Why Morality In Fiction, Or You Experience What You Read

The best books take readers to new places

The best books take readers to new places


I know this isn’t a great hook, but I think you should know up front: this post is largely a reprint of an article I wrote for Spec Faith in August, 2011. The subject leads naturally into a look at morality in fiction, and honestly, I didn’t think I could summarize the content adequately. I’ll add a few remarks at the end, but here is the original with slight editorial changes.

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    Stories matter. Any reader can tell you this. We cry because a beloved old yeller dog, which never actually existed, dies. We laugh at the pig’s tail applied to the imaginary greedy Dudley Dursley. We cheer when the fictitious Aslan returns alive.

    Clearly stories affect us in powerful ways. We skip meals and stay awake late at night. We “forget to breathe” and find our muscles coiled tight until our heroine is out of danger.

    Such physical effects indicate that all this pretend is very real. But how can this be?

    At long last, scientists are beginning to take note and study the power of fiction. One of those leading the way is Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto. He and his colleagues devised a way to measure the effects of literature on the human psyche. In summary

    the central assumption Oatley developed to frame their research [is this]: “When people are reading literary fiction, they’re creating in their mind a simulation of experience. It’s a simulation that’s cognitive as well as emotional….” (“Toronto scientists determine that fiction can change personalities” By Natalie Samson, accessed August 12, 2011 – emphasis mine)

    In essence, it seems these scientists are saying we readers have our own little holodecks in our minds, and consequently we mentally experience the stories we read. And that changes us.

    At least that’s the hypothesis.

    black_horseI get that. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the Walter Farley books (The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Returns, The Black Stallion and Satan, The Black Stallion’s Filly, and many more, my favorite being The Black Stallion Mystery). Somewhere during that reading phase, I decided I wanted a horse. I knew I’d bond with a horse and that I could ride like the wind.

    At that point, however, I’d done nothing with horses except ride an old nag at summer camp where we walked our mounts behind a guide for an hour.

    I never did own a horse, but my confidence around them did not wane, despite my own lack of experience. You see, I didn’t feel inexperienced.

    Years later when I visited a friend who did own a horse and we went riding, the particular mount I was on tried a clever trick to unseat me. My friend was somewhat amazed that I didn’t end up sprawled in the dirt.

    Some time later I did a “rent-a-horse” ride in Colorado. After several return visits, the guide let me take my horse out on my own. Again I had the experience of a horse trying to deposit me on the ground, this one by rearing.

    No problem. After all, I’d experienced much worse from the Black. Oh, wait. No, that wasn’t actually me. That was a character in a book. But it felt like me.

    It felt as if those experiences had become part of my acquired knowledge. Not in a conscious way, to be sure, but as I look back, I find it easy to believe that I wasn’t fearful and didn’t overreact in the real life circumstances because of the simulated experiences of my childhood.

    How many other experiences have I lived through behind the eyes of the characters in books I’ve loved? And how have those changed me?

    Oatley, whose scholarly work Such Stuff As Dreams: The psychology of fiction (Wiley-Blackwell) is now available in North America, and his fellow scientists developed experiments to “examine what Oatley calls the ‘big five personality traits’ – extroversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness” (ibid).

    I don’t know about those particulars, but here’s what Oatley’s publisher says:

    Oatley richly illustrates how fiction represents, at its core, a model that readers construct in collaboration with the writer. This waking dream enables us to see ourselves, others, and the everyday world more clearly.

    Yes, fiction matters, with readers and writers collaborating. And the end result is clearer vision.

    Always? Or can fiction lead us to believe something about ourselves and the everyday world that is not true?

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And this is where morality comes in. Dr. Zhivago, the movie, was one of the first pieces of fiction that made me aware of the power of a story to affect my moral compass. Here was a story about a man in the midst of political upheaval who loved two different women, each love shown to be beautiful and right. Was it true that a person could love two different people with the same passion? And if so, did loving them both justify sexual involvement with both?

At some point during my reading experience, I also became aware of my tendency to mimic the speech patterns I was reading, if only in my head. Unfortunately, this bent included a variety of cuss words, and at times I found the first word that came to mind in certain situations was one I’d copied from a character in a book.

These experiences and others made the idea of reading as “a waking dream,” as a type of holographic experience, resonate with me.

If reading is a collaboration, though, between the reader and writer, at what point does the writer have a moral obligation to the reader?

I remain convinced that theology should inform our fiction, but I believe theology should also inform our morality. How do the two intersect?

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Published in: on February 26, 2014 at 6:02 pm  Comments Off on Why Morality In Fiction, Or You Experience What You Read  
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