Quote for the day

For me, at least, writing consists very largely of exploring intuition. A character is really the sense of a character, embodied, attired, and given voice as he or she seems to require. Where does this creature come from? From watching, I suppose. From reading emotional significance in gestures and inflections, as we all do all the time. These moments of intuitive recognition float free from their particular occasions and recombine themselves into nonexistent people the writer and, if all goes well, the reader feel they know.

There is a great difference, in fiction and in life, between knowing someone and knowing about someone. When a writer knows about his character, he is writing for plot. When he knows his character, he is writing to explore, to feel reality on a set of nerves somehow not quite his own. Words like “sympathy,” “empathy,” and “compassion” are overworked and overcharged—there is no word for the experience of seeing an embrace at a subway stop or hearing an argument at the next table in a restaurant. Every such instant has its own emotional coloration, which memory retains or heightens, and so the most sidelong, unintended moment becomes a part of what we have seen of the world. Then, I suppose, these moments, as they have seemed to us, constellate themselves into something a little like a spirit, a little like a human presence in its mystery and distinctiveness.

Two questions I can’t really answer about fiction are (1) where it comes from, and (2) why we need it. But that we do create it and also crave it is beyond dispute. There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell.

The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself—forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true. Why is it possible to speak of fiction as true or false? I have no idea. But if a time comes when I seem not to be making the distinction with some degree of reliability in my own work, I hope someone will be kind enough to let me know.

When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

That’s the wonderful novelist Marilynne Robinson, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

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8 Comments

  1. david foster says:

    There was an article in Scientific American/Mind a couple of months ago about research by Keith Oatley, who has researched the connection between fiction-reading and the development of empathy. Excerpts from my post about this:

    In one experiment, Oatley and colleagues assessed the reading habits of 94 adults, separating fiction from nonfiction. They also tested the subjects on measures of emotion perception (being able to discern a person’s emotional state from a photo of only the eyes) and social cognition (being able to draw conclusions about the relationships among people based on video clips.) This study showed a “strong” interconnection between fiction reading and social skills, especially between fiction reading and the emotion-perception factor. This correlation, of course, does not by itself demonstrate the direction of causality.

    Another study involved assigning 303 adults to read either a short story or an essay from the New Yorker and following up with tests of analytical and social reasoning. Those who read the story tended to do better on the social reasoning test than those who read the nonfiction essay.

    Oatley argues that “Good social skills require having a well-developed theory of mind…the ability to take the perspectives of other people, to make mental models of others, and to understand that someone else might have beliefs and intentions that are different from your own.” He says that children start to acquire this ability at about 4 years old, and that “the ability to gauge emotion from pictures of just the eyes correlates with theory-of-mind skills, as does the capacity for empathy.”

    In a further attempt to disentangle cause and effect, subjects were given tests designed to measure 5 personality traits: extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. The researchers also assessed the subjects’ social networks and degree of social isolation/loneliness. People scoring high on “openness to experience” turned out to read slightly more fiction. But when this variable was held constant, there was still “a large and significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathetic and theory-of-mind abilities; it looked as if reading fiction improved social skills, not the other way around.”

    Dr Oatley has referred to fiction as “the mind’s flight simulator.”

  2. Erin O'Connor says:

    Cool. My reference points are more archaic. Here is George Eliot / Marian Evans in 1856: “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.” Eliot was convinced that fiction had special abilities to “extend our sympathies,” particularly with respect to helping the middle and upper classes grasp the plight of the poor. She deplored Dickens because she thought he blew his chance to do that by resorting too often to caricature and sentiment when depicting the working poor. http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~jfec/ge/eliot.html

  3. david foster says:

    “Probably, if we could ascertain the images called up by the terms “the people,” “the masses,” “the proletariat,” “the peasantry,” by many who theorize on those bodies with eloquence, or who legislate for them without eloquence, we should find that they indicate almost as small an amount of concrete knowledge — that they are as far from completely representing the complex facts summed up in the collective term, as the railway images of our non-locomotive gentleman”

    Here’s C S Lewis in That Hideous Strength, describing his protagonist (a sociologist)…

    “..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural laboureres were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow…he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”

  4. [...] This Post Tweet This PostErin O’Connor links to George [...]

  5. Ali says:

    I love how Robinson stresses the importance and value of fiction. So many times, I hear people say something like, “Well, if/when I want to read, I really only like to read nonfiction. I think fiction is a waste of time because it doesn’t teach me anything or impart anything.” I think such a view of fiction is so limited! Good fiction does enlighten us and can make us feel like we are not alone in this world in our experiences. One of my favorite writers, Jennifer Egan, noted in a recent article in the Atlantic Wire that while nonfiction provides us with knowledge, fiction has the ability to broaden our experiences. I could not agree more with her. Here’s the link to the article: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/business/2011/05/jennifer-egan-what-i-read/37208/.

  6. UM history grad says:

    Ms O’ Connor, a “person” of interest to you named “Matt” (apparently a former grad student at U-Penn, now a high-school teacher somewhere) something or other, is, not to put too fine a point on it, getting his clock cleaned over at CHE Brainstorm by a classicist and translator, James Albert DeLater, not entirely unknown to you for his “epic” contest against Michael Berube (“Broob”) several years ago. Enjoy!

  7. UM history grad says:

    “UM History grad” is, Dr O’Connor, in ascending order, the Vietnam war vet and rightist Dr James Albert DeLater (BA, MA, MA, PhD–U of Washington–Life Member, VFW), the “outer” of “luther blissett,” one of his long leftist antagonists and persistent earlier “outers” on various sites. Dr Matthew Merlino (PhD UPenn), English teacher at Holy Names Academy in Seattle has confessed to his role as “luther blissett” and has since peacefully reconciled with Dr DeLater.

    Yr hmbl srvt, James DeLater

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