Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Original publication date: 1919
Rpt. New York: Random House, 1947

Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is a collection of 23 interrelated sketches—Anderson calls them “tales”—that portray life in a Midwestern town in the early years of the twentieth century. The unifying thread throughout is the coming-of-age story of George Willard, an 18-year-old news reporter who dreams of leaving the confines of his home town and making his way in the larger world as a writer.

The book is significant historically for its use of common speech to portray its characters, the common people of Winesburg. Stylistically, Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

The book is also significant historically for its place in the development of American realism and naturalism. Realism, which developed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the influence of social environment on characters. As realism developed, it shifted into naturalism, with an emphasis on impersonal social, economic, and biological forces on individuals. With its focus on the psychological and biological impulses of its characters, Anderson’s book illustrates the beginning of this shift. Here, for example, is the narrator’s description of Kate Swift in “The Teacher”:

Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. (p. 191)

Most of the tales recount characters who have internal hungers and desires—ranging from pedophilia and God’s approval to fame, wealth, and human companionship—that they struggle to submerge in the belief that no one else harbors such secrets. For example, in “Queer” Elmer Cowley, unable to make friends after moving to Winesburg, feels that he’s always strange or abnormal, somehow different from other people:

George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of thee town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. (p. 234)

Anderson’s use of such subject matter is more subdued than other authors of the same time period such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” which defines the term grotesque. In the beginning, when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. “Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts” (p. 4). All these truths were beautiful. Then people came along and snatched up the truths. “It was the truths that made the people grotesques… . The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (p. 5).

In this tale an old writer contemplates “something inside him [that] was altogether young” (p. 2). “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes… . They were all grotesques” (p. 3). The old writer wrote a book about the grotesques but never published it. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man” (p. 5).

“Sophistication,” the second-to-last story in the collection, describes George Willard’s coming of age in similar terms:

In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers, and the older, the more sophisticated thing had possession of George Willard. (p. 294)

Earlier, in “The Teacher,” Kate Swift, who had once been George Willard’s teacher, tries to explain to George “the difficulties he would have to face as a writer”:

“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words … You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (p. 192)

Like the old writer whose tale opens the book, George must grow up while at the same time keeping the young thing inside him alive. To become a writer, he must learn to look beneath the surface of what people say to understand their inner thoughts and desires.

The tales throughout this book tell stories of human desires thwarted and human connections unrealized. The last thing that George Willard must learn as he leaves Winesburg to embark on his life as a writer is how to exist in such a world. In “Sophistication” George meets up with Helen White, a young woman he feels attracted to:

George Willard sat beside Helen White and felt very keenly his own insignificance in the scheme of existence… . the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt. (pp. 295–296)

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Reading in Flow

Related Posts:

Flow and the Reading Process

If you’ve ever had the experience of getting lost in a good book, you’ve experienced flow. Csikszentmihalyi’s general characteristics of flow describe this experience. The key to flow is complete absorption in an activity. For readers, the flow experience means that they enter a new reality, the world they create from the text.

woman readingOne characteristic of reading in flow is that we gradually enter the fictive world we’re reading about. All sense of awareness of the real world around us slips away as we enter a new dimension. In other words, reading in flow occurs outside of our conscious awareness. As soon as we start to think about what is happening, we are bounced out of the fictive world back into our real world. For this reason the process of reading in flow is difficult to talk about and even more difficult to study. Nevertheless, researchers continue to try to devise ways of studying how we read. Here’s a summary of their hypotheses about how the reading process works.

Gerrig has extensively studied the cognitive processes involved in the reading process. He uses the phrase narrative world to refer to the situation model readers create while reading. Like Rosenblatt, Gerrig sees reading as a transactional process: The reader interacts with the text to construct the narrative world, and the narrative world completes the transaction by reconstructing the reader. This mutual exchange becomes a continual process through which the reader creates and revises the situation model as long as the flow experience continues. This process takes place outside of conscious awareness.

In creating the narrative world, the reader interacts with verbal clues provided by the text. These textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention by activating some of the “magnetic fields,” what Csikszentmihalyi calls the “bits of information” stored in the brain. The textual clues forge associations between these various mental constructs, and from these associations the reader continuously constructs the narrative world through what Copland calls cognitive mobility. These processes move both backward and forward in the sense that readers are able to hold in abeyance contrary or ambiguous suggestions of meaning that later details may either confirm or preclude.

One means by which textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention is foregrounding, the use of “unusual linguistic features … to place emphasis on the form of the text, prompting a fresh perspective on the meaning of the text (Emmott, Sanford, & Dawydiak, p. 206). Aspects of foregrounding include direct juxtaposition of concepts, linguistic techniques such as simile and oxymoron, and stylistic techniques such as rhythm, rhyme, sentence length, sentence structure, and paragraph length.

The field of psycholinguistics attempts to study foregrounding by examining depth of processing as a way to determine the amount and kind of detail readers notice while reading. The main method for examining depth of processing is anomaly testing, which presents readers with questions such as this one: “After an aircrash, where should the survivors be buried?” Most readers, according to Emmott and colleagues, will consider the question of where burial should occur without noticing that survivors would not be buried at all. This is an example of shallow processing.

A newer experimental technique for studying depth of processing, the text change detection method, presents study participants with a textual passage, withdraws the passage for an interval of 100 to 500 milliseconds, then presents a text passage again. In some cases the second passage of text is identical to the first (control condition), while in other cases the second passage differs from the first by one word. Participants are asked whether the second passage is the same as or different from the first. Using this technique, the researchers found that stylistic devices (such as sentence structure and paragraph formatting) often used to foreground details did increase readers’ depth of processing. However, the researchers also found that, contrary to their expectation, narratological cues (such as an announcement that upcoming events were important or surprising) decreased rather than increased the amount of detail that readers noticed.

Another method that literary texts use for focusing the reader’s attention is conceptual blending, described by Copland and by Freeman. In conceptual blending, elements from two different domains are brought together in a way that highlights both their similarities and their differences; in creating the blend, readers construct a third entity that incorporates both the similarities and the differences. Through this “typically unconscious process” (Copland, p. 140) readers constantly build and rebuild their situation model of the narrative world: “the theory of conceptual blending is particularly powerful in revealing the ways in which the embodied mind articulates the many dimensions of human experience … through language” (Freeman, p. 107).

Both of these textual techniques for focusing readers’ attention—foregrounding and conceptual blending—work through defamiliarization and refamiliarization. Both techniques present readers with two items, A and B. By associating A with B, the text leads readers to see A in a new and different way. In other words, the text causes readers to defamiliarize themselves with their usual, or automatic, concept of A and then to construct a revised concept for A that includes the new element acquired from the comparison with B; this latter process is called refamiliarization. Through these interlocking processes of defamiliarization and refamiliarization, readers continuously create and re-create meaning from the text. Such cognitive processes produce the intentional ordering of consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi says constitutes flow.

In general, the cognitive processes at work during reading in flow probably are similar in all people. However, as reader-response literary theory hypothesizes, all individuals bring their own personal history of experiences to their reading. (Also see Rosenblatt ). Miall proposes that what directs each person’s unique transaction with a given literary text is affect, or emotion. He defines affect broadly:

For the purpose of this article I will understand affect to denote the subjective experience of emotions and feelings, including (necessarily for my argument) feelings that have little or no cognitive content but which operate immediately as judgements, preferences, and the like. (Beyond the Schema Given)

He further describes three characteristics of affect: (1) it is self-referential; that is, it allows readers to apply experiential and evaluative aspects of their self-concept to the task of reading; (2) it enables cross-domain categorization of text elements in processes such as foregrounding and conceptual blending; and (3) it is anticipatory and prestructures a reader’s understanding of the meaning of a text early in the reading process.

Other researchers also point out the role that affect plays in reading. For example, van Peer reports that studies have shown that an accumulation of foregrounding devices has an affective impact on the reader. Freeman says that any theory about how the reading process works must account for both intentionality and feeling. Gold writes that literature allows our brains to combine memory, language, and emotion: “The defining characteristic of fiction and poetry, the power of literature to influence, entertain, help and illuminate, resides in its ability to call forth feeling along with thought in the reader” (p. 19). Affect works, according to Miall, by activating in the reader “vectors of concern” that resonate with the reader’s current concerns about the self.

Another condition that Csikszentmihalyi identifies as necessary for flow is a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level. Both Csikszentmihalyi and Gerrig suggest that all people without some form of brain impairment (organic brain disorder or attentional deficits) have the cognitive processes necessary for experiencing narrative worlds—or reading in flow. Many people read in flow naturally, without any special training beyond the rudiments of learning to read. However, it is possible to court flow and to become more proficient at it by studying techniques of literary criticism and, perhaps more important, by reading widely.

The example of a reader who finds a rose in a fictive world may explain how the flow process of reading functions and can be enhanced. The rose has become a common literary symbol for love because its beautiful appearance and pleasant aroma suggest the positive attributes of the human emotion of love. But the same stem that supports the beautiful flower also bears, lower down, thorns meant to protect the flower from being picked. The beautiful flower thus becomes associated with the potential pain involved in trying to obtain it. Logically, this new attribute contradicts the previous pleasant associations of the rose, but affectively most readers comprehend the aptness of this symbol for the mixture of pleasure and pain involved in love. In addition, a rose eventually opens too wide and surpasses its point of fullest beauty; the petals of the full-blown rose soon begin to die and fall off, further suggesting that, like all living things, the perfect rose contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Moreover, readers who know other literary works that present a rose as a symbol of love—such as Robert Burns’s famous poem “My love is like a red, red rose” or William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily”—will make associations between the rose imagery in those works and the current image. In this way the current appearance of the rose will acquire additional layers of symbolic resonance for readers whose previous exposure to literature provides them with many available concepts for rose.

Benefits of Reading in Flow

Although Csikszentmihalyi believes that achieving the flow state is its own reward, there are, nevertheless, benefits of reading in flow. Some researchers look to brain functioning to explain how reading enhances readers’ lives. Miall, for example, says that because the brain’s right hemisphere appears to play an important role in mediating one’s self concept and also in literary response, “literature may offer one of the most significant vehicles for development and change in the self.”

Joseph Gold, who is both a licensed therapist and a professor of literature, believes that reading narrative fiction contributes to personal development in two ways: (1) by activating the pre-frontal cortex and the temporal lobes, the major language centers of the brain, and (2) by assisting in the building of personal identity in narrative form. It is fiction’s ability to engage both cognition and affect that gives it its power to help us “reorganize and rethink our ways of seeing and thinking about things” (p. 36). Such reorganizing and rethinking is called reframing, and it allows us to imagine alternative contexts. As Copland explains, the mental processing that occurs during reading acts as “a mental gymnasium in which through reading, we can exercise new modes of being in the world and new modes of world-making” (p. 158).

Reading can especially help readers in dealing with negative feelings and negative self-concept issues by placing such feelings in a critical context with other feelings and ideas; this new context allows readers to better understand those negative feelings. By taking readers outside of immediate experience, fiction can give them the distance necessary to understand and control a situation. On a more concrete level, Nell writes that reading can provide the opportunity for “the covert rehearsal of real-life coping strategies” (p. 245). The extent to which a work of literature can transform a reader’s concept of self depends upon the concerns that result from that reader’s prior experience.

Bibliography

Copland, S. (2008). Reading in the blend: Collaborative conceptual blending in the Silent Traveller narratives. Narrative, 16(2), 140–162. Retrieved June 28, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Emmott, C., Sanford, A. J., & Dawydiak, E. J. (2007). Stylistics meets cognitive science: Studying style in fiction and readers’ attention from an interdisciplinary perspective. Style, 41(2), 204–224. Retrieved June 29, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.

Freeman, M. H. (2006). Blending: A response. Language and Literature, 15(1), 107–117. Retrieved February 6, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.

Gerrig, R. J. (1998). Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (Original work published 1993)

Gold, J. (2001). Read for your life: Literature as a life support system. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Fitzhenry & Whiteside. (Original work published 1990)

Miall, D. S. (1989). Beyond the schema given: Affective comprehension of literary narratives. Cognition and Emotion, 3(1), 55–78. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/688/0/Beyond_s.htm

Miall, D. S. (1995). Anticipation and feeling in literary response: A neuropsychological perspective. Poetics, 23, 275–298. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/40/0/NEUROLIT.htm

Nell, V. (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

van Peer, W. (2007). Introduction to foregrounding: A state of the art. Language and Literature, 16(2), 99–104. Retrieved May 4, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.

 

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.

Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

Common Themes:

  • the search for family
  • self-discovery
  • the search for personal identity
  • enduring and learning from painful personal experience
  • making meaning in one’s life
  • the meaning of love

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.

People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.

But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.

In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.

Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.

It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.

My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.

Review: “The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins

Hawkins, Paula. The Girl on the Train
New York: Penguin Group, 2015
ISBN 978–1–59463–366–9

Cover: The Girl on the TrainRachel rides the same train every day on her commute to and from London, right past the street where she and her husband used to live. She’s still reeling with despair over the failure of her marriage two years earlier. Looking at their house, where her husband now lives with his new wife and their baby, is too painful, so Rachel concentrates on a house a bit down the street. Every day she observes the couple living there, a golden couple, as she thinks of them: happy and loving, comfortable with each other. Rachel fantasizes about the couple, whom she calls Jess and Jason, imagining their sophisticated careers and their perfect life together.

We learn early on that Rachel really is an emotional wreck. She’s still living in a college friend’s spare bedroom, where she crashed after the break-up of her marriage—just until she could find a place of her own. And she’s an alcoholic, a fall-down drunk subject to blackouts and lost memories. It’s no wonder she’s so obsessed with Jess and Jason’s perfect life. So when she sees something out of the ordinary going on in their back yard one day, she can’t keep herself from getting involved.

Rachel is the book’s main narrator, but there are also two other women whose viewpoint we occasionally see. As with most cases of multiple perspectives, discovering the truth requires the reader to triangulate the three narratives. The novel’s main theme is love and marriage, but equally important is the theme of control, over both one’s self and one’s life.

This book is often touted as a good read for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which is the reason why I picked it up. Like Flynn’s novel, The Girl on the Train is a twisted love story. But it’s not nearly as tightly written or as compellingly crafted as Gone Girl. Rachel is so overdrawn that it’s hard to believe some of her outrageous actions, even given the circumstances of her life. The use of drunken blackouts and memories that tantalize and then retreat just out of reach is a convenient and common literary technique. And anyone who reads the book even half carefully will most likely figure out the catch well before the big revelation at the end.

Update

There’s an interesting article on Hawkins and The Girl on the Train here. Writer Alexandra Alter offers this insight into the runaway success of Hawkins’s novel:

American crime fiction travels easily abroad; the converse is less often true, unless the author happens to be a J. K. Rowling or a Lee Child. But “The Girl on the Train” may have benefited from a wave of popular and unconventional suspense novels that have eroded the already thin boundary between literary fiction and thrillers. Ms. Hawkins joins the ranks of a new generation of female suspense novelists — writers like Megan Abbott, Tana French, Harriet Lane and Gillian Flynn — who are redefining contemporary crime fiction with character-driven narratives that defy genre conventions. Their novels dig into social issues, feature complex women who aren’t purely victims or vixens, and create suspense with subtle psychological developments and shifts in relationships instead of procedural plot points and car chases.

Getting Lost in a Good Book

Getting Lost in a Good Book: Scientific Research on Reading

Have you ever gotten so absorbed in reading a novel that you lost track of time and of what was happening around you—-even, in fact, that there was a world around you outside of the one you were reading about? Most serious readers have had this experience, and science is trying to learn exactly how and why it happens.

Here’s the Scientific Reason Why You Get Lost in a Book describes recent research on the fiction feeling hypothesis. Scientists used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study the brains of people who had read particular passages from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Some participants read “narratives with emotional contents,” which the study abstract describes as “fear-inducing … descriptions of protagonists’ pain or personal distress.”

The experiment found that readers of fear-inducing passages exhibited more “involvement of the core structure of pain and affective empathy” in the brain than did readers of neutral passages. The researchers concluded “the immersive experience was particularly facilitated by the motor component of affective empathy.”

The Bustle article, which says that the study report does not specify what passages from Harry Potter books were used in the research, offers a couple of passages from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that it thinks illustrate the difference between the two kinds of writing. The article goes on to say that this research “does showcase how books not only teach empathy, but the types of writing that can boost empathy even more.”

A novel look at how stories may change the brain reports on a 2013 study from Emory University:

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

The study focused on changes in the brain that linger after people read a narrative. Participants read Pompeii, a 2003 novel by Robert Harris chosen because “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way.” Over nine days participants read a passage from the novel in the evening, then underwent a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scan the following morning:

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

The researchers also noticed increased connectivity in areas of the brain associated with making representations of sensation for the body. (This is a phenomenon long recognized in sports: that visualizing an activity such as running, skiing, or swimming activates the neurons associated with that physical action.)

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

This study showed that the neural effects of reading persisted for five days. Further research is necessary to determine exactly how long these neural effects last. But, Berns says, these results suggest that “your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

A 2012 study (“Losing Yourself” in a Fictional Character Can Affect Your Real Life) found: “When you ‘lose yourself’ inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behavior and thoughts to match that of the character”:

Researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people who, while reading a fictional story, found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.”

According to Geoff Kaufman, who led the study as a graduate student at Ohio State, “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about.” But experience-taking can only occur when people are able “to forget about themselves and their own self-concept and self-identity while reading”—in other words, when they get lost in a book.

Not unexpectedly, one part of this research found that participants identified most strongly with protagonists in a story narrated in first person by a character the participants consider to be similar to themselves. The researchers then wondered what would happen if readers didn’t learn that a character was not similar to themselves until late in the story. To find out, they divided 70 heterosexual male students into three groups. Each group read one of three versions of the same story: “one in which the character was revealed to be gay early in the story, one in which the student was identified as gay late in the story, and one in which the character was heterosexual.” Students who learned early in the story that the character was gay reported little or no experience-taking. But students who had read the version of the story that reveals the character as gay late in the narrative reported the same level of experience-taking as students who had read about a heterosexual character.

The research revealed a more significant finding:

Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story.

“If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views – the readers accepted that this character was like them,” Kaufman said.

Lisa Libby, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says that experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, in which people try to imagine another person’s thoughts without losing sight of themselves: “Experience-taking is much more immersive – you’ve replaced yourself with the other.”

The other important aspect of such immersive experience-taking is that it’s spontaneous: it happens naturally under the right circumstance. And it’s a process that happens outside of our conscious awareness, which is exactly why we call it getting lost in a good book.

In a 2013 article (How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation) researchers from The Netherlands reported on studies exploring what they call transportation theory. They hypothesized that when people read fiction and are emotionally transported into the story, they become more empathic. Their results supported this hypothesis: “Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story.” People who were not emotionally transported into the story and others who read nonfiction instead of fiction did not exhibit increased empathy.

So what does all this research on the phenomenon of getting lost in a good book mean? What Hephzibah Anderson says in a recent article for the BBC (Bibliotherapy: Can you read yourself happy?) seems to sum it all up: “We think of novels as places in which to lose ourselves, but when we emerge, we take with us inspiration from our favourite characters.” Our experiences reading fiction can change both our attitude and our behavior toward people who are different from ourselves.

On Active Reading

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If you watch HBO’s drama The Newsroom, you’ve seen the introductory clip in which an editor scans a printed story by running her hand quickly down the page. While this is an appropriate, even necessary, reading method for keeping up with a daunting amount of news updated by the second, it’s not the way to read fiction. Artistic appreciation of a literary text requires a more active approach to reading than such a passive absorption of facts.

Actively reading fiction requires slowing the reading process way down. In The medium is not the message Leah Price, who teaches English at Harvard, looks at the slow reading movement. Most proponents of this movement, she notes, are literary critics, who “care as much about form as about content.” She notes:

Ever since modern literatures were first taught at university a couple of centuries ago, their average professor has read at the same pace as her seven-year-old.

Reading slowly allows us to savor the words, to see and appreciate how the author has used techniques such as imagery and sentence structure to construct a story that resonates on several levels. When we read literature simply for its narrative sequence—first this happened, then that happened, and then the next thing happened—we miss all the artistic effort that the best writers put into crafting their tales. (For ideas on how to do such close reading, see How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, Harper/Collins, 2003).

Tim Parks, novelist and Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan, laments how much his students seem to miss when reading literature in A Weapon for Readers. He writes that we approach literature with too much reverence and therefore treat it uncritically:

If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature—symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities—we afford it unlimited credit. With occasional exceptions, the only “criticism” brought to such writing is the kind that seeks to elaborate its brilliance, its cleverness, its creativity.

This reverence toward the written word, he says, came of age in the second half of the twentieth century and “is reflected in the treatment of the book itself. The spine must not be bent back and broken, the pages must not be marked with dog ears, there must be no underlining, no writing in the margins.”

Parks particularly noticed this attitude toward the sanctity of the written word when working with students studying translation:

I would give them the same text in English and Italian and ask them to tell me which was the original text. Or I would give them a text without saying whether it was a translation or not and ask them to comment on it. Again and again, the authority conveyed by the printed word and an aura of literariness, or the excitement of dramatic action, or the persuasive drift of an argument, would prevent them from noticing the most obvious absurdities.

Be sure to look at his examples of such absurdities, which make his point readily evident.

In wondering how to help his students become better readers,

I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page. Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive.

The result? “[I]t was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem”:

There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

This transformation from “passive consumers of a monologue” into “active participants in a dialogue” describes the interaction between a reader and a literary text that is the basis of reader-response criticism. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978), Louise M. Rosenblatt calls this interaction “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In Rosenblatt’s terminology, the text is the written work and the poem is the meaning that the reader creates in interaction with the written words.

Arming ourselves with a pen and approaching a work of literature as our partner in an active exchange will allow us to focus on reading fiction as both an artistic and a pleasurable experience—also as a necessary experience, according to Parks:

For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action. Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

“I Am Lazarus,” Anna Kavan

Cover: The World WithinKavan, Anna. “I Am Lazarus” (1940)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Related Posts:

The story’s opening paragraph introduces an English doctor who distrusts “anything he did not understand,” particularly “this insulin shock treatment there had been such a fuss about” (p.270).

Polish neurophysiologist and psychiatrist Manfred J. Sakel introduced insulin-shock therapy:

Sakel had used insulin to tranquilize morphine addicts undergoing withdrawal, and in 1927 one addict accidentally received an overdose of insulin and went into a coma. After the patient recovered from the overdose, Sakel noted an improvement in his mental state. Sakel hypothesized that inducing convulsions with insulin could have similar effects in schizophrenics. His initial studies found the treatment effective in 88 percent of his patients, and the method was applied widely for a brief period. Follow-up studies showed the long-term results to be less satisfactory, and insulin-shock treatment was replaced by other methods of treatment. [1]

Until the discovery of the tranquilizing drugs, variations of insulin-shock therapy (also called insulin-coma therapy) were commonly used in the treatment of schizophrenia and other psychotic conditions. With insulin-shock treatment, the patient is given increasingly large doses of insulin, which reduce the sugar content of the blood and bring on a state of coma. Usually the comatose condition is allowed to persist for about an hour, at which time it is terminated by administering warm salt solution via stomach tube or by intravenous injection of glucose. Insulin shock had its greatest effectiveness with schizophrenic patients whose illness had lasted less than two years. [2]

Two large studies carried out in the USA in 1939 and 1942 gave him fame and helped his technique to rapidly spread out around the world… . [However], Initial enthusiasm was followed by a decrease in the use of insulin coma therapy, after further controlled studies showed that real cure was not achieved and that improvements were many times temporary. [3]

The opening four paragraphs of Anna Kavan’s story introduce us to the unnamed English doctor who lives in a village near the wealthy Mrs. Bow. When the doctor plans a motor trip to Europe, Mrs. Bow asks him to stop in and see her son at the clinic where he’s being treated for dementia praecox, an outmoded term for what we now call schizophrenia. Readers are guided not to think highly of this doctor: “The English doctor was not a very good doctor. He was middle-aged and frustrated and undistinguished” (p. 270). When Mrs. Bow had told him of her plan a year earlier to send her son to the clinic for treatment, the doctor had opposed the idea. “It was a useless expense. It couldn’t possibly do any good” (p. 271).

Not wishing to offend the rich Mrs. Bow, the doctor stops by the European clinic:

He glanced at the beautifully kept gardens. The grounds were really magnificent, the watered lawns green in spite of the dry summer, every tree pruned to perfection, the borders brilliant with flowers. (p. 271)

The clinic superintendent, who “had exactly estimated the unimportance of his companion” (p. 272), describes Mr. Bow’s prognosis:

“We’re very proud of Mr. Bow,” he said. “He’s an outstanding example of the success of the treatment. He responded wonderfully well from the start and I consider him a quite remarkable cure. In a few months he should be well enough to go home.” (p. 272)

Apparently the mediocre doctor from England who had dismissed the possibility of a cure was wrong about the treatment given at this clinic with the perfectly manicured grounds.

The superintendent takes the doctor into a workroom where some patients, including Mr. Bow, are working with leather: “The different pairs of hands, large and small, rose and fell over the table… . The Englishman looked uneasily at the faces and at the hands which seemed to be rising and falling of their own volition in the banded sunshine above the table” (pp. 272–273). Mr. Bow, with his “flat, hazel eyes,” “sat stiffly correct in his place at the sunny table” (p. 273). This opening section of the story ends with the doctor’s reflection on what he has seen:

“I should never have believed it possible,” the Englishman said with emphasis and repressed indignation. “Never.”

He felt disapproving and indignant and uncomfortable without quite knowing why. Of course, the boy looks normal enough, he said to himself. He seems quiet and self-controlled. But there must be a catch in it somewhere. You can’t go against nature like that. It just isn’t possible. He thought uneasily of the young inexpressive face and the curious flat look of the eyes. (p. 274)

Then the focus of the story abruptly switches to Mr. Bow:

He spoke to no one and nobody spoke to him. He methodically went on sewing the pigskin belt with steady, regular movements of his soft hands… All around the table were different colored shapes whose mouths opened and closed and emitted sounds that meant nothing to him. He did not mind either the shapes or the sounds. They were part of the familiar atmosphere of the workroom, where he felt comfortable and at ease. (p. 274)

And suddenly the reader begins to see what the English doctor vaguely sensed but was unable to understand: that the outside viewer’s perception of Mr. Bow’s existence is vastly different from Mr. Bow’s own. On his way to lunch Mr. Bow walks “rather stiffly” through grasses that respond felinely to his touch: “like thin sensitive cats they arched themselves to receive the caress of his fingertips” (p. 275). Daisies growing in the field “had yellow eyes that squinted craftily through the grass” (p. 275). In the washroom

Several coats hung on the wall. Thomas Bow avoided the washbasins nearest the coats. The hanging shapes filled him with deep suspicion. He watched them out of the ends of his eyes to make sure they did not get up to anything while he was washing his hands. (pp. 276–277)

And when Mr. Bow enters the dining room

The young man looked round cautiously. The pretty dresses of the women gave him pleasure but he was not at ease. At any moment something might pounce on him, something for which he did not have the formula. He waited tensely, on enemy ground… . The waiters, like well-trained sheep dogs, skillfully maneuvered the patients toward their chairs. (p. 278)

Now we realize that the perfectly ordered and manicured grounds of the fancy clinic represent the perfectly ordered and regimented existence of the patients, who have been trained to respond like robots. The irony of the situation is that the undistinguished, “not very good” English doctor was correct in his evaluation of how well Mr. Bow’s treatment has worked.

The story’s title provides a final stroke of irony:

“He doesn’t know how lucky he is,” said the dark doctor. “We’ve pulled him back literally from a living death. That’s the sort of thing that encourages one in this work.”

Mr. Bow walked carefully in the sunshine. He did not know how lucky he was and perhaps that was rather lucky as well. (p. 281)

References

[1] “Manfred J. Sakel”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2014
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/518669/Manfred-J-Sakel.

[2] “Shock therapy”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2014
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/541334/shock-therapy#ref145472

[3] Renato M.E. Sabbatini. The History of Shock Therapy in Psychiatry .

Ghosts and Other Literary Horrors

 

For weeks we’ve been building up to Halloween with lists and tales about the spookiest and scariest stories ever written. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the best known ghost stories in the English language. Part of the reason this novella is so famous is that it leaves unspecified the exact nature of the horror it portrays.

critical museStudents and scholars alike continue to address the issue of what that horror is. This continued response to try to define the “portentous evil” at the center of his story is something James purposely engineered. Here’s how he described the task he faced in writing The Turn of the Screw:

What, in the last analysis, had I to give the sense of? Of their [characters Miss Jessel and Peter Quint] being, the haunting pair, capable, as the phrase is, of everything—-that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims so conditioned might be conceived as subject to. What would be then, on reflexion, this utmost conceivability?—a question to which the answer all admirably came. There is for such a case no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to fifty other elements, a matter of appreciation, speculation, imagination—these things moreover quite exactly in the light of the spectator’s, the critic’s, the reader’s experience. Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself—and that already is a charming job—and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. (p. 538)*

James knew that no evil he could specify would be as portentous as the personal notion of evil all readers harbor within their imaginations.

Kyle Fowle makes a similar point in his discussion of Why the horror of Stephen King’s words doesn’t translate well to film. Fowle says that King’s more dramatic works (e.g., Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile) make better films than do his horror novels because “Film is a visual medium, and the horror genre often demands a tangible menace”:

King’s horror fiction often focuses on internal threats, those that can’t be seen or predicted. His best novels explore very human fears and anxieties, elements that are difficult to bring to a visual medium. The novel isn’t inherently a superior storytelling medium (we’ve moved past that reductive argument long ago, especially with the second Golden Age of Television), but it does seem more suited to King’s particular take on horror, where the internal, human terrors are privileged over the external ones… . [film] demands an external, visible threat, one that can make an audience jump, shiver, or scream; such a necessity runs contrary to what makes King’s novels so poignant.

“King’s best horror books,” Fowle concludes, “… explore one of our most potent fears: the fear of ourselves.”

Yet popular culture continues to present us with all kinds of hideous creatures. In From Daleks to Zombies: What Monsters Mean to Us, Anna North talks with the authors of three recent books:

  • Justin Richards, author of Doctor Who: The Secret Lives of Monsters
  • David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror
  • Stephen T. Asma, author of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

According to Skal, “we can read the dominant worries of an era in its monster stories” because “monsters recast collective anxiety in fictional form.” Asma offers some examples:

Christians in medieval Europe were “worried about temptation and pleasures of the flesh” and believed that “if you’re weak morally and impure, if you give in to your carnal desires, then that opens the door for the demon to enter and take you over,” he said. “If you let your guard down at all, this evil realm is just waiting.”

Asma further believes that monsters can offer us catharsis:

Horror films, he explained, can give us a controllable way to experience “these deeper fears that we ordinarily repress.” We can “take our monsters off the chain, let him howl at the moon a little bit, and then you can put him back on the chain after the movie’s over,” he said. “I think monster culture has therapeutic aspects to it.”

Whereas Henry James and Stephen King may favor an indistinct evil, monsters such as Frankenstein, Godzilla, vampires, and zombies graphically present what society most fears. In the end, though, they serve the same function as the less directly represented:

“With all the best monsters,” [Richards] added, “you can see something of yourself in them.”


*From the Preface to The Aspern Papers; The Turn of the Screw; The Liar; The Two Faces. Reprinted in The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Roger Gard (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), pp. 537–539.

Life Stories: A Select Bibliography

 

Aftel, Mandy. The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience (Fireside, 1996)

Atkinson, Robert. The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking (Bergin and Garvey, 1995)

Estrade, Patrick. You Are What You Remember: A Pathbreaking Guide to Understanding and Interpreting Your Childhood Memories (Da Capo, 2006)

Feinstein, David and Stanley Krippner. The Mythic Path: Discovering the Guiding Stories of Your Past—Creating a Vision for Your Future, 3rd ed. (Innersource, 2006)

Frank, Arthur W. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Funder, David C., Ross D. Parke, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, Keith Widaman, eds. Studying Lives Through Time: Personality and Development (American Psychological Association, 1993)

Hendricks, Jon, ed. The Meaning of Reminiscence and Life Review (Baywood, 1995)

Linde, Charlotte. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence (Oxford University Press, 1993)

McAdams, Dan, Ruthellen Josselson, Amia Lieblich, eds. Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative (American Psychological Association, 2006)

McAdams, Dan P. Power, Intimacy, and the Life Story: Personological Inquiries into Identity (Guilford, 1988)

McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (Guilford, 1993)

Olney, James. Memory and Narrative: The Weaving of Life-Writing (University of Chicago Press, 1998)

Progoff, Ira. Life-Study: Experiencing Creative Lives by the Intensive Journal Method (Dialogue House, 1983)

Rainer, Tristane. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997)

Singer, Jefferson A. Memories That Matter: How to Use Self-Defining Memories to Understand and Change Your Life (New Harbinger, 2005)

Stone, Elizabeth. Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us (Transaction Publishers, 2004, rpt. 2008)

Taylor, Daniel. Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories (Bog Walk Press, 2001)

“Gone Girl”: Forging a Life Story

 

Related Posts
* Introduction to Life Stories
* “Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember
* Review of The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen
* Life Stories: The Personal Component
* 11 Novels That Feature Life Stories
* Literary Life Stories: The Character Biography
* Life Stories: A Select Bibliography

Gone Girl: cover
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl
Random House, 2012

Spoiler Alert
This discussion contains spoilers for both the book and the film Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I can’t think of any novel that features the concept of life story more prominently than Gone Girl. Author Gillian Flynn deftly uses variations on the life story theme as elements of both plot and character development.

In Part One we meet Nick Dunne as a first-person narrator. Soon we learn, along with Nick, about the apparent disappearance of his wife, Amy Elliott Dunne, on that day, their fifth anniversary.

As this section unfolds, we learn that Nick is less than perfect. He lies to the police about his alibi because, we eventually find out, he doesn’t want to reveal his affair with one of his students at the local college. Like the police, we begin to suspect Nick. Some of the most damning evidence against Nick is Amy’s diary entries that reveal a woman afraid that her husband is planning to kill her. In this opening section Flynn uses Amy’s diary, the record of her life story, as a plot element to arouse suspicion and doubt and thereby to create suspense.

Then in Part Two we meet Amy in person. She, too, is a first-person narrator, and she begins by giving us her checklist of 33 items of how she “did everything”:

I can tell you more about how I did everything, but I’d like you to know me first. Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy. What kind of woman would do such a thing? Let me tell you a story, a true story, so you can begin to understand.

To start: I should never have been born.

Amy introduces herself to us by telling her life story. Her mother had had five miscarriages and two stillbirths before, unexpectedly and seemingly miraculously, giving birth to Amy, who lived. Although Amy always felt superior to the seven babies who died, she also felt jealous:

They get to be perfect without even trying, without even facing one moment of existence, while I am stuck here on earth, and every day I must try, and every day is a chance to be less than perfect.

Amy’s parents even commandeered her life story to produce the Amazing Amy series of books, which made them rich. But those books didn’t rejoice in the real Amy they had. Instead, the books portrayed a child nearly perfect in every way, an amazing child that they were immensely proud of.

Constantly trying to be perfect, Amy admits, is “an exhausting way to live. I lived that way until I was thirty-one.” But her life changed when she met Nick:

Nick loved me… . But he didn’t love me, me. Nick loved a girl who doesn’t exist. I was pretending, the way I often did, pretending to have a personality. I can’t help it, it’s what I’ve always done: The way some women change fashion regularly, I change personalities.

When she met Nick, she was trying out the persona of the Cool Girl. But eventually that persona became too much for her to maintain. She dropped it and showed Nick “a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging than Cool Amy.” But Nick did not like Real Amy. “So that’s how the hating first began.”

As this section continues, we learn that Amy has been planning her disappearance, her way to punish Nick, for a year. The key element in her plan is the fake diary she wrote, backdated to build the picture of a woman gradually coming to fear that her husband planned to kill her.

Once we learn that Amy’s diary, which we had relied on as evidence in Part One, is fake, Flynn’s use of life story changes from a plot element to an element of character development. Through Amy’s different stories we have met Narrator Amy, Diary Amy, and Cool Girl Amy. When we finally meet the real Amy … . But you’ll have to see her for yourself.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown