The gleam in the dark: writing and reading fiction

I’ve been a fan of Lauren Groff’s writing for years, so I was delighted to find this interview with her (via Twitter). The interviewer, Jason Skipper, asked Groff about her research for Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia, and Groff replied, “Research is about following the gleam into the dark.” She followed this beautiful sentence by talking about the difference between “creative” facts that spur one’s imagination, as opposed to those facts that dampen the process. This makes sense: just think about researching for work of historical fiction. Some facts will be fascinating, suggesting plot points all on their own, while others will seem like obstacles to the story.

Skipper then asked Groff about connection, “as a person born on the cusp of the digital age – making you old enough to remember a time without it, and young enough to realize its potential.” I have copied most of Groff’s resonant reply: “We are cuspies, aren’t we? There’s a glow to that time before things went all matrix on us, before everyone was plugged into the mainframe by their fingertips….I do remember people talking more. Nostalgia is dangerous, though, and I can’t tell whether those days actually were more authentically connected, whether they seemed so because I was an adolescent, or whether memory is spackling everything over with a thick layer of pretty-pretty.”

She continued, “In terms of writing, I think what most fiction writers treasure more than anything is the feeling that they’re living for the length of a book inside another person.” This echoes the sentiment in editor Jennifer Jackson’s publicity letter in the ARC of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars: “[The book] reminded me why I became a reader in the first place: because it is the best chance you will ever have to live another life.” Both author and reader see books as a means of escape and of empathy.

This isn’t a coincidence. In an article entitled “Your Brain on Fiction” in The New York Times earlier this year, professor of cognitive psychology and novelist Keith Oatley suggested that reading produces “a vivid simulation of reality.” The article’s author, Annie Murphy Paul, wrote, “Fiction with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other peoples thoughts and feelings.”

Paul continued, “The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life,” and cited work by Dr. Oatley and Dr. Raymond Mar indicating that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective…novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

Just over a month after the “Your Brain on Fiction” article ran in the Times, the Boston Globe ran a piece by Jonathan Gottschall called “Why Fiction is Good for You.” (Originally, I was going to cite both these pieces in a post called “A spoonful of fiction makes reality go down,” about why kids should be able to read what they want without parents or teachers fearing that the content of the books will damage them somehow; it seems that rather the opposite is true.) Gottschall reports, “Research consistently shows that fiction does mold us…mainly for the better, not for the worse.” When people read fiction, they imagine themselves in the characters’ lives – which may be completely different from their own. This encourages empathy, and “by enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction.”

Imagination leads to understanding; understanding leads to empathy. It turns out – surprise, surprise – that stories are good for us.

10/4/2013 Edited to add: A study published in the journal Science found that after reading literary fiction, “as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.” Read the article from the New York Times “Mind” section, in which author Louise Erdrich is quoted: “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov”

Why it makes sense to support public libraries

State Stats has created an awesome infographic about why it makes sense to support public libraries, especially during economic downturns. Unfortunately, economic downturns are precisely the times that library budgets tend to get slashed (or, in the best cases, level funded). No matter who you are – job-seeker, student, parent, someone who doesn’t want to (or can’t afford to) pay for books and movies – the library helps you! So please, take two minutes to read the infographic and pass it on.

From Jane Eyre to Gemma Hardy

Last night, I had the pleasure of hosting Margot Livesey at the library for a reading and booktalk. You know that Sourcebooks T-shirt, Authors Are My Rockstars? That pretty much sums it up for me, but I think I managed to be somewhat graceful and well-spoken (keeping the “likes” and “ums” to a minimum). Margot herself was just lovely (you can listen to an interview with her on the Leonard Lopate Show if you missed last night’s event), and I was so excited to do this program with her.

Check out the library blog post to read more about the books we discussed and recommended: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, and Gold by Chris Cleave.

After reading from The Flight of Gemma Hardy and recommending some other books, Livesey answered questions from the audience. One person asked how autobiographical the novel was; Livesey said, “Like Charlotte Bronte, I stole from my own life…I borrowed recklessly and exaggerated wildly.”

Livesey also discussed why she chose to “re-imagine a novel” that was published in 1847 and hasn’t been out of print since (165 years)? “It’s preposterous,” she allowed, but the story clearly has “enduring appeal,” the nature of which has to do with the combination of two old and powerful narratives: that of the orphan and that of the pilgrim/traveler on a journey. Jane Eyre – and Gemma Hardy – combine these two into one.

Also, by setting the story in the 1950s-1960s, Livesey was able to “write back” to Bronte, showing how far women have come (though, as she noted last night and in the interview linked to above, the “swinging ’60s” didn’t reach parts of Scotland until the 1970s). As a reader, it was deeply satisfying to see Gemma standing up for herself in ways that Jane couldn’t.

So, if you haven’t already read it, do add The Flight of Gemma Hardy (and also perhaps my other favorite Livesey novel, Eva Moves the Furniture) to your to-read list.

The Growing Pains of E-Books

Like many librarians in public libraries, I spend a fair amount of time explaining how various e-readers work, how the digital media catalog (separate from the regular library catalog) works, and how to accomplish the many steps required to download an e-book from the library collection.

I know that we live in a time of unprecedented and rapid technological growth and change, and that what we are going through now is just growing pains. The book industry, like other media industries (music, film), is trying to figure out how to deal with this change.

But it’s not happening fast enough, or thoughtfully enough. The prevalent model right now is one book, one reader: libraries buy (or, more often, license) one digital copy of a book, and one library user can borrow it at a time. With vendors and digital rights management (DRM), publishers are attempting to make the digital world obey the same rules as the print world, but this is artificial and must give way to a better model.

Even with the current model, most major publishers are not participating; they refuse to sell or license e-books to libraries. This comes as a surprise to many library users, which means librarians must do a better job of raising public awareness, notes San Rafael Public Library Director Sarah Houghton (a.k.a. the Librarian in Black).

There are other models out there: Brian Herzog (a.k.a. the Swiss Army Librarian) explains a newer platform called Freading, a token-based system that eliminates waiting lists. The main catch is that Freading’s 15,000+ books don’t include any from the “Big Six” publishers (HarperCollins, Random House, Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster), and therefore many popular titles.

Eventually – sooner rather than later, one hopes – the major publishers will see that their fears are unfounded, and that selling or licensing e-books to libraries will not gut their sales. (After all, selling print books to libraries didn’t kill the book industry.) In an article that reported research findings showing “a symbiotic relationship between library patronage and consumer book purchasing,” School Library Journal editor-in-chief Rebecca Miller said, “It’s exciting to have data to back the sense that library use is also an economic engine for the book industry. Publishers now have proof of how libraries support their business models.”

For years, articles asking “Are libraries obsolete?” and wondering, “Will [fill in the blank] be the death of libraries?” have abounded. Libraries are still here, though, and most want to remain relevant; we want to continue offering “the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources” (ALA Code of Ethics). In many cases, libraries offer not just access to resources but also a community center, a place for people to meet, learn, work, and create. Now, with the rise of self-publishing, the question has become: Are publishers relevant? Are publishers obsolete?

Not quite yet. The mainstream publishing industry still has value. Its editors and publicists have decades of experience in identifying great work, improving it and polishing it through the editorial process, spreading the word about it through publicity and advertising, and printing and distributing it.

But the Big Six aren’t the only game in town. While they drag their feet, libraries would do well to consider other sources of e-content. As Jamie LaRue points out in his recent Library Journal piece, “All Hat, No Cattle: A call for libraries to transform before it’s too late,” independent publishers have shown themselves to be much more open to working with libraries than mainstream publishers have been. Additionally, digitization projects throughout the country have made more content available online; and of course there is self-published material.

So, publishers: what’s stopping you from reaching more readers by selling e-books to the “staggeringly effective marketing machine” (LaRue) that is the library? And librarians: it’s time for us to work together to explore other options instead of letting the Big Six call the shots. As LaRue points out, “If we pay public dollars for content, then we must be able to take possession of the copies. Anything else is sheer vendor lock-in and shirks our obligation to preserve the public record.”

Libraries and librarians are waiting, impatiently but often too quietly, for publishers to work with us on this. It has the potential to be a situation where everyone wins: publishers profit, authors reach a wider audience, libraries provide excellent service, readers have access to a wide variety of resources.