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Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of…

Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction

by Keith Oatley

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Professor Oatley begins from the vantage point that fiction presents opportunities for the reader to ‘model’ or ‘simulate’ worlds. We become partners with authors in a play of fictional actions and emotions that trigger neurons in the very same centres in our brains that would be activated were we to be performing these actions or experiencing these emotions for real. The object of this play is social as we situate ourselves in a social world. And being so, it is at the same time conversational, that being a key component of the social. It turns out that talking about fiction, as readers, is one of the most useful things we could be doing.

Unsurprisingly this is rich ground for a cognitive psychologist and sometime novelist to plough. The main portion of the text sets up the basis for the fiction as simulation theory. Here, every statement seems to be supported by some psychological study. But few, if any, of the supporting materials are challenged. Which may be the way psychologists build positions, seemingly by accretion. For my part, I worry that the conceptual roots of these various studies and theories from the past hundred or more years may not, in practice, cohere so nicely. But perhaps this is merely a way of noting that psychology is not philosophy.

The final three chapters are especially interesting: ‘Writing fiction’; ‘Effects of fiction’; and ‘Talking about fiction’. The first of these provides some practical guidance for potential authors, drawing upon Flaubert’s writing practice. That practice consists in five phases: planning, scenarios, drafts (of which there are many), style, and finally the finished draft. The chapter on the effects of fiction asks whether reading literature is good for you. Oatley treats this primarily as a question about measureable outcomes such as increased cognitive or problem-solving abilities. He acknowledges that in a time of severe pressure on educational curricula, such demonstrable benefits may be essential to sustain literature’s place in our schools. But of course for many, the idea that literature might be good for you is really a question about whether it is morally improving. Here Oatley hands off to Martha Nussbaum’s writing, uncritically, to settle the matter. The final chapter may be particularly interesting to those of us who attend book clubs or participate in online discussions of our reading. Oatley states emphatically: “To talk about fiction is almost as important as to engage with it in the first place” (178). It’s a great statement and I agree with it, naturally, though I would prefer to see much more on the relation between such discussions and the (potential) moral benefits of reading literature. That, however, is not a criticism, merely a wish for future reading.

Although written for a general audience, Such Stuff as Dreams has a vast number of citations in the forty pages of endnotes that function almost as a parallel text. It seems, at times, as though Oatley has canvassed every possible study, monograph, or text at all relevant to his project. Thankfully his twenty-plus page bibliography should provide the keen student of these ideas ample fodder for further investigation.

Finally, it must be said that the editorial staff of Wiley-Blackwell have not carefully proofed the text as numerous distracting typos are present. ( )
1 vote RandyMetcalfe | Jan 19, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0470974575, Paperback)

From the Author: Is Reading Fiction Worth Our Time? Author Keith Oatley

Literature departments have zealously defended fiction, but Keith Oatley’s book Such Stuff as Dreams comes at the question from the direction of psychology. This book explores the ways in which fiction is an important—even vital—part of understanding others and ourselves.

Ideas in this book include:

Fiction is the mind’s flight simulator
For more than two thousand years people have argued that fiction is good for you. But why? Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley and colleagues have shown that reading fiction increases empathy and improves people’s understanding of others. (Reading nonfiction increases knowledge of its subject matter, but doesn’t have this social effect.) The association between fiction and social skills isn't because socially empathetic people prefer to read novels. It's because fiction is about selves in the social world. Fiction is the mind's flight simulator. If you want to get better at flying a plane, you can spend time in a flight simulator. If you want to get better at understanding others, you can read fiction.

Fiction teaches us about our emotions
We wouldn't read a novel or go to a film unless we expected to be moved by it. Fiction offers us experiences of emotions, not the emotions of fictional characters, but our own. It can allow us to experience emotions not too strongly so that they overwhelm us, and not too faintly that they pass us by, but at a strength and in a context that lets us both experience them and understand them.

Metaphors and metonyms: Not just literary devices
Metaphors and metonyms are ways of thinking. When Hamlet says "Denmark's a prison," this metaphor is more effective than a list of complaints. When, later in the same scene, Hamlet says to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "There is a kind of confession in your looks," he was using a metonym—part for whole—in which the looks of his friends were a part that suggested their whole guilty consciences. Metaphors and metonyms are extensions of mind.

Novels were raw material for human rights
Literature was important in creating the idea of human rights in the eighteenth century. One way in which this occurred was with novels—new at that time—in which people read about characters who were different from themselves. The 1740 novel Pamela, by Samuel Richardson, was about a servant girl whom her master tried to seduce. People read and discussed this novel eagerly, and it created an awareness in readers that emotions experienced by servants and slaves were much as they would themselves feel in the same circumstances.

Readers’ interpretations are as important as those of experts
Interpretations of plays and novels have long been taught in literature classes. But times are changing. A play or novel or poem doesn't have just one correct interpretation. The best art has an individual meaning for each individual reader. Interpretation is moving from the classroom into conversations and into reading groups—very good places for it.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:32 -0400)

Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction explores how fiction works in the brains and imagination of both readers and writers. Demonstrates how reading fiction can contribute to a greater understanding of, and the ability to change, ourselves. Informed by the latest psychological research which focuses on, for example, how identification with fictional characters occurs, and how literature can improve social abilities. Explores traditional aspects of fiction, including character, plot, setting, and theme, as well as a number of classic techniques, such as metaphor, metonymy, defamiliarization, and cues. Includes extensive end-notes, which ground the work in psychological studies. Features excerpts from fiction which are discussed throughout the text, including works by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Kate Chopin, Anton Chekhov, James Baldwin, and others.… (more)

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