The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Fictitious narrative considered harmless

My maternal grandmother had a short word for any kind of fiction: lies. She alluded to beloved characters in literature as (for instance) 'yon wee Alice of the lies.' Not that she had any philistine or puritanical scruple about her own children, or grandchildren, reading the stuff: I and my brothers and sisters read Alice and stacks and stacks of novels and story-books (mainly about girls at boarding schools, as I recall) on wet summer days in Lochcarron. Most summers in Lochcarron it rains a lot. For boys' adventure stories we had to visit our other grandmother, in Skye. She had many sons and grandsons, all of whom had read the endless adventures of Biggles. On Skye it rains a lot too.

Twenty-first century science has caught up with my grandmothers. Fiction is indeed nothing but lies, and the best that can be said for it is that it is a harmless if unprofitable diversion. It keeps us out of mischief and passes the time.

The one thing it cannot do is help us to understand human nature and the motivations of other people. If it did, the work done in Departments of English (etc) Literature would be of enormous interest to Departments of (e.g.) Business Studies, Politics, and Sociology. Oddly enough it is not.

For real insight into human behaviour, practical people turn to science.

Psychology has, over the past century, moved from misty speculation and hazy introspection to hard, repeatable laboratory and field experiment. Neuroscience is a hair's-breadth from tracking our thoughts in real time. The dismal truth the convergent sciences of the brain and behaviour have delivered is that our own spontaneous understanding of these matters is specious.

'Folk psychology' and introspection give us no insight at all into our own minds, let alone those of others. The most it can give us is a rough-and-ready 'Theory of Mind' that enables us, with notorious unreliability, to predict the day-to-day actions of our fellows.

How, then, could literary or genre fiction, based as they are - at best - on folk psychology, give us any insight into the human condition? Reading the greatest works of literature will no more help you to understand human behaviour than watching Star Trek will help you discover a method of reaching superluminal velocities. The most it will give you is a selective and partial (in every sense) understanding of the author's own folk psychology.

Reading Jane Austen will certainly help you to understand the mind and heart of a young woman: Jane Austen. It may give you a limited insight in that particular young woman's Theory of Mind. But this is not a great deal of use to you, because you will never meet Jane Austen, who is dead.

And Elizabeth Bennett never existed, except as a figment of Jane Austen's Theory of Mind. Not matter how deeply you think you understand Elizabeth Bennett, it won't help you to overcome pride and prejudice to find the love of your life. Finding the love of your life must be surprisingly easy, considering how often it happens, but this truth is far from universally acknowledged.

[Note, added 2 April, the day after posting: the most significant line in this post is the date-stamp.]

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"How, then, could literary or genre fiction, based as they are - at best - on folk psychology, give us any insight into the human condition?"

Very true. What fiction does is create a model of reality. It's far more like religion than science, and may be why some people will talk about a story's "hero" rather than its "main character."

Uh, Will ... the most significant line in this post is the date-stamp.

Those writers, why dont they get real jobs.....

I hate April Fools Day. I mean, here I am reading this thing and thinking to myself, dear god, if this guy has actually come to believe this, then, well, I just don't know.

And then I get to the end.

I'm just too damned trusting, that's my problem.

I was going to say that you seemed to be in a Bad Mood.

when I wrote that post? Not at all.

This made my evening! Last night a friend in Amsterdam fell for an April Fools' joke that was too good to be true. she's reliable and quick-thinking, so she sent me a text message that I instantly turned into a Facebook status and posted as BREAKING NEWS. Nobody believed it, it was false, I corrected myself, and shall never be taken seriously again.

Found this post disturbing. Was thinking, well, I like Ken, I respect his opinion, I must have got something badly wrong... Very glad to get to the end and realise I was right all along! Stop disturbing your readers!

OK, Stuart, I've now returned to my regular programme.

The funny thing is that as I was writing that post I began to wonder if I might be on to something. Actually, the main thing that's wrong with it is that it skates past the enormous value of getting inside someone else's theory of mind, especially if the someone else is Jane Austen.

(Other enormous values of literary fiction are available.)

Ha! I was just collecting my thoughts for a pithy response.

However, isn't the joke on you if someone reads the April Fool after April 1st?

Ken, I got sidetracked by that sentence. I do think too many people forget that fiction is only one person's model of reality. Look at the influence of Ayn Rand's thick white bricks on neocons.

Okay, to slightly continue a serious response to a joke: I do think we learn a great deal about the human race by reading fiction. But we have to read an enormous amount of fiction to do that, because we learn more from the dialogue between books than from the dialogue within them.

Blogger Ken said...

Uh, Will ... the most significant line in this post is the date-stamp.

But, but ... its true ...

Seriously, though, care to rebut this excellent post :-)?

Alastair, I would love to read Ken's rebuttal!

Will, I think you did it: we learn more from the dialogue between books than from the dialogue within them.

Ken: could you develop your rebuttal at greater length? I'm finding April-1-Ken a lot more persuasive than April-12-Ken right now.

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