Art teaches us not through its message – for it has no message as such – but through its awakening of sensibility and awareness.
(From Geoffrey Nash Restating the Idealist Theory of Art, page 168 in The Creative Circle edited by Michael Fitzgerald)
. . . . . fiction is not just a slice of life, it is a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.
(From the Preface to Such Stuff as Dreams)
Keith Oatley‘s book, Such Stuff as Dreams, tackles the thorny and long-standing question of whether fiction is pointless and a nuisance or whether it has some value. I won’t rehearse the arguments he quotes from Plato onwards to suggest that fiction should be banned. Most of us have heard them all too often already. More interesting by far are his reasons for feeling this is unfair and the reasons for attacking fiction are basically unfounded. So, what justifies my relief that I need not burn all the novels on my shelves?
He doesn’t take a simple-minded approach to this topic. He is all too aware that there are issues. He accepts that more than one kind of fiction exists and not all kinds constitute art. He quotes Robin Collingwood (page 174) who
regarded such genres as action and romance as non-art, because they are not explorations. They follow formulae, and their writers intend to induce particular kinds of emotion. If successful they are entertaining. That’s their intention. But they are not art.
He also recognises that not all kinds of fiction are beneficial either (page 177):
The literature on possible effects of violence and of sexuality in the media is huge, and this is not the place to review it. Recent articles are by Paul Boxer et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of media violence, and Deborah Fisher et al. (2009) on effects on adolescents of televised sexuality. Although there are questions as to how conclusive these bodies of research are, there is cause for concern that some forms of fiction may have harmful effects.
So, clearly enemies of fiction can select either pointless or damaging examples. However, the fiction that corrupts and destroys is not the kind he is considering. Real fiction, in his terms, is an art and is not to be dismissed as merely a pastime, a waste of time or worse an inducement to destructiveness. He feels that true fiction at its best is an art form. Art, for him, leads to uncharted territory (page 174):
. . . . art – I’ll offer a criterion –does not recruit people to believe or act or feel in a particular way.
He unpacks this idea further in many places, for example (page 177):
In fiction that is art, one is not programmed by the writer. One starts to explore and feel, perhaps, new things. One may start to think in new ways.
Moreover the area of human experience fiction is best at exploring lies in the area of selfhood and relationships.
He sees fiction as prosocial and moral. How does it work that way?
Fiction, Empathy and Relationships
His case is richly expressed so what follows is a selection of the key points in it that most resonated with my own preoccupations.
One of fiction’s most important benefits is the fostering of empathy. He defines empathy as follows (page 113):
In modern times, and on the basis of recent research on brain imaging, empathy has been described as involving: (a) having an emotion, that (b) is in some way similar to that of another person, that (c) is elicited by observation or imagination of the other’s emotion, and that involves (d) knowing that the other is the source of one’s own emotion.
He asks a general question ((page 95):
If we engage in the simulations of fiction, do the skills we learn there transfer to the everyday social world?
In this book he sees fiction as (page 99)
. . . . . a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world. This is what Shakespeare and others called a dream.
And finds that the research suggests that the skills we learn there do transfer to ordinary life. After explaining a carefully controlled study by Raymond Mar (see video below for an interview with him), he writes that when all other variables were controlled for (and could therefore be discounted as an explanation of the effects) – page 159:
The result indicates that better abilities in empathy and theory of mind were best explained by the kind of reading people mostly did. . . . . .
Other studies he quotes all point in the same direction (page 165):
Nussbaum argues that this ability to identify with others by means of empathy or compassion is developed by the reading of fiction.
Hunt’s finding is that invention of the idea of rights, the declarations of rights, and the changes in society that have followed them, depended on two factors. One was empathy, which depends, as Hunt says, on “a biologically based ability to understand the subjectivity of other people and to be able to imagine that their inner experiences are like one’s own” (p. 39). The other was the mobilization of this empathy towards those who were outside people’s immediate social groupings. Although Hunt does not attribute this mobilization entirely to literary art, she concludes that the novel contributed to it substantially.
But empathy is not all there is to it. His discussion of these other aspects is equally rich but there is not space here to unpack them (page 169).
A second theme in potentially beneficial effects of fiction is in understandings of relationships.
(His third theme I’m not sure is very different from his second as it concerns the dynamics of interactions in groups and is for me an aspect of relationships in general.) There is one more (page 170):
The fourth theme of fiction that can potentially prompt self-improvement is in understandings of the self.
Other Complicating Factors
He admits very readily that this apparently straightforward and rosy picture has its complications over and above the issue of whether we can agree on exactly which examples of fiction are art and which are not, which are destructive and which are not. Prose that serves the kind of social function he describes cannot be quite boundaried by the idea of fiction in any case (page 177):
The idea that the essence of fiction is of selves in the social world, or of intentions and their vicissitudes, is I think, correct, but the category has untidy boundaries. The conventional definition of fiction excludes, for instance, memoir and biography, which can also be about these matters. Recent biographies of relationships by Hazel Rowley (2006) Katie Roiphe (2007) and Janet Malcolm (2007) have had all the characteristics that I am writing about, as does a memoir of growing up in Germany in the 20s and 30s by Sebastian Haffner (2002).
You’d also think that being a writer of fiction would confer amazing benefits for the writer in his or her own life. The reality is that being a writer of fiction sadly does not guarantee happiness or adjustment in the life of the writer. No surprise there then for readers of this blog This has been an ongoing concern of mine in terms of all art forms (see links below). It concerns Oatley as well (pages 177-178):
The question arises as to whether, if fiction helps social understanding, writers of fiction should be especially understanding of others and themselves. The much-replicated research by James Pennebaker (1997), in which writing about emotional problems has been found to have therapeutic properties, seems to support this hypothesis. Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley and Jordan Peterson (2006) have shown that writers of fiction tend to write about emotional preoccupations, particularly negative ones. It may be that some writers increase their understanding, but writers are not known generally for attainment of states of contentment or social decency. Although this question has not been well researched, it seems most likely that many writers of fiction do write from a position of struggle with their emotional lives. Perhaps many of them start from a position that is rather far out on this spectrum. So although they may make gains for themselves, they don’t necessarily do all that well as compared with the non-writing population.
You could decode that to be saying that tormented lives are seedbeds for major fiction and perhaps the writers would be worse people if they did not write. That would be a hard hypothesis to test in practice and the funding might be hard to come by as well.
Still, on balance, I feel Oatley makes a very good case for the value of great fiction. Let’s hope no one gets killed in the boundary disputes where one person’s masterpiece is morphing into someone else’s potboiler.