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Book review: Such Stuff As Dreams: The Psychology Of Fiction by Keith Oatley

Such Stuff As Dreams: The Psychology Of Fiction BY Keith Oatley Wiley-Blackwell, 276pp, £16.99

If an alien were surreptitiously to observe humans going about their lives, what would it think of reading? The planet's dominant biped can sit (or stand, or lie) holding a carefully arranged, stitched and glued bundle of pulped wood stained with a suspension of carbon, polysaccharides and glycoproteins and display an astonishing range of emotions: this odd artefact can make them cry, laugh, sigh, frown, tut and even become sexually aroused. Keith Oatley's own book asks why we read, and what happens to our minds when we do. It is a winning combination of psychology, literary criticism and speculation. Aimed at the general reader but dealing with specialist expertise, some aspects of it are irrefutable while others more open to dispute.

Oatley's key concern is to relate what he calls "fiction" to various developments in Theory of Mind. The most famous theory of mind test is the "Sally-Anne Task": an experimenter tells a story to a child (sometimes using a scale model) in which one doll, Sally, puts an object in a box. Sally then leaves the room and Anne moves the object from the box to under a basket. Sally then re-enters the room, and the child is asked where Sally thinks the object is. Children under, roughly, three and a half will say that Sally thinks the object is under the basket. Slightly older children will understand that from Sally's perspective, she still thinks the object is in the box. It is a crucial moment in the child's awareness that other people have minds that may have different beliefs. Quoting the evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, Oatley shows how "fiction" relies on a sophisticated grasp of theory of mind: Shakespeare needs five layers of it for Othello, where "Shakespeare intended (1] that his audience realise (2] that the eponymous Moor believed (3] that his servant Iago was being honest when he claimed to know (4] that his beloved Desdemona loved (5] Cassio". "Fiction", Oatley argues, is a kind of mental simulation that allows the reader to explore alternate states of mind. It may, therefore, represent an evolutionary advantage: better readers are better able to make judgements about other states of mind. Oatley cites interesting research by Frank Hakemulder where students read either a chapter of a novel about the life of an Algerian woman or an essay about women's rights in Algeria.Those who read the fiction were then more likely to voice discontent about the present state of affairs in Algeria. It seems an extended proof of the famous passage by George Eliot: "art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot". That said, singing Schiller's Ode to Joy did not make Nazi officials realise the unity of mankind, nor did weeping over Ossian make Napoleon any less keen on battles.

Oatley moves between the evidence of psychological experimentation and some fairly standard aspects of literary theory, such as EM Forster's distinction between "flat" and "round" characters. The text is seasoned with apposite quotations from Shakespeare, Jane Austen (whom he nimbly describes as a "novelist of social detection") and Chekhov. Some of the literary material is more recondite, such as the discussion of the classical Indian theories of Bharata Muni who put "dhvani" or "suggestiveness" as a fundamental component of reading: in short, that the reader "completes" the text.

Interesting though Oatley's picture is, it requires nuancing, or at least more subtle interrogation. It may be true, as Robin Dunbar argues, that grooming led to language, but there are intermediate steps between picking nits and "In the beginning was the Word". Firstly, the use of "fiction" needs to be unpacked. Oatley uses the term to include film, plays, poetry, novels and some biographies and autobiographies. The term "narrative", I would argue, is more precise and pertinent. Secondly, there is a problem with a certain reticence on qualitative judgements. If humans use narratives as little machines for experiencing emotional states without experiencing them, then why should one book be any better than another? It requires just as much of an empathetic leap - perhaps even more - to wade through the 11 volumes of Victorian erotica, My Secret Life, as it does to enjoy the nine volumes of Proust's La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. Why is The Merchant Of Venice still staged but not Thomas Otway's Venice Preserv'd? Andrew O'Hagan has called the novel a device for generating moral meaning, and the absence of morality in Oatley's discussion shows its limitations. Towards the end of the book, Oatley offers a "reading" of Chekhov's "The Lady With The Lapdog", which concentrates solely on his own emotional experience of reading it. He universalises this solipsism, quoting an unknown source saying "the whole activity of interpretation has moved from departments of literature to reading groups". Reading groups are, without a doubt, a significant phenomenon. They may still have a social worth even if the literary discussion never gets beyond whether Elizabeth Bennett drinks pinot grigio or chardonnay.

There is, I would argue, more to reading than measuring how well a writer tees up a reader for an emotional wallop: Oatley does not discuss the influential essay by WK Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley on the affective fallacy, for example. "Identifying with" is a component in reading, but it's a very basic component, above which there are other cerebral, emotional and textual levels. Oatley's slightly gleeful suggestion that Eng Lit should relinquish its position to reading groups has a darker counterpart: perhaps it should step aside in favour of the one-star Amazon review.

There is also a more basic philosophical problem. At last year's Edinburgh Book Festival the novelist Tom McCarthy spoke eloquently about the phony nature of much psychologising in literature. Too often, he argued, literature presents a simplistic model of psychology, a smudge of "therefores". Richard III's mother did not love him therefore he becomes a villain.

In the work of Lacan, Levinas and Derrida, we have a more astute and complex approach to desire, obligation and the mind's ability to know itself; one which fiction is gradually and tentatively exploring. What if traditional literature is not teaching us how to relate to others by means of fictional extrapolation but rather is allowing us to treat real people as if they were fictional constructs? Simulations are useful, but necessarily, they are simplifications.

 
 
 

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