Why Fiction Is Good for You: Forget Moral Edification: Psychological Research Shows Literature's Mind-Altering Effects

By Oatley, Keith | Literary Review of Canada, July-August 2011 | Go to article overview

Why Fiction Is Good for You: Forget Moral Edification: Psychological Research Shows Literature's Mind-Altering Effects


Oatley, Keith, Literary Review of Canada


Graham Greene once said in an interview that too many of his characters left from the door by which they came in. In some of Greene's fiction, though, change occurs: the whisky priest in The Power and the Glory and Holly Martins in The Third Man each leave by a door through which they did not enter. They have been transformed by their experience. What about ourselves as readers? Do we change in the course of a story?

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A century ago many people thought that literature could change us, and be improving. We moderns may no longer be so sure. But we can turn the assertion into a question: can fiction be good for us? A small Toronto research group has started to investigate this kind of question and has found that reading fiction has worthwhile effects, including potentialities for the transformation of selfhood. We propose that fiction is a kind of simulation of the social world. (1) Stories were the very first simulations, designed to run on minds thousands of years before computers were invented. If we are right, then just as pilots' skills dealing with unanticipated events improve when they spend time in a flight simulator, so people's skills understanding themselves and others should improve when they spend time reading fiction.

Later in this essay I will describe some of the methods we have used to explore and, we believe, to demonstrate the transformative power of fiction in readers. First, let me give you some examples of transformation in the fictions themselves. Those I have chosen deal with love, sex and in some cases marriage, mine fields fiction writers enjoy picking their way across. Some of these works you may recognize, others not, but all of them involve a pro found change in the attitudes, behaviour, thoughts and emotions of the characters.

Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog" is widely regarded as one of the world's greatest short stories. It starts with a self-involved married man, Gurov, on holiday in the seaside town of Yalta. He sees a lady walking a dog and makes her acquaintance. She is married and also on her own in Yalta. Her name is Anna, and Gurov starts going about with her. They have an affair, and then return to their spouses. But back in Moscow, rather than the memory of the affair fading slowly and pleasantly, Gurov finds he can only think of Anna. He travels to her town, and he and she arrange to see each other from time to time. Instead of doing what he has previously done, abandoning the women he has had affairs with and getting on with his life, he is transformed. His self-absorption becomes generosity toward Anna. The story ends with the narrator saying that although it seemed to both Gurov and Anna that a lovely new life might be possible, their most difficult period was only just beginning.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is another transformative story. It depicts a love that grows only gradually between Elizabeth and the story's suitable man, Mr. Darcy, as each of them transforms from disdain to understanding. Things start at a low point. At a dance, Darcy, who from his breeding should represent the height of good manners, refuses to dance with anyone except the sisters of his close friend Bingley. He says to Bingley about Elizabeth, loudly enough to be overheard: "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men"

In this novel, the trail of clues, like an investigation of the detective genre that would come later, requires the making of inferences that are very engaging for the reader. In Pride and Prejudice, these inferences are made in conversations and revelations. This is a novel not of forensic explanation but of social explanation, of how such a shocking thing was said and what it might mean about Darcy.

Romance stories that have followed Pride and Prejudice--including those of the very successful Canadian publisher Harlequin--tend, like Austen's story, to start with a man who in many ways is eligible but who behaves aggressively or in a sexist or self-involved way. …

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