I’ve believed this about reading for some time, and now there is a growing body of evidence, thanks to Dr. Keith Oatley and his colleagues who are studying the psychology of fiction, to validate this position.
But is it a good thing that reading affects us so strongly?
Of Dr. Oatley’s recent book on the subject, Such stuff as dreams: The psychology of fiction, his publisher (Wiley-Blackwell) explains it deals with
the transformative power of fiction to enter and engage the mind into revealing profound insights about ourselves and those around us.
I have to ask first, transforming us from what to what?
If fiction is, as I quoted last time from the publisher’s blurb, a model for life which readers create in collaboration with writers, then it seems to me readers are being transformed by writers into whatever writers believe to be true.
This concept has powerful ramifications for both readers and writers.
For writers, it challenges the notion that we do little more than reflect the real world. Rather, we are participating in shaping it. For example, writers of children’s literature who include characters with two mommys, as if this is normative behavior, are contributing to the creation of a world in which such would be normative.
It seems to me, however, that readers must be willing collaborators. If a writer offers a look at the world which the reader knows to be untrue, any transformation seems unlikely. If, however, the writer earns the reader’s trust and presents something plausible, even if it calls into question the reader’s views, then it seems transformation is a viable option.
For readers, then, the onus is on us to determine a writer’s trustworthiness regarding truth. Too often we make the determination based on the external effects a story has on us. Did it make us laugh? Were we so engaged we neglected chores? Did the ending cause us to tear up, even weep aloud?
Those are the “good” stories we want. We’ve lived an experience that has had a physical effect on us. But what does our emotional reaction to the story have to do with truth?
I can feel deeply about something, but those emotions have little to do with actuality. Ask anyone who has had an unrequited crush. The strong romantic feelings the person held were not a true indication of an actual love relationship.
So too with fiction. A moving story does not necessarily indicate the author is conveying truth.
If a reader cannot trust his emotional response to a story, then it seems he has these options: 1) let a writer influence him no matter what; 2) choose to read books written only by writers who have a high probability of telling the truth; 3) step away from the emotion of a story and look at it intellectually to determine if the writer is offering truth.
Which brings me to the second conclusion Dr. Oatley’s publisher stated: fiction gives us profound insights about the world and ourselves. How profound can those insights be if they are formed in collaboration with a false belief?
The reader, for example, finds in The Wizard of Oz, that Dorothy has had within her all along the ability to achieve what she wants — as have the Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man. In collaboration with the writer, the reader concludes that she is just like the characters, that she, too, has within herself all she needs. Good-bye Wizard, good-bye magic. She has simply to believe in herself.
Is that a profound insight, or a false one? Perhaps profoundly false.
The Wizard of Oz, I might point out, would in all likelihood fall into the category of books written by writers who have a high probability of telling the truth. Why? Because it has a veneer of respectability since it addresses such important traits as courage, heart, intellect, and love of family and home.
Besides, it has the appearance of good triumphing over evil, it has the absence of a number of qualities some find offensive, and it has a character many will feel for because she is willing to learn and is willing to help others along the way.
And yet, if the reader collaborates with the writer, the insights he gains will be profoundly false.
As I see it, reading should come with a surgeon general’s warning: this activity may be hazardous to your spiritual health. Either that or the Good Housekeeping seal of approval: this activity will build your spiritual muscles.
The choice between the two is the reader’s, and it hinges on whether or not he is willing to maintain a healthy skepticism, questioning the conclusions to which the author leads him.
There’s actually a word for that ability, though for some reason it has recently fallen into disrepute in some circles. The word is discernment.