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”

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