July 21, 2008

Novel Readings are Good for You

The Globe and Mail's books section this weekend includes an "endpaper" by Liam Durcan touching on some of the recent research into the benefits of reading fiction:
In a recent study conducted by University of Toronto psychologists, subjects who read a short story in The New Yorker had higher scores on social reasoning tests than those who had read an essay from the same magazine. The researchers concluded that there was something in the experience of reading fiction that made the subjects more empathetic (or at least take a test more empathetically). The study provided some proof for what has often been intuitively argued: Fiction is, in some very important ways, good for us. (read the rest here)
I'm reasonably confident that the "University of Toronto psychologists" involved would include the authors of the interesting blog On Fiction. Inquiring into the and why of these effects, Durcan also cites Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction, which explores literary reading in the context of developmental psychology, particularly "theory of mind":

Zunshine, who is part of a growing school of cognitive literary theorists, goes so far as to describe the novel as a "sustained theory of mind exercise." As we read the multilayered intentionalities of Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, we not only experience complex and contingent mental states, but we evaluate them as well, and as the narrative moves forward, we use our skills as mind readers, constantly testing our hypotheses about this fictional world and its experimental personalities.

Using Nabokov's Pale Fire as an example, Zunshine relates how severely our theory-of-mind abilities can be tested and how ably we respond when she describes the creeping unease and perverse thrill, well known to any reader, that come with the unmasking of an unreliable narrator. The ambiguities and psychological nuances that characterize fiction provide an unrivalled training ground for our abilities as readers of mental states.

Durcan raises the inevitable and important point that, while "a taste for fiction" may contribute to the development of empathy and thus, we might hope, morality, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for either: "the list of highly cultured and well-read despots is depressingly long." (Richard Posner emphasizes this problem in "Against Ethical Criticism,"responding to Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, the latter of whom in particular has made strong claims, in works such as Poetic Justice, for the social and other goods that reading fiction might enhance.) Nonetheless, as Durcan concludes,

Fiction offers the transformative experience of getting out of our heads and into the head of "the other." And from that privileged vantage point, anything is possible. Perhaps even the chance to see ourselves more clearly.

One of the strongest proponents of this theory is, of course, George Eliot:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.
Her novels, which she called "experiments in life," are also experiments in bringing about such "transformative" experiences by knocking her readers askew from their usual "vantage points" and into the heads of others.

I do think one of the challenges of these hopeful approaches to fiction is figuring out how it matters which fiction in particular people read. Even empathy, after all, is not a universal good; I'm reminded of Wayne Booth's comments on Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur (in The Rhetoric of Fiction):
The book is a brilliant culmination of more than a hundred years of experimentation with inside views and the sympathetic identification they can yield. It does, indeed, lead us to experience intensely the sensations and emotions of a homicidal maniac. But is this really what we go to literature for?
A fair question! And presumably it also matters how we read what we read--an inquiry which might go some way towards explaining the "cultured despots" phenomenon.


Finn Harvor said...

"I do think one of the challenges of these hopeful approaches to fiction is figuring out how it matters *which* fiction in particular people read.....

And presumably it also matters *how* we read what we read--an inquiry which might go some way towards explaining the "cultured despots" phenomenon."

Rohan: I like your questions and like your skepticism about the notion literature can be easily categorized. But what is the "cultured despots" phenomemon? I"m assuming Durcan is speaking literally; I'm also, these days, reading an enormous amount of history/political biography from the mid-20th Century, and, of course, encountering many despots, and, as it happens, many individuals who happened to be well-read. Is this what Durcan is alluding to? Leaders who read but were authoritarian?

Rohan Maitzen said...

Hi, Finn,

Leaders who read but were authoritarian

Yes, I think that's the idea; I'm thinking less of Durcan here than of the longer discussion of this kind of thing by Posner--the Nazis loved Wagner, etc. Posner also points out, reasonably enough, that if dedication to literature were some kind of guarantee of morality, English professors would be the best behaved people around--and though some (OK, most) of my best friends are English professors, I'm pretty sure we are as petty and egocentric as everyone else.