abelson (1977). Scripts, plans, goals and understanding: An inquiry into human knowledge structures. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
This book introduces the influential idea of a script, a knowledge structure that is part of ordinary cultural understanding, for instance (in Schank and Abelson’s favourite example) when one goes to a restaurant. A writer invokes a script by mentioning its name or some part of it, and readers infer the whole sequence and structure. The writer needs only to mention a departure from a script for readers to know something unusual has occurred, and to concentrate on it: “He went to Café Mercurio, but left without paying.”

Keith May (1977). Out of the maelstrom: Psychology and the novel in the Twentieth Century. London: Elek.
A book on the inter-penetration of ideas of the unconscious and its workings as expressed in novels of the Twentieth Century by such writers as Lawrence, Proust, and Woolf, and psychoanalytic theory expressed by Jung, Fairbairn, and others.

Thomas Scheff (1979). Catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Berkeley: University of California Press.
In this striking book Scheff argues for Freud’s first theory in which traumas, rather than the inner conflicts he proposed later, are the principal causes of psychological suffering. The solution, visible in Western therapy, in literature, and in practices of psychological healing around the world, is to prompt sufferers to relive traumatic events, but at an aesthetic distance where the emotions are neither too distant nor too overwhelming, so that they can be assimilated. When we weep at the fates of Romeo and Juliet, Scheff says, it is because we are reliving, at an optimal aesthetic distance, some unresolved loss of our own.

George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Not about literature but very relevant to it, this book has become widely influential with its argument that metaphor is a basic way of thinking, perhaps even the basic way of thinking. The argument is that we humans apply what we know from our experience of embodiment and movement to other matters that may be abstract. If I say: “I’m going forward with this idea,” I am using a metaphor derived from being able to walk and move about.

Lewis Hyde (1983). The gift: Imagination and the erotic life of property. New York: Vintage.
The gift is a completely unusual book, about the nature of imagination and of art. In it Hyde argues that parallel to the commercial economy there is another economy: of gifts. This parallel economy includes that of art. Whereas the commercial economy is based on exchange, a gift has the property of increasing as it is given away and passed on, in the kind of way that life increases as parents give it to an offspring. Whereas commercial exchange allows accumulation for oneself, a gift typically derives from a relationship and creates relationship along with the emotions of relationship. The first part of Hyde's book is about gift economies and their properties in difference societies, about the way in which gifts tend to circulate, and to be reciprocated. These chapters, says Hyde, are to be read as allegories of ways in which art passes as gifts to others and circulates in a community. The second part is about two poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, both of whom spent considerable parts of their lives in ways that did not make commercial sense: Whitman nursing and distributing small gifts to men who had been wounded in the Civil War, and Pound helping other poets in ways that seemed not to be of much benefit to himself.

Mieke Bal (1985). Narratology: Introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 
This book has become the standard work on narratology: the theory of narrative texts, It includes discussions of types of narration, actors, events, features of stories, place and time, focalization, etc. In the second (1997) edition Bal has added sections on dialogue and intertextuality, as well as a discussion on film and visual narratives.

David Bordwell (1985). Narration in the fiction film. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. 
This book is the first, as its blurb says, "to give a comprehensive account of how movies use fundamental principles of narrative representation, unique features of the film medium, and diverse story-telling patterns, to construct their fictional narratives." This is a wonderfully thoughtful and stimulating book which starts with Aristotle's Poetics, with the Russian Formalist ideas of defamiliarization, fabula and sujet, and with Bartlett's (1932) cognitive theory of schemata, to propose a psychological theory of the fiction film as a partnership between a narratizing director and an actively engaged and constructive film watcher who is rather like (a metaphor used in the book) the James Stewart character in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, as he constructs an understanding of what his neighbours are up to.

Paul Ricoeur (1985). Time and narrative (K. McLaughlin & D. Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
This is a substantial, three-volume, book by an important thinker who worked in the tradition of phenomenology and hermeneutics. In it, Ricoeur explores the idea that human time exists because of our ability to form and understand narrative, a primary means of knowing ourselves, and of explaining human lives to others.

Jerome Bruner (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
In this book, Bruner, one of the leaders of the cognitive revolution in psychology, argues that acts of imagination make experience meaningful. He proposes two fundamental modes of thought: a paradigmatic mode, which consists typically of categorization and explanation in a scientific fashion, and a narrative mode, which "deals with the vicissitudes of human intentions." It is on this narrative mode that fiction is founded.

Martha Nussbaum (1986). The fragility of goodness: Luck and ethics in Greek tragedy and philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Among prominent modern philosophers, Nussbaum is the one who makes most use of literary fiction in her work. In this book, she argues against the idea that goodness, as seen by Plato, can protect human beings from all harm. Instead, she argues, we are subject to the vicissitudes of chance, in ways that are depicted in great works of literature. It is not self-sufficiency in the good life, or the life of contemplation, but vulnerability that best characterizes humanity, and it is our vulnerability that is the key to realizing human good.

Willie van Peer (1986). Stylistics and psychology: Investigations of foregrounding. London: Croom Helm.
The idea of foregrounding in literature, sometimes called defamiliarization, was proposed by the Russian Formalists, such as Schlovsky, and the idea was carried forward by members of the Prague Linguistic Circle such as Mukarovsky. Foregrounding is accomplished by creating variations from ordinary usage, that attract attention, and bring an idea alive, perhaps most profoundly in the way that Longinus (50 BCE) called “the sublime.” This book is an account of the first study we know to investigate this issue empirically. Participants read six short poems, for which predictions had been made on linguistic grounds as to which phrases were foregrounded. These phases were found by people who read the poems to be more striking, more important, and more worthy of discussion than other phrases.

Wayne Booth (1988). The company we keep: An ethics of fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
One of the very best books of literary theory: Booth proposes that the best way to think of our relationship to books, to their authors, and to their characters, is in the way we think of our friends. So reading fiction is an extension of friendship and, just as we are careful how we choose our friends, so we should be careful to choose what to read. And, since ethics involves making judgments of better and worse, we should know how works of literature are not all equal. We can and should make judgments of the ways in one piece of literature as better than another, for instance a later as compared with an earlier draft by an author. Booth here compares drafts from some of Yeats's poems. And if this is true for a single author, why not between authors, just as we can prefer one person's actions to those of another, and one friend to another?

Victor Nell (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press.
This book is an account of an unusual study in which Nell asked participants to choose a book they had not read, but knew they would like. They brought the book into the laboratory, and had their electro-encephalogram (EEG) recorded while reading. Nell found that readers who were engaged in the text entered a state of pleasurable high arousal, somewhat like a trance.

Milan Kundera (1988). The art of the novel. New York: HarperCollins.
This is a lovely book in which Kundera traces the development of the novel, concentrating on a middle-European (rather than Anglo-Saxon) tradition, which includes Rabelais, Cervantes, Diderot, Flaubert, Musil, Kafka, and Broch. Particularly striking are Kundera's comparisons among modernist compositions in the novel and in the music of Janacek.

Nöel Carroll (1990). The philosophy of horror or Paradoxes of the heart. New York: Routledge.
Carroll uses examples from a wide array of stories and films to explore a hypothesis about how people enjoy horror stories and horror films. He argues that in horror stories and films there is a monster that is clearly perceived as both threatening and abnormal. Mary Shelley's monster in Frankenstein is a typical example. Characters in the story react to it with fear and disgust. As viewers or readers, says Carroll, "we share with characters the emotive evaluations of monsters as fearsome and impure—as dangerous and repulsive—and this causes the relevant sensations in us" (p. 53). The paradox is why we should be attracted to fiction that elicits such emotions. Carroll's resolution of the paradox derives from David Hume's treatment of tragedy. It is that what is pleasurable to us is not the emotion of horror, but the sequence in which the horrible is discovered and its properties understood; then some engagement occurs with it in a way that achieves a narrative conclusion.

Jerry Hobbs (1990). Literature and cognition. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.
This is a fairly technical book on discourse analysis, which shows how pieces of text are structured, how parts in the structure relate to each other, and how meanings are assigned to parts and to the whole. After chapters on how interpretations of texts are made, there is a chapter on imagination and fiction, followed by a chapter on the theory of discourse analysis. In subsequent chapters the theory is applied to metaphors, to a sonnet by John Milton, and to a novella by Gerard de Nerval.

Kendall Walton (1990). Mimesis as make-believe: On the foundations of the representational arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
This is an influential philosophical treatment of representation in literature and related arts. The basic thesis is that fiction and cognate arts are best understood as much like children's games of make-believe. Walton's treatment of emotions has been widely discussed. According to his thesis, if someone is frightened at a movie, or weeps when reading a novel, these experiences are not real fear or sadness, because there was no real threat to the movie watcher and the novel reader suffered no loss. This seeming paradox has exercised a number of philosophers.

Ellen Dissanayake (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where art come from and why. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 
In this book, Dissanayake traces art from palaeontology, from developmental psychology, and from universals in presentday human culture. Decoration of the body, she says is such a universal, and was: "Quite possibly the first art" (p. 109). It can be traced back to at least 100,000 years ago, from when shaped ochre pencils have been found in human living sites. Artification (there is a sad lack of the verb "to art") is a making special, sometimes an exaggeration, and in temporally extended arts such as music, dance, and theatre, a ritualization of issues that are important to humankind, so that they can be considered and recognized as culturally important.

Keith Oatley (1992). Best laid schemes: The psychology of emotions. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
Though principally about emotions, in this book it is argued that literary fiction offers insights into them that are not easily available elsewhere. Fiction, it is argued, is a simulation that runs on minds and, with that simulation, emotions occur and can be understood.

Reuven Tsur (1992). Towards a theory of cognitive poetics. Amsterdam: North Holland.
By using the tools of cognitive science, Tsur aims to understand the human ability to produce and comprehend poetry. He ranges over a large number of literary texts, mostly lyric poems and some plays. Among his concerns is the way in which ordinary processes of cognition are often disrupted, disturbed, or slowed down, by literary texts in the manner described by Schlovsky as dishabituation (cf van Peer, 1986).

Richard Gerrig (1993). Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
This book is one of the first to treat narrative fiction from the viewpoint of  the experimental psychologist. Gerrig shows that the mental processes of understanding fiction are the same as those of understanding the ordinary world, as explained by Bartlett (1932). Gerrig argues that in fiction we are transported to other worlds. With the commonality of veridical and fictional understanding, it is not so much that in fiction we must, as Coleridge put it, “suspend disbelief,” bur rather that narrative leads us perhaps too easily to believe things that are not true. Fiction, he says, is the equivalent in cognitive psychology of visual illusion in the study of perception.

Scott McCloud (1993). Understanding comics. New York: HarperPerennial.
In some odd, but wonderful, ways this may be the best single introduction to the cognitive study of literature. It's not an academic book; there's no scholarly apparatus. But it yields a superb sense of what it is like to think about story-telling from a cognitive point of view. It takes the form of a comic book, words and images in panels cover every page - McCloud is a cartoonist. The pictorial form is what makes it so effective. So, McCloud has the reader thinking about visual objects and how they're constructed and how those constructions are organized into stories. It conveys a sense of design, engineering, and construction which is very important and which is missing in much of the current literary cognition literature. It gives the reader a whiff of mechanism without the pain involved in understanding the computational models of the cognitive sciences. Contributed by Bill Benzon. (I was delighted by this book, Keith Oatley)

Rolf Zwaan (1993). Aspects of literary comprehension: A cognitive approach. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
This book presents a series of experiments from a discourse-processing perspective. Some experiments used 200-word passages of prose that dealt with confrontations between the police and civilians. Participants who read what they thought was a literary story read these more slowly, as compared with those who read the same material as a news story, and they maintained more memory for verbal aspects of the text. Other experiments used reading materials from literary sources, and preliminary analyses of situation models are discussed. Zwaan suggests that literary reading maintains possibilities for ambiguity and indeterminacy.

Raymond Gibbs (1994). The poetics of mind: Figurative thought, language, and understanding. New York: Cambridge University Press. 
Drawing on Lakoff and Johnson’s work, Gibbs argues that the older assumption was that language is first of all literal and that figures of speech are additions, even frills. Gibbs proposes that the processes that used to be thought of as figurative, such as metaphor and metonym, are basic mental processes that pervade our mental lives. The human mind works in a way that is imaginative and deeply poetic.

Ronald Kellogg (1994). The psychology of writing. New York: Oxford University Press. 
Kellogg reviews and integrates research on composition, about how people formulate and express thoughts with the symbols of written text. Among the issues covered are the structure of the writing process, the personality of people who write, and the work schedules of writers, as well as the influence of newer technologies such as word processing and idea processing. Kellogg discusses some of his experiments on the role of knowledge, and the distribution of memory and attention, during the writing process. He argues for the centrality of meaning-making in human cognition, and of writing as an informative and prototypical example of it.

Scott Turner (1994). The creative process: A computer model of storytelling and creativity. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. 
We all know that certain kinds of stories can be written to a formula. It is an adage of artificial intelligence that if you really understand some mental process you can write a computer program to do it. In this book, Turner describes a program he has written to tell stories. For those who don’t mind programming technicalities, this book is a good read, with some excellent insights into both stories and creativity. 

Martha Nussbaum (1995). Poetic justice: The literary imagination and public life. Boston: Beacon.
This book is in the tradition of argument that fiction is not just a pass-time, but that it has beneficial psychological effects. Nussbaum starts with Adam Smith’s idea of the “judicious spectator” who can sympathetically enter the plight of another person. This ability, of identifying with others, she argues is honed by the reading of fiction. Without it, such issues as justice and fairness in public life would be impossible.

Murray Smith (1995). Engaging characters: Fiction, emotion, and the cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Although classifications of films as thrillers, tear-jerkers, horror-flicks, and so on, seem to imply that it is mandatory to respond to a film emotionally, this is one of the first books on film that seriously moves beyond a casual understanding of emotions. Smith starts with the theatrical ideas of Brecht to give an account of our emotions in films in terms of a psychological theory in which he extends the usual idea of identification with a protagonist to one of engagements with a series of characters that lead to contrasts and analyses at several levels, that he calls a "structure of sympathy."

Sol Stein (1995). Stein on writing. New York: St Martins. 
An important idea of cognitive psychology is that of expertise. One of the methods of studying it is to interview experts in a particular domain to discover their specialized knowledge and procedures, and make a model of this knowledge in such a way as to be able to pass it on to others. In this book Stein, who has both written novels and edited such writers as James Baldwin, is an expert who passes on his knowledge. In the genre of books on how to write fiction, this is the best we know.

Steven Mithen (1996). The prehistory of the mind: The cognitive origins of art and science. London: Thames & Hudson.
This is an important book in which Mithen argues that art emerged in human palaeontology quite recently, between about 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. Art involves making something that is both itself and something else. Thus a certain cave painting is both marks on a rock and a rhinoceros. A burial indicates that those who performed it thought the person they buried was both dead and alive in some different way. Before the emergence of art, people’s knowledge was compartmentalized. Then brain developments occurred in which new connections formed, and domains of knowledge began to interpenetrate. A this, in one domain, could be a that in another. Metaphor and art became possible.

Ed Tan (1996). Emotion and the structure of narrative film: Film as an emotion machine. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
This book on the emotions of film can be seen as a kind of companion to that of Smith (1995). It is based on Nico Frijda's widely respected psychological research on emotions. Tan proposes that narrative film is a medium that seems deliberately constructed as a machine to make us feel emotions. For Tan, these are witness emotions: what we would feel in sympathy for films' characters, for instance if we closely witnessed and appraised the events leading to a falling-in-love or the context and machinations of a killing.

Mark Turner (1996). The literary mind: The origins of thought and language. New York: Oxford University Press.
Although literature is often seen as an extra in human life, Turner says: “Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought” (p. 4). Its function is to give the world meaning. There are two steps. The first is to form a story, a sequence about what someone did and what events occurred. The second is to project this story onto another story, for instance, onto the story we have constructed of our own lives. He calls this process parable: the projection of story-structure onto the encounters of everyday life, in order to give them meaning. This kind of narrative thinking is thus the stuff of everyday mental life, and is closely tied to the origins of language. 

Margaret Anne Doody (1997). The true story of the novel. London: HarperCollins.
Doody argues that it is usually assumed that the novel begins in the European Renaissance with Cervantes's Don Quixote. But this is wrong: if we take the novel to be an extended work of prose fiction, it originated in antiquity. The first to have survived is Chaireas and Kallirrhoé, written in Greek by Chariton around 100 BCE. Early novels include the better-known Roman work, The golden ass, thought to have been written by Lucius Apuleius about 170 CE. Doody argues that, distinct from the epic and from Greek and Roman tragedy which had a masculine psychology, which emanated from the aristocracy, and which promoted civic order, the novel is more feminine. It comes from the middle and lower social classes, and it tends to be somewhat subversive of civic values. Instead it celebrates life, love, individualism, the family, meetings with people from outside the immediate social circle. 

Catherine Emmott (1997). Narrative comprehension: A discourse perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Emmott approaches the reading of literary texts using the methods of discourse analysis and artificial intelligence. She shows what mental resources are necessary for reading literature, and she offers a competence model for how mental representations of fictional characters and scenes are constructed, and for how inferences are made during reading. 

Leonard Shlain (1998). The alphabet versus the goddess: The conflict between word and image. New York: Viking Penguin.
Shlain argues that in cultures before literacy, thinking was holistic and imagistic, based in processes of the right hemisphere, and tending to venerate the goddess and feminine values. Alphabetic writing, he says, brought a reconfiguration of brain processing, and a dominance of left-brain thinking based on verbal reasoning, and ushering in religions and cultures of patriarchal rule, along with the intolerance that tends to accompany them. Some aspects seem over-wrought, but the book introduces some provocative distinctions.

János László (1999). Cognition and representation in literature: The psychology of literary narratives. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó.
This book is based in cognitive social psychology, including Bartlett's (1932) discovery that we make meaningful sense of what we read by assimilating it to an active schema of our own knowledge. After an introduction, the book consists of a series of empirical studies of reading literary fiction, using a number of methods. These studies include an interesting experiment that extends previous work with Steen Larsen on personal resonances of literature: a story was read by people in Denmark and Hungary, and people who were culturally close to it had experiences of reading that were more vivid and more meaningful.

Jordan Peterson (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. London: Routledge.
Peterson maps mythology onto psychological processes to show that a recurring theme for humankind is that of acting in a known environment, and then facing crises when the unknown overwhelms the protagonist. The unknown is an anomaly. With it, the protagonist no longer knows how to act, and all manner of emotional symptoms occur. Mythologies offer us maps of how these crises have been dealt with in various cultures.

Elaine Scarry (1999). Dreaming by the book. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
In this wonderful book, Scarry explores the nature of the imagination and of mental imagery in general. Literary art (and especially fiction) emerges as a series of instructions and techniques for creating and manipulating mental compositions. Scarry moves through a series of increasingly focused close readings, but always founds those readings upon scientific and intuitive explorations of the human cognitive apparatus, its imaginative faculties, and its visual limitations. She takes basic mental images — of light, shadow, color, faces, flowers, daydreams — and proceeds to demonstrate how great writers use their art both to summon such quasi-perceptual content and to increase the potency, complexity, and vivacity of that content within the reader's imagination. It is the best book, in my opinion, on the nature of literary image-making. Contributed by Peter Sattler.  (I completely agree, Keith Oatley)

Peter Widdowson (1999). Literature. New York: Routledge.
This is an introductory book that starts with a chapter called "Some (non-)definitions," from which one can infer an approach influenced by post-modernism. There is a good chapter on the history of teaching and conceptualizing literature in the 19th and 20th centuries, an argument for abandoning the idea of "literature" as discredited, but replacing it with the idea of "the literary."  The book heads towards a good and informative discussion of post-colonial literature.

Frank Hakemulder (2000). The moral laboratory: Experiments examining the effects of reading literature on social perception and moral self-concept. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 
Hakemulder conceives literature as a moral laboratory in which people can take on the roles of others, experience effects of actions taken in these roles, and become more empathetic. In this book he reports experiments in which by reading stories, the experience of role-taking is able to dissolve preconceptions and prejudices.

Paul Harris (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.
Not specifically a work on the psychology of fiction, this is the best book we know on the development of imagination in children. It includes a number of ingenious experiments on children's imaginative abilities, and it is extremely informative about the functions of imagination of fiction and other art forms.

Elly Konijn (2000). Acting emotions: shaping emotions on stage. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
This thoughtful book is, really, the follow-up to Stanislavski (1936). Konijn analyzed questionnaire responses from actors in USA and Europe. She found that although summoning up emotions from their own lives might be useful for actors during rehearsal, during performance the actor's emotions are not typically those of the character. They are task emotions: of engaging with the audience, doing the performance well, of portraying emotions so that they will be recognizable.

Mark Sadoski & Allan Paivio (2001). Imagery and text: A dual coding theory of reading and writing. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Based on earlier research by Paivio on the psychology of imagery, the authors argue that verbal representations and imagistic representations are separate in mental processing, and that reading and writing involve them both.

Mary Thomas Crane (2001). Shakespeare's brain: Reading with cognitive theory. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
This is a book of literary criticism of Shakespeare, which includes, as a new element that affords fresh insights, the perspective of cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience, within which Lakoff and Johnson's (1980) idea of metaphors as derived from human embodiment and movement in space is prominent.

Stephen Halliwell (2002). The aesthetics of mimesis: Ancient texts and modern problems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
A scholarly and densely argued book in which Halliwell shows that the Greek word mimesis had two families of meanings. The first was about imitation, and this is the emphasis given in most English translations, with terms like copying and representation. The second family was about world-making, which might properly be translated as simulation. It is this second kind of meaning on which Aristotle (330 BCE) concentrated.

David Lodge (2002). Consciousness and the novel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
David Lodge, novelist and literary theorist, became interested in cognitive science, and this book is an account of consciousness as it is explored in novels, seen partly through the lens of cognitive science and partly through the lens of literary theory.

Michael Ondaatje (2002). The conversations: Walter Murch and the art of editing film. Toronto: Vintage Canada.
Although this book is not ostensibly about the psychology of fiction in films, it is actually full of such psychology. it is a recounting of five extended conversations between the novelist Michael Ondaatje and the film editor Walter Murch, which arose when the two of them met as Ondaatje's novel, The English patient, was being filmed. Ondaatje realized that the art of film editing was extraordinarily close to his own method of writing fiction, in which he would typically start with a set of images and scenes, put them away, and then later muse on their juxtapositions and possible sequencing. Murch is deeply thoughtful about how film is put together psychologically to make compelling fiction: fascinating.

Keith Opdahl (2002). Emotion as meaning: The literary case for how we imagine. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press.
In the tradition that was begun by Wordsworth and Coleridge (1798), Opdahl argues that emotion is central to engagement in fiction. He argues that alongside imagistic and verbal codes of the kind discussed by  Sadoski and Paivio (2001), emotion is subserved by its own distinctive cognitive code.

Peter Stockwell (2002). Cognitive poetics: An introduction. New York: Routledge.
This is a textbook on Cognitive Poetics, the goal of which is to apply cognitive in linguistics and psychology to the interpretation of literary works. Bill Benzon has pointed out (in comments on 22 May 2008) that cognitive analyses of literature began with his work in 1976, and in the 1990s there was influential work by Margaret Freeman on metaphor, as well as books by Jerry Hobbs (1990) and Reuven Tsur (1992); the Cognitive Poetics movement may have started in 1994, with an issue of the Stanford Humanities Review that carried responses to Herbert Simon's "Literary criticism: A cognitive approach." The concepts Stockwell treats include figure-and-ground, embodied cognition, categorization, prototypes, deixis, metaphor in the sense introduced by Lakoff and Johnson (1980), cognitive blending, and so on.

Marisa Bortolussi & Peter Dixon (2003). Psychonarratology: foundations for the empirical study of literary response. New York: Cambridge University Press.
A product of a long-standing collaboration between a professor of literature (Bortolussi) and a professor of psychology (Dixon), this book gives a useful review of studies in reader-response theory, discourse processing, and narratology. The authors argue that the route to understanding how readers engage with literary narratives needs to be interdisciplinary, and that people's ways of reading a short story or novel derive from conversation, not between the author and the reader, but between the narrator and the reader. An interesting empirical study, based on different re-writings of a short story by Katherine Ann Porter, is presented to show that free indirect speech, as compared with direct speech, prompts readers to associate the thinking of a character and of the narrator more closely together.  

Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). Cognitive science, literature, and the arts: A guide for humanists. New York: Routledge.
Hogan is among the literary theorists who argue for a cognitive approach to literature. He was also the one to re-introduce Indian poetics as discussed by Anandavardana and Abhinavagupta (circa 1000) to modern Western thinking about literature. In this book he gives an account of modern cognitive science and shows how it can be applied to current issues in understanding literary art.

Patrick Colm Hogan (2003). The mind and its stories: Narrative universals and human emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
This unusual and important book required Hogan to read literatures from before the age of European colonization, from all over the world. He found that three kinds of story were so common that they can be regarded as human universals. These are (i) the love story, in which lovers long to be united but are impeded, for instance by a male relative of one of the lovers, (ii) the story of conflict, for instance between brothers, one of whom takes what is rightfully the other’s, and then in the ensuing fight, right is restored, though sometimes with the realization that this has involved the person who has thought himself justified being drawn into evil actions, (iii) the story of self-sacrifice, in which a community in severe difficulties is saved by an individual making a sacrifice of his or her life.

Elaine Showalter (2003). Teaching Literature. Oxford: Blackwell.
This is a very personal book about teaching English and American literature. It starts with the anxiety of teaching, and moves through ideas of how to teach as a kind of performance, via how to engage students in discussions, through theories, to ways of approaching the teaching of poetry, drama, and the novel. Towards the end of the book she discusses difficult issues such as sexuality and suicide. It's a practical book, with many ideas and tips. Showalter draws on her own forty years of teaching experience, and throughout she includes many reflections and recommendations by teachers of literature from universities in USA, Canada, and England.

Robin Dunbar (2004). The human story: A new history of mankind's evolution. London: Faber.
By arguing from the close correlation of the size of social groups in which primates live to the size of their brain cortices in current and fossil species, Dunbar proposed a theory that is now widely accepted: of the social origins of human language. Language arose among our ancestors about 500,000 years ago in the form of conversation that replaced mutual grooming in the maintenance of close relationships. Cortex size depends both on the number of mental models of people in the social group that individuals have to maintain, and on the necessity to form models of other minds recursively: e.g. he thought that she desired him to believe ... Narrative story-telling, and the idea of character in fiction, is based on conversation and on this kind of model-building, so Dunbar's theory is an essential step in the psychological understanding of fiction. 

Judy Dunn (2004). Children's friendships: The beginnings of intimacy. Oxford: Blackwell.
As its title suggests, Judy Dunn's book is about children's friendships, but a theme that runs strongly through it is that intimacy in friendships depends on sharing imagined worlds. Dunn points out that children's shared pretend play has a narrative format, and occurs typically between children playing in pairs. Children become absorbed in the narratives they create. Their play is “emotionally exciting and absorbing,” and one can see how it thereby forms the basis for engagement in fiction. For the psychology of fiction the link is not just to fiction as simulated social worlds, but to Booth's (1988) idea that the best way to think of books of fiction, and of fictional characters, is as friends. 

Alan Palmer (2004). Fictional minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Palmer describes in substantial detail a range of research areas including narratology, possible-world theory in philosophy, cognitive science, and point-of-view theory, each of which offers a part of the puzzle of how to understand the fictional mind. Palmer’s central idea is that in a novel, though not in life, everything is potentially available to consciousness: a character’s goals, abilities, options, memories, relationships, implications of action, current state. He says “readers create a continuing consciousness out of the isolated passages of text that relate to a particular character.”

Karen Armstrong (2005). A short history of myth. Edinburgh: Canongate, reissued by Vintage Canada.
An excellent, and thought-provoking book that ties mythology to predominant conditions of life and their revolutions in human societies. So myths of heroes, Armstrong argues, derive from ancient societies in which food gathering was supplemented by the dangerous activity of hunting, and bringing back food to the group. Foundation myths derive from the invention of agriculture. Myths of struggles with the gods derive from the founding of cities. The most recent myths derive from the Axial Age when sages such as Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammad, enjoined us not to do to others what we would not have them do to us. In the West, in the Renaissance, mythos (story) has been largely replaced by logos (rationality). Now, perhaps, the offering of parallel worlds (for myths were always parallel worlds that give meaning to the everyday) is the role of the novel.   

Jean Trounstine & Robert Waxler (2005). Finding a voice: The practice of changing lives through literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
This humane and encouraging book extends the idea of reading fiction and taking part in literature seminars to men and women who are marginalized and in the care of the criminal justice system. The book describes the Changing Lives Through Literature program, an alternative sentencing program in which people who might otherwise be headed for jail can instead be on probation and take part in a literature seminar typically run by a college literature professor. The book describes experiences of participating in the program from the points of view of those who run the seminars and of students. A selection of novels and short stories used in the program is offered, with teaching plans. The book would benefit from comparison with the large number of other programs for treatment and rehabilitation of young offenders.

Alvin Goldman (2006). Simulating minds: The philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of mindreading. New York: Oxford University Press.
Although only the last chapter of this book is directly concerned with fiction, the book offers a thorough philosophical discussion of the simulation theory and its competitors as explanations of people's understanding of other minds. The work discussed starts with Hume, gathers momentum in the 1980s in philosophy of mind, receives a confluence of research from developmental psychology on children's theory of mind, and another from neurophysiology of mirror neurons. Goldman concludes that taking oneself as an analogy for others, which includes consulting introspections and projecting them onto others, is the basis of mindreading; the basis, too, for engaging with fiction. 

David Miall (2006). Literary reading: Empirical and theoretical studies. New York: Peter Lang.
Miall is both a literary theorist and a researcher on the psychology of fictional literature. In this book he makes some important steps in a new movement: that literary reading is not so much about interpretation—the traditional concern of literary criticism, including that of the New Critics (see Richards,  1929)—but about understanding the experience of reading, in which with a piece of literary fiction, emotions occur and the words being read become the reader’s own.

John Mullan (2006). How novels work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
This book derives from John Mullan's column for The Guardian newspaper, called "Elements of fiction," and this would have been a closer title for his book. Chapter titles are: Beginning, Narrating, People, Genre, Voices, Structure, Detail, Style, Devices, Literariness, Ending. Mullan is good at discussing specific novels in sufficient detail in relation to the elements that he introduces. He includes writers like Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen, but concentrates on recent novels which include Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Jonathan Franzen's The corrections, Mark Haddon's The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, and Ann Patchett's Bel canto. 

Matthew Potolsky (2006). Mimesis. New York: Routledge.
A brief but wide-ranging and thoughtful introduction to mimesis as the concept that was developed by Plato and Aristotle to mean the relationship between a work of art and the world, and which continues to be central to Western theories of art, including literary art. Of the two families of meanings of mimesis (as imitation and simulation, as described by Halliwell, 2002), Potolsky concentrates on the imitative, and shows its influence in the history of ideas, from Roman imitatio to psychoanalytic theories of identification and post-modern scepticism.

Lisa Zunshine (2006). Why we read fiction: Theory of mind and the novel. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
Zunshine argues that we humans are good at theory of mind, or mind-reading as it is sometimes called: knowing what others may be thinking and feeling. Fiction not only allows us to apply these skills on fictional characters, often in complex ways, but it is constructed so that we enjoy exercising our mind-reading abilities. 

Pierre Bayard (2007). How to talk about books you haven't read (J. Mehlman, Trans.). London: Bloomsbury.
Professor of French literature and psychoanalyst, Pierre Bayard, explains how to talk and think about books without reading them. In doing so he proposes a theory of reading and imagination: a rather good theory, about how we can come to know what various books say amid the otherwise all-too-formidable infinity of published material. He introduces an elegant notation for the books he discusses: SB to mean "book I have skimmed," HB to mean "book I have heard of," and FB, to mean "book I have forgotten." He offers as persons to admire the librarian in Robert Musil's Man without qualities (SB) who doesn't want to read any of the books in his library, but only to know how they relate to each other, and Paul Valéry (SB and HB) who advocated that we should avoid reading books because we too easily get lost in their details, or even have them overwhelm us. Bayard goes on to point out that what we remember of books, including those we have written ourselves (FB), in our inner library, is a collection of fragments, much like those from books we have skimmed or heard about. Bayard's book is so witty and engaging that I am sorry to say I read the whole of it, but at least I wrote this micro-review before I was half-way through. 

Alan Bennett (2007). The uncommon reader. London: Faber
A fantasy of a rare kind about how Queen Elizabeth II finds her corgi dogs disturbing a Westminster mobile library van that she sees parked round the back of the Palace, near the dustbins. After apologizing to the librarian for her dogs, out of politeness she borrows a book. It's by Ivy Compton Burnett, not a currently popular novel. The week following, when the library van next visits, she takes out another book, then another. Then she promotes Norman from washing dishes in the kitchen to being her amanuensis, with the job of visiting London libraries to get books for her. At a late stage in life, she falls in love with reading, and progresses to Genet and Proust. In contrast to the formality and decorum of her usual life, she discovers that all readers are equal, including herself, and she begins to understand people in ways she never has before. A laugh-out-loud book with a serious purpose: delightful

Howard Engel (2007). The man who forgot how to read. Toronto: HarperCollins.
Howard Engel is, in my view, Canada's foremost writer of detective fiction. In 2001, he had a small stroke that made him unable to read, but spared his ability to write. This completely engaging memoir, by a very thoughtful writer, was written with help from friends and editors. The book is an insightful journey into the workings of the mind of a writer, and it points to the importance in the composition of fiction of being able to read and revise what one has written.

Suzanne Keen (2007). Empathy and the novel. New York: Oxford University Press.
Keen draws on narrative theory, psychology, and discourse processing, to discuss the role of empathy in reading fiction, a role that has been debated for three centuries. The novel, she argues, invites empathy, but in a way that frees it from some of guardedness that can occur in its expression with real persons in real life. 

Brian Stock (2007). Ethics through literature: Ascetic and aesthetic reading in Western culture. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.
Stock's book starts with Plato and Aristotle, but focuses on late antiquity with Augustine, moves to medieval times and the Renaissance, and proceeds to Virginia Woolf. His argument is that even when the number of people who could read was very small, there were always two kinds of reading, which he calls ascetic, meaning reading for self improvement, and aesthetic, meaning (roughly) reading for pleasure. The practices of ascetic reading are interesting because they tend to involve two movements. The first is to engage in a calm way with an improving book such as Augustine's Confessions, cutting oneself off from the hubbub of the quotidian world, and the second is to reflect on what one has read in a meditative way so that the meanings (not the words themselves) become incorporated into the mind. 

Willie van Peer, Frank Hakemulder & Sonia Zyngier (2007). Muses and measures: Empirical research methods for the humanities. Newcastle-on-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
This is an introductory textbook for people in literature and the humanities to enable them to understand and use the empirical methods and statistics of psychology to test assertions and explore questions about reading. 

Maryanne Wolf (2007). Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain. New York: HarperCollins.
Despite the hint in the title, this book is not by a researcher on fiction, but a researcher on dyslexia. She does a fine job in reviewing the history of reading from the time of the earliest cuneiform tablets, written and read by professional scribes, to the present when people read Proust and other fiction for pleasure. She argues that learning to read creates specialized brain structures to enable this activity, in ways that can be monitored by modern neuro-imaging techniques.

Daniel Hutto (2008). Folk psychological narratives: The sociocultural basis of understanding reasons. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hutto's book of close philosophical argument is based on the claim that to know what other people are thinking and feeling, we do not need theory of mind, but need to be practiced folk psychologists. We acquire folk psychology, says Hutto, by coming to understand from childhood on, both from explanations offered by caregivers, and from fiction, that people act for reasons.  According to this idea, rather than theory of mind being the key to understanding why we read fiction, narrative and fiction are keys to being able to do those things that had previously been thought to depend on possessing a theory of mind.

Jonah Lehrer (2008). Proust was a neuroscientist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Lehrer writes that this "book is about artists who anticipated the discoveries of neuroscience." In illustration, he chooses eight artists, four of them novelists. He says that in George Eliot's explorations of freedom of the individual she anticipated ideas of the plasticity of the brain, in Marcel Proust's writing on remembering he anticipated work on molecular processes in memory, in Gertrude Stein's experiments in language she anticipated Chomskyan linguistics, and in Virginia Woolf's novels she anticipated neuroscientific work on consciousness. For each of his topics, he gives accounts of the artistic and scientific work, as well as of what joins them. Artists' interests in the topics Lehrer treats, and in some cases their intuitions, did anticipate the interests and intuitions of neuroscientists but, of course, it is pressing it a bit to say they anticipated scientific discoveries. Artistic explorations are important because the topics are central to being human, and art helps us understand them inwardly. Their centrality has made them also of interest in a more external kind of way. Lehrer makes an engaging case for bridging between the internal understandings of arts and the external understandings of neuroscience.

James Wood (2008). How fiction works. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
Wood starts off by saying his book follows E.M. Forster's (1927) Aspects of the novel, although later he is sniffy about Forster's distinction between flat and round characters in fiction. The book has chapters on Narrating, Detail, Consciousness, Dialogue, and so on. It is less a book about how fiction works, than a set of examples of fine literary effects achieved in fiction by authors such as Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and Saul Bellow. Wood is an aesthetic reader (in the sense defined by Stock, 2007), in the tradition of Longinus (50 BCE) and Victor Schlovsky. He is an engagingly thoughtful writer and a good noticer, who prompts us to become better noticers, for instance of this from Virginia Woolf's The Waves: "The day waves yellow with all its crops." Wood discusses it for the whole of his page 185.

Brian Boyd (2009). On the origin of stories: Evolution, cognition, and fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
If you are interested in or curious about what the newer psychologies bring to the study of fiction, then you must read this book. In the first half Boyd marshals work in evolutionary psychology, the cognitive sciences, anthropology and a dash of neuroscience by way of discussing attention, play, cooperation, and theory of mind. True to his evolutionary roots, he makes the general point that the mind consists of evolved mechanisms having deep phylogenetic roots along with the more specific point that art in general, and fiction specifically, are biological adaptations. Once his theoretical tools are in place, Boyd has an extended discussion of Homer’s Odyssey that focuses on the strategies Homer uses to hold and direct the reader’s attention, on how Homer conveys Odysseus’s qualities of mind, and on social cooperation. This is followed by an extended treatment Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! in which Boyd examines levels of explanation (universal, local, individual to the artist, and particular to the work) and the multiplicity of meaning. Review by Bill Benzon.

Stanislas Dehaene (2009). Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention. New York: Viking.
In this interesting book, Dehaene proposes that receptive fields of neurons in the occipito-temporal region of the brain that respond to features of the world like edges and corners (which can be depicted as lines like I, and junctions like L and Y), became the bases for the recognition of written characters. He calls the region the letter box. From it, connections have been formed to a system concerned with meanings and to one concerned with sounds. Dehaene describes how other features of the brain may have been bases for other cultural inventions: "Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution." He proposes that a "conscious neuronal workspace" is a "vast system of cortical connections [that] allows for the flexible arrangement of mental objects for novel purposes"  (p. 301): not only is this the basis of conscious thought, but of the explorations of art. 

Denis Dutton (2009). The art instinct: Beauty, pleasure, and human evolution. New York: Bloomsbury.
Dutton's book is an argument for regarding art as a set of adaptations that include skill, creativity, making special, and imagining make-believe worlds. These were important to becoming human. He argues that they were aspects of our ancestors' fitness for survival. Chapter 6 is specifically about fiction. Dutton proposes that art happens in the "theater of the mind." He says that the ability to imagine states that do not exist has been very important for humankind. He infers, by reverse engineering, that stories provide three important features: valuable experience but without danger, sources of didactic information, and exploration of points of view of other human minds.

P.D. James (2009). Talking about detective fiction. New York: Knopf.
Talking about detective fiction has all the qualities one expects of P. D. James. Although the book is brief, although it includes a familiar procession of writers in the history of detective fiction—from Wilkie Collins, to Arthur Conan Doyle, to Dorothy Sayers, to Agatha Christie, to Raymond Chandler—what she writes is always thoughtful. The concerns of her book extend to whether detective fiction is quite serious. Her answer is that that both is and is not. In both cases it manages to be worthwhile. "The detective story proper" says James, "is concerned with the bringing of order out of disorder and the restoration of peace after the destructive eruption of murder" (p. 13). 

Patrick Colm Hogan (2009). Understanding nationalism: On narrative, cognitive science, and identity. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
Hogan takes on a practical subject based on his analysis of three psychological prototypes of stories that, in his 2003 book, The mind and its stories, he discussed as occurring world-wide and as being universals. Here he argues that two of the three prototypical stories—the heroic and the sacrificial—are sufficiently powerful that they can bind large groups of people together in shared identities. To show how this can work, he offers literary analyses of a number of works that range from the story of David and Goliath to Mein Kampf and Gandhi's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita that depend strongly on these prototypes. He shows how the prototypes on which these narratives are based have been important in shaping national identities and political movements. 

Peter Lamarque (2009). The philosophy of literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
This book is a detailed discussion of philosophical issues that have arisen around fictional literature (both prose and poetry), since Plato banned it from his Republic because he thought it was antipathetic to reason. Lamarque discusses: literature as art, and what is to be made of authors and of literary characters, as well as questions of what fiction is and what truth there may be in it. He concludes that appreciation of fiction cannot be reduced to such matters as being instructive, and that there is a distinctive literary experience that has value in itself.

Orhan Pamuk. (2010). The naive and the sentimental novelist. Trans. Nazim Dikbas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
The naive writer, says Pamuk, writes about what he or she knows and sees, almost without thinking. By contrast, the sentimental writer is troubled, thoughtful, imaginative, exceedingly aware of what he or she is writing, but unsure whether the written words will encompass what he or she wants them to. The motivating idea of this book is to head towards what Pamuk calls the novel's "secret center," a view of the world, an insight, a place at which the naive reality of our lives and of our sentimental imagination meet.

Alan Richardson (2010). The neural sublime: Cognitive theories and romantic texts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Alan Richardson juxtaposes Romantic literary theory with approaches from cognitive science and neuroscience. His intention is to show how literary and scientific approaches share some of the same concerns. To show this sharing he uses the term "intersection," and demonstrates his approach on issues such as illusion, imagery, and theory of mind. 

Blakey Vermeule (2010). Why do we care about literary characters? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Vermeule describes caring about characters as “to be anxious and to exert mental energy” on them. We care in this way, she proposes, for evolutionary reasons. We need to know what other people are like, not in the aggregate, but in the particular. She believes that a genuinely literary moment centrally features a character engaging in Machiavellian reasoning, which “engages some of the things we care about most.” She claims that the most celebrated literary characters are Machiavellian, that “the most important social information is whether somebody is inclined to cooperate in social exchange or to cheat” and that the “highest power” one has in a social exchange is to get that assessment right. We care most about literary characters who come out ahead in social exchanges. Review by Rebecca Wells-Jopling.

Michael Burke (2011). Literary reading, cognition and emotion: An exploration of the oceanic mind. London: Routledge.
Michael Burke presents an "oceanic" theory of reading literary fiction, which is like making oneself part of a wave. As we prepare to read, we must be in the right mood, get into the right kind of place, and arrange ourselves properly. As our own resources of mood and memory start up they mingle, like the waters of a growing wave, with the book we start to read and, as the story progresses, the wave rises with a gathering tension until at last it breaks and the tension is released. In the release there can be an epiphany, and following it a lingering after-effect. As well as a survey of readers in relation to such effects, Burke reviews psychological, stylistic, and literary-critical approaches to reading.

Empirical and theoretical bibliography on reader response
The best comprehensive source that we know is a bibliography that covers articles as well as books on readers' responses to literature, on David Miall's website. You can access this bibliography by clicking here.

Edited collections on, or relevant to, the psychology of fiction
Below we list books that we know, or know of, but we do not review them.

Andrew Ortony (Ed.). (1979). Metaphor and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (A second edition, of 1993, contains additional contributions.) 

Jane Tomkins (Ed.). (1980). Reader-response criticism: From formalism to post-structuralism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Colin Martindale (Ed.). (1988). Psychological approaches to the study of literary narratives. Hamburg: Buske.

Gerald Cupchik & János László (Eds.). (1992). Emerging visions of the aesthetic process: Psychology, semiology and philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roger Kreuz & Mary Sue MacNealy (Eds.). (1996). Empirical approaches to literature and aesthetics. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Mette Hjort & Sue Laver (Eds.). (1997). Emotion and the arts. New York: Oxford University Press.

Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek & Irene Sywenky (Eds.). (1997). The systemic and empirical approach to literature and culture as theory and application. Siegen: LUMIS Publications. 

Susan Goldman, Arthur Graesser  & Paul van den Broek (Eds.). (1999). Narrative comprehension, causality, and coherence: Essays in honor of Tom Trabasso. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Herre van Oostendorp  & Susan Goldman (Eds.). (1999). The construction of mental representations during reading. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dick Schram & Gerard Steen (Eds.). (2001). The psychology and sociology of literature: In honor of Erlund Ibsch. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Willie van Peer & Seymour Chatman (Eds.). (2001). New perspectives on narrative perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Melanie Green, Jeffrey Strange & Timothy Brock (Eds.). (2002). Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dolf Zillmann & Peter Vorderer (Eds.). (2000). Media entertainment: The psychology of its appeal. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Elena Semino & Jonathan Culpeper (Eds.). (2002). Cognitive stylistics: Language and cognition in text analysis. Linguistic approaches to literature. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 

David Herman (Ed.) (2003). Narrative theory and the cognitive sciences. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

Joanna Gavins & Gerard Steen (Eds.) (2003). Cognitive poetics in practice. New York: Routledge.

Gary Fireman, Ted McVay & Owen Flanagan (Eds.). (2003). Narrative and consciousness: Literature, psychology, and the brain. New York: Oxford University Press.

Alan Richardson & Ellen Spolsky (Eds.). (2004). The work of fiction: Cognition, culture, and complexity. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Jonathan Gottschall & David Sloan Wilson (Eds.). (2005). The literary animal. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Jennings Bryant & Peter Vorderer (Eds.). (2006). Psychology of entertainment. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bruce McConachie & Elizabeth Hart (Eds.). (2006). Performance and cognition: Theater studies and the cognitive turn. New York: Routledge.

David Herman (Ed.). (2007). The Cambridge companion to narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nöel Carroll & Jinhee Choi (Eds.). (2006). Philosophy of film and motion pictures: An anthology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Colin Martindale, Paul Locher & Vladimir Petrov (Eds.). (2007). Evolutionary and neurocognitive approaches in aesthetics, creativity, and the arts. Amityville, NY: Baywood. 

Willie van Peer (Ed.). (2008). The quality of literature: Linguistic studies in literary evaluation. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Sonia Zyngier, Marisa Bortolussi, Anna Chesnokova & Jan Auracher (Eds.). (2008). Directions in empirical studies in literature: In honor of Willie van Peer. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

David Olson & Nancy Torrance (Eds.). (2009). The Cambridge handbook of literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott Kaufman & James Kaufman (Eds.). (2009). The psychology of creative writing. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Martin Skov & Oshin Vartanian (Eds.). (2009). Neuroaesthetics. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

** Please let us know if there are any books that we should add to our list.

Psychologically Significant Fiction

What works of fiction have psychological significance? Here we offer micro-reviews of novels and a few shorter works that concentrate on one or more of the themes that we think may be important for improving theory-of-mind and other kinds of social understanding, and for developing selfhood. We have done no empirical investigations to survey which works are especially helpful. Their psychological properties are inferred on theoretical grounds.

The micro-reviews are written not as interpretations of the works, but as attempts to bring out their significance for the psychology of fiction: their effects on readers, with hints about how the effects are achieved.

Works are listed under four themes that we think might be especially significant, though typically fictional explorations of any of these themes also include others. Micro-reviews are by Keith Oatley, otherwise the reviewer is identified.

Understanding the minds of others

Jane Austen (1813). Pride and prejudice. London: Dent (1906). 
Jane Austen's most successful novel, and arguably her best, has a plot that is specifically about coming to understand the mind of another person. Unlike love stories in which a protagonist falls in love instantly when he or she sees a stranger (in the way that Dante fell in love with Beatrice), in this anti-romantic love story, Elizabeth Bennet at first experiences the very eligible Mr Darcy as rude, standoffish, and proud. With extraordinary deftness Austen enables Elizabeth to come gradually to love Darcy by coming to know him, and enables the reader to experience the growth of this love in the same way. A superb conception.

Marcel Proust (1913-1927).  À la recherche du temps perdu. (English translation, under the title of In search of lost time, London: Penguin, 2003.)
Proust's long novel is a gradual discovery by his narrator, Marcel, of a purpose in his life: to write a novel about memory and the nature of art, which also offers portraits of people he encounters. These portraits start with memories of Marcel's mother and members of his family and acquaintances in childhood. They then extend to people he meets in the fashionable world of Paris society. Among Proust's methods for these portraits are depictions of characteristic actions or turns of speech of his characters which are not quite conscious to them, but which imply something significant in the person, and indicate his or her preoccupations. Sometimes such actions are not flattering, but Proust's intent is not to sneer but, by enabling us readers to recognize such indications in fictional characters, to be able to recognize comparable characteristics in people we know, and thereby also in ourselves. By becoming conscious of them in these ways, we can undertake a kind of therapy on ourselves.

Understanding relationships

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985). Love in the time of cholera. (Trans. E. Grossman.) London: Penguin (1989).
At the beginning of the novel Fermina Daza rejects the naive Florentino Ariza, and marries Juvenal Urbino, a doctor.. But Florentino keeps his love for Fermina alive, and in their old age, when Juvenal dies, Forentino and Fermina communicate with each other in a series of letters. Fermina realizes that Florentino has matured, and in the end they are united. The book is about two kinds of love. The first is Fermina's for the man who is her husband for most of her life. Juvenal is rational, orderly, modern, and for the most part reliable. The second kind is with Florentino, romantic and traditional. His love sustains itself throughout a life that is made meaningful for him by this love, which is perhaps a kind of disease.

Anton Chekhov (1899). "The lady with the little dog." (In Anton Chekhov. Stories. pp. 361-376.Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Bantam 2000.) 
This story starts with Dmitri Gurov, who feels dissatisfied in his marriage to a woman he is afraid of. He tries to compensate for this by having affairs. At the seaside resort of Yalta, he sees a lady, Anna Sergueyevna, walking with her little dog. He contrives an acquaintance. After a week of conversation and going about together, Gurov and Anna make love. At the end of their holiday they return home to their spouses, thinking they will never see each other again. But both are appalled to find that the other has become so important to them, that the rest of their life becomes paltry and meaningless. Gurov travels to Anna's home town, hoping to find her. He does so, and they arrange to meet from time to time in secret. This makes the urgency of their relationship all the stronger, but at the same time yet more difficult and persecuting to both of them. Chekhov ends the story by saying that although they hoped for a resolution, their difficulties were only just beginning. This is a story with which we have found empirical effects (Djikic et al., 2009).* As compared with reading a version of the story in a non-fictional format that had the same characters and events, and which was just as interesting to read, readers of Chekhov's story changed their personalities more. We think this was because the story loosens up the personality of readers by inviting them to identify with the characters, and to imagine themselves to be in their position.

* Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley, Sara Zoeterman, & Jordan B. Peterson (2009). On Being Moved by Art: How Reading Fiction Transforms the Self. Creativity Research Journal, 21, pp. 24-29.
Abstract: An experiment tested the hypothesis that art can cause significant changes in the experience of one’s own personality traits under laboratory conditions.  After completing a set of questionnaires including the Big-Five Inventory (BFI) and an emotion checklist, the experimental group read the short story "The Lady with the Little  Dog" by Chekhov, while the control group read a comparison text that had the same content as the story, but was documentary in form. The comparison text was controlled for length, readability, complexity, and interest level.  Participants then completed again the BFI and emotion checklist randomly placed within a larger set of questionnaires. The results show the experimental group experienced significantly greater change in self-reported experience of personality traits than the control group, and that emotion change mediated the effect of art on traits. Further consideration should be given to the role of art in the facilitation of  processes of personality growth and maturation.

Dynamics of interactions in social groups

George Orwell (1949). Nineteen eighty-four. London: Penguin (1954)
In this novel, perhaps the most famous of literary dystopias, George Orwell depicts a totalitarian society. Winston Smith works as a functionary in the Ministry of Truth (meaning the Ministry of Lies and Propaganda), changing historical records in newspapers and other documents to make them fit with the current ideology of The Party. He has an affair with Julia. For a while this is a tender relationship and an individualistic rebellion that puts love before societal obligation. But Winston and Julia are easily detected by the Thought Police. O'Brian, a member of The Inner Party, explains to Winston how The Party's real purpose has nothing to do with the good of the people: as with other organizations, its purpose is to maintain itself. After torture and re-education, Winston betrays Julia and himself. The dynamics of societies and their effects on people have seldom been so forcefully put, in an imagined world that has many features of the one in which we live.

Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press. (Current edition London: Panther, 1976.)
This novel, one of the triumphs of literary modernism, has as its centrepiece the interactions in a social group before and during a party held by the novel's protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway. The novel contains some of the very best depictions of stream of consciousness in English, but its principal theme is the inter-relatedness of people. Woolf uses a number of  methods to show how, soon after World War I, the inhabitants of London are bound together in their lives. At the core of the novel is the well connected and well established Clarissa who exists in relation to a person who functions as her alter-ego, Septimus Warren-Smith, although she never meets him. Septimus has been driven mad by the War, and has become disconnected and disestablished.

The problematics of selfhood in the social world

Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (1866). Crime and punishment. (Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1993.)
One of the great novels of selfhood: Rodion Raskolnikov, a student who has no money, decides to murder an unpleasant old woman who is a money-lender, on the grounds that he is an exeptional person, and that the murder of someone worthless is justified in pursuit of a higher purpose. The book is remarkable for its exploration of the nasty side of selfhood: Raskolnikov is self-deceiving, and often despicable, but Dostoyevsky manages to make him continually engaging. It is also remarkable for its counterpoint between Raskolnikov's centre of consciousness and that of the prosecutor, Porfiry, who comes to suspect him of the murder, not because of any external evidence but by coming to understand his mind.

Joseph Conrad (1917). The shadow line. London: Penguin (current edition 1986).
In this novella, the narrator is an officer in the merchant navy as he achieves his first command, a sailing ship, in which he puts to sea from Bangkok. The shadow line is that line one crosses from youth to adulthood,. The young captain crosses it not when he steps onto the deck of his new ship, but when at sea they are becalmed for two weeks, and the members of his crew become sick with a fever that they have taken on board in port, so that it becomes impossible to work the ship. He finds that most of the ship's supply of quinine has been stolen. Why did he not inspect the ship's medical supplies properly before leaving port? Will any of his crew members die because he was too eager to put to sea? Will the ship be lost if a sudden storm occurs with all sails set, and no way of lowering them? Will he reach port at all? The young man makes the classical descent into himself, in self doubt, guilt, and anxiety, without which the kind of transformation into adulthood cannot occur. Conrad's focus is not on the physical aspects of the situation, but on the relationships and interdependence of the young captain and his fellow crew members. As the young man crosses the line, will the result be an increment of maturity, or psychological damage?

J.D. Coetzee (1999). Disgrace. London: Secker & Warburg.
This is an extraordinary novel about a complacent but disappointed man David Petrie, confronted by truths of European colonialism and racism. He is a white professor in South Africa who seduces a woman undergraduate student taking one of his classes. We do not know she is a person of colour but we infer this from her name, Melanie. A scandal occurs and David is forced to leave his university job. He goes to live with his daughter, on a farm. Losing his job is only the first in a series of disgraces that he suffers. This is one of the most searchingly intelligent and moving of post-colonial novels about how, and whether, one can sustain selfhood in the aftermath of exploitation of others from which one has benefitted.

Joseph O'Neill (2008). Netherland. New York: Pantheon.
Although the themes of this novel include those of understanding relationships and understanding the dynamics of social groups, its centre is that of selfhood, of being a young person who moves to a new life as an immigrant, not knowing whether the habits and customs of youth can continue to give life meaning or make it supportable. On the surface, the novel is about the integration of foreigners into American society, about the taking up of new customs, about whether one can transform old habits and suit them to the new place. Underneath, in the netherland, the novel is of wistfulness and melancholy. it is about how what one learned in one's youth constantly infuses the present with meanings that may or may not be appropriate as one moves into those stages of life that one might not quite want to enter. For the protagonist, Hans, the future might be to settle in America, or to live alone, or to return to a wife he doesn't understand, or to take as central to his life a son he doesn't yet know. Is it possible that meaning can be formed in the new, when it has only a vaguely recognizable structure, when we have as yet no words for it?
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