Not Writing is Not Writing

In my previous post, I described how writing is not writing, how frequent breaks and non-writing activities are necessary to the creative process. Here I’m going to consider those extended intermissions which are not conducive to creativity. What do I do when I’m in a slump, when not writing is indeed not writing.

My vocational demands are greatest during the fall and winter months. During these months, I don’t have the luxury of manufacturing distractions from writing with walks through the park or rides on my motorcycle. My life during these months is full to the brim with responsibilities that distract me from writing. I’m usually only able to make time to write a few days a week and only for an hour or two at a time. I’m generally satisfied if I can keep that pace, and the sparse writing schedule can even spur creativity as I discussed previously.

However, if I miss a few days of writing because of some pressing demands, then a week or more may pass by without any writing at all. I consider myself in a slump if two or more weeks have gone by without my working on my novel or this blog. Some slumps are easily recovered from. I only have to set aside some time during the weekend, cancel any engagements I may have, and write. But a slump can gather momentum until the situation feels intractable. When I find myself in an intractable slump, I have two ways of responding. First, I attempt to mitigate the consequences of being in a writing slump. And second, I try to pull myself out of it.

The consequences I experience while being in a slump, when I’m not writing at all, are lethargy, dullness, and inertia; in a word, depression. Sometimes the factors that keep me from my writing are beyond my control, and there is nothing else to do but deal with it as best I can. I try to keep myself engaged in activities related to writing but that don’t require the same level of time and commitment. In short, I read.

Reading maintains my ability to use and manipulate literary schemas. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Peter Stockwell describes literary schemas as “a higher-level conceptual structure that organizes our ways of reading”. Literary schemas structure ordinary world schemas (context), text schemas (structure), and language schemas (style) when we are reading or writing in a literary context. Being able to use and manipulate literary schemas means being able to manage various levels of schemas to restructure, reinforce, disrupt or refresh these ordinary schemas. Reading is where writing starts, and I always have several books near to hand. But when I am in a writing slump, I make an extra effort to read more than usual.

I enjoy a wide variety of novels, from serious fiction to scintillating pulp. Often what distinguishes one from the other is the level of schema the writing engages. Writing that manipulates language schemas is considered highbrow. Writing that engages world schemas is called lowbrow. I find all of it pleasurable, including experimental writing that plays with text schemas. And I like to take my time with novels, reading a book over a period of weeks or months allows me to digest the writing and live with the story, rather than merely to find out what happens. And occasionally I will re-read a novel, attending to a different level of schema on subsequent readings. How does the writer of this detective novel use language to develop characters? How does the structure of this experimental novel determine the narrative?

Poetry is something I linger over. I may read and reread the same poet or long poem for several years, growing with it and letting it shape me. When I find myself in a slump, poetry is an effective tonic. Reading poetry inspires me, and very often I am compelled to return to my own writing after reading poetry. Perhaps because I don’t usually get caught up in the narrative, reading poetry focuses my attention on language schemas.

But pleasure reading, even intense pleasure reading, is several steps removed from actual writing. Although more actively imaginative than watching a movie or playing a video game, pleasure reading is passive compared to writing. Reading can go deeper than pleasure, though. Research into literary analysis engenders my reading of fiction and poetry with a level of engagement that goes beyond the passive connection to already developed schemas. So when I am in a writing slump, I also read literary criticism to develop my understanding of the nature of literary schemas. This understanding increases my appreciation of literary schemas encountered in fiction and poetry, affording me the opportunity to read creatively at the level of context, structure, and style. And reading moves that much closer to writing.

Mitigating the negative consequences of a writing slump is important, but there is really only one way to pull myself out of a slump: I write. This blog has been helpful for that. Although my posts are relatively long compared to many blogs, each post is short enough that I can complete it in a reasonable amount of time. And if a slump has stretched on for several months, then my writing always feels clumsy when I return to it. When I am working on my novel, I know I will have to edit and revise any chapter I write that is subpar—which can be yet another deterrent to writing. So I allow myself to write and post to the blog even when I don’t feel the quality of my writing is at its best. My apologies to the reader.

I also have people who encourage me. My sister asks me occasionally about my writing and if I’ve been working on anything recently, which serves as a gentle and kind reminder to get back to it. And I encourage myself. I’ll promise myself treats and rewards for an honest hour work at the keyboard.

As this year draws to a close and I look toward 2017, I find myself mired in a writing slump. I have been writing but not on my novel. So this blog post and the last are attempts to shake off the slough. Most importantly, I don’t chide or berate myself for being in a slump. That doesn’t help at all. I maintain a positive attitude and keep myself engaged as much as possible through reading. The muse will return, always, I am certain.

Writing is Not Writing

I’ve been thinking about my writing process. During the summer months I’m able to devote my days to writing, and the story I’m working on often takes over my world. But in the autumn months, vocational demands impinge on the days, even hours, I can devote to writing. So how do I make the most of the fecund summer months? And what do I do during the withering months between summer and spring?

The hard work of writing, putting down words, is essential. I call it hard work, because for me it often is. Sometimes it seems the hardest work of all. I’d rather be doing anything than write—dishes, house cleaning, running errands, my day job, anything. But I have to stay in the seat with my fingers on the keyboard for hours. There’s no other way.

However, I also know I have to get distracted. If I don’t get distracted, nothing comes: no words, no ideas, nothing. If I sit at the computer all morning, three or four hours, then eventually the words will trickle through, but too slowly to create a story. There needs to be a flow that can’t be forced.

So writing in the summer months is about balancing distraction with production. There are many new books on learning that reference cognitive research into the important role of distraction in learning and creativity. How We Learn by Benedict Carey describes that balance in a chapter called, “The Upside of Distraction”, citing psychological research on the role of incubation in problem solving. According to a meta-analysis of the research, breaks with mild activity, such as video games, TV, and surfing the web, are optimal for solving linguistic problems.

Anagrams and crossword puzzles are a different order of linguistic problem compared to writing, but the research jibes with my own experience. For example, to write this blog I went through several drafts, beginning with a free write. After jotting down my ideas about summer writing, I took a break. I went for a walk, made some lunch. Then I returned and made an outline that included references to Carey’s book.

The timing of the break is crucial in obtaining the most benefit. For incubation to occur, I have to get stuck, which means I have to be gripped by what I’m writing. That takes time in the seat, usually an hour or two. Stopping just when I’m engaged creates something called the Zeigarnik effect, named after a Lithuanian researcher who found that people remembered more when interrupted during a task than when they completed the task.

Beginning a piece of writing but stopping before I’ve finished prioritizes the writing in my mind, which colors my perceptions and experiences. The story takes over my world. My mind becomes inclined to make connections relevant to the interrupted writing. Sometimes these connections are major insights, but other times they are small but interesting: an overheard turn of phrase or an observed character trait.

Another strategy I employ in my writing process is described in A Mind For Numbers by Barbara Oakley. The book is geared toward applications to learning math and science, but the strategies Oakley recommends is based on the same research as many of the new cognitive learning books. She explains the difference between focused thinking and diffused thinking. Oakley recommends setting a timer for twenty-five minutes and focusing on a particular problem. When the twenty-five minutes is up, stop and take a reward.

I will set a timer for an hour when I sit down to write. Sometimes I place a piece of chocolate on the table and tell myself I have one hour of writing before I can have it. If the hour goes by without much writing, I’ll set it for another hour (but still eat the chocolate, of course.) If the words are flowing and the timer goes off, I stop. I do something else. I watch Netflix. Or I play on the computer. Forty-five minutes or an hour later, I set the timer and sit back down to write again. The words usually come easier by this time, even if I don’t have a chocolate waiting for me. There is a flow.

I’ve gotten pretty good at writing by not writing during the summer months when I have time to sit down to write and time for walks and web surfing. But other times, when I’m busier and lazier, I don’t write by not writing, I just don’t write. In my next blog post, I’m going to write about what I do during the times when I’m not just distracted but stuck, completely blocked.

Poetics Today: Ideology and Entertainment

I am interested in understanding what reading fiction does to us while we are being entertained and how a writer works to transfer ideology while also working to please the reader. Here I respond to a paper from Poetics Today v23 by Francis F. Steen that sets out to explain Aphra Behn’s approach to exactly that problem and the apparent contradiction between her ideological feminism and her political support of royalism. In two prior blogs, I responded to articles by Reuven Tsur and Liza Zunshine also from Poetics Today v23, a collection of papers from 2002 on the cognitive revolution in literary studies. This paper by Francis F. Steen applies cognitive blending theory to an analysis of Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn. Steen’s approach is different from Tsur’s and Zunshines in that he attempts to draw broad conclusions about fictional narrative compared to other modes of discourse and does not strictly hold to a cognitive analysis of the text.

Steen explains that Behn’s “instructional pact” was not between writer and reader but between writer and ruler. She wrote for the Royalists, using literature as a means of “insinuating” Royalist beliefs and attitudes toward government. Aphra Behn intended her writing to be political and instructive. Steen quotes her saying:

They are secret instructions to the People, in things that ‘tis impossible to insinuate into them any other way.

But Steen makes the argument that literature cannot “effectively serve two masters, the pleasures of the individual and the priorities of the state.” To support his argument, Steen uses conceptual blending to analyze how Behn maps the devotion of two lovers onto the devotion of subjects to the monarch. What Steen draws attention to is the nature of the love affair and the unexpected configurations implied by the mapping. Royalist devotion is mapped onto an illicit and incestuous affair; Whiggish limitations on the monarch are mapped onto moral objections to the love affair.

Steen claims that the “advantage of fiction” is to allow exploration of possibilities without a commitment to factuality or practicality. Conceptual blends, especially complex literary blends, are not firmly determined. Not every aspect of an input space gets mapped onto the generic space or blended space. The reader can and must explore contradictory possibilities. New structures of information are developed and tested in fiction that might not be accessible in more earnest nonfiction.

The cognitive task of fiction, says Steen, is to improve the internal organization of information through simulation. Readers must be “seduced” into imagining the fictional world, a cognitively demanding act of suspending belief. Steen argues that the cognitive demands of reading fiction undermine the “instructional pact” described by Aphra Behn.
For writing to be effective as fiction it must afford an experience of simulation that has no immediate consequences for the real world. For example, I can enjoy reading a novel about vampires because vampires are fiction. But if there were vampires in the actual world, I would be like the Frog Brothers in the The Lost Boys who read horror comics as nonfiction texts in order to learn how to fight the undead. The goal of a nonfiction text is consistency. If vampires existed in the actual world, I would want to read a text with facts consistent with the actual world: inviting a vampire into your home nullifies the usual deterrents. But the goal of fictive simulation is not consistency but possibility. Fictions way of knowing the world is to provide a multitude of possibilities that are explored by the reader. Because I am assured that vampires do not in fact exist, I am willing to entertain all the possibilities: What if I were attacked by a vampire? What if I became a vampire? What if someone I loved were a vampire?

Steen’s contention that the more effective writing is as fiction the less effective it will be as propaganda depends on the distinction he makes between propaganda and “absorption and learning”, a distinction he characterizes as each being the obverse of the other. But his point here was not clear to me. The word “propaganda” can have different meanings with either a narrow or a broad scope. I wasn’t clear on which meaning Steen was using. Taken narrowly, propaganda refers to the dissemination of false or exaggerated ideas in service of a government or cause. Literature of World War II Nazi Germany is exemplary of this type of propaganda. But taken more broadly, propaganda can refer, without ethical evaluation, to the spread of any ideas in service of a government or cause. This broad definition is less morally loaded than the narrow definition. Both definitions are useful. But the narrow, moralistic definition feels anachronistic when applied to literature of the 17th century. And the distinction Steen sets forth becomes shaky when using a broad definition of propaganda.

Steen’s cognitive analysis of Behn’s writing based on blending theory is thorough, but he does not explain or justify the comparison between fiction and non-fiction with the same cognitive tools. In an article that appears in the same volume, Tony Jackson critiques Steen’s paper for relying on literary tools outside of cognitive poetics. Jackson responds to several papers in the volume and identifies general problems confronting cognitive poetics in that early stage. He calls for more specification of how blending theory operates in the mind, and he challenges Steen’s deployment of Dorrit Cohn to discuss the nature of fictional narrative. According to Jackson, what is lacking is clarification on what cognitive poetics can yield that other approaches, such as Cohn’s, do not already offer.

In another article in Poetics Today v23 that appeared after Steen’s and Jackson’s, Eyal Segal discusses one of Dorrit Cohn’s books: The Distinction of Fiction. While Steen’s argument pits fiction against philosophical writing, in this book Cohn narrows her comparison down to two categories of narrative: fiction and historiography. But even between these two categories, Segal identifies the difficulty Cohn has in coming up with consistent criteria for distinguishing fiction from non-fiction. Cohn identifies three “sign posts of fiction”:

  • emancipation from an external database
  • open to inside views of characters’ minds
  • narrator’s voice is distinct from author’s voice

Eyal Segal points out the inconsistency in the nature of these criteria: only one of them is a textual feature. The relationship between the text and an external database or between the narrator’s voice and the author’s voice cannot be determined from the text alone. Segal contends that these two criteria are actually conditions that produce fictionality, characteristics of the communicative framework rather than of the text itself.

Perhaps the inconsistency Segal identifies in Cohn’s sign posts are necessary in any system that distinguishes between fiction and non-fiction. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Peter Stockwell describes the literary reading experience as a two stage process: interpretation, which begins in cultural knowledge, and reading, which is analytically engaged with the text itself. These two stages can be distinguished from one another but not uncoupled. There would be no way to distinguish one type of reading experience from another (i.e. reading fiction from reading non-fiction) without naming differences in the interpretation stage and in the reading stage.

Segal’s review of Dorrit Cohn’s book along with Stockwell’s description of the literary reading experience can help frame Steen’s argument that the more effective writing is as fiction, the less effective it will be as propaganda. Steen is analyzing contradictory experiences at different stages of reading. Readers are (and were) aware of Behn’s political support of the Royalists and encounter her writing as propaganda at the interpretation stage. But at the reading stage, textual features, such as described by Steen, allow for different viewpoints that contradict impressions formed in the interpretation stage.

I found Steen’s application of blending theory to Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister interesting because he reveals an aspect of the structure used by Aphra Behn that is unusual and intriguing. But I also found Jackson’s critique of Steen’s paper valid. Steen’s deployment of Dorrit Cohn to support his broad argument about fiction would have benefited from further application of tools from cognitive poetics, such as those described by Peter Stockwell in the chapter on prototypes and categorization in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction.

Poetics Today: Evolution & Natural Kinds

I am continuing my response to Poetics Today v23 (2002), a collection of papers from the then nascent field of cognitive poetics. In my previous blog, I responded to an article by Reuven Tsur, the scholar who coined the term “cognitive poetics”. Here I will respond to a paper by Liza Zunshine on the English poet A. L. Barbauld by Liza Zunshine. A couple of years ago, I briefly summarized this article in a blog post about the chapters on cognitive grammar of Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice. Now I will consider Zunshine’s paper as it connects to my own writing.

Zunshine argues that the use of metaphor in the catechistic hymns of A. L. Barbauld activate two distinct cognitive domains: one for natural kinds and one for artifacts. Zunshine’s explication of the interplay between language and these cognitive domains suggests a solution to a particular writing problem I’ve been considering since I read Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature.

Prior to reading Morton, the environment was not an explicit concern of my writing. When I write, I am usually focused on socio-economic and psychological issues. But Ecology Without Nature convinced me that there are interesting problems associated with environmental writing. Indeed, all writing can be understood as environmental writing.

Morton outlines an ambient poetics that contributes to environmental or “nature” writing. He uses the term ecomimesis to describe writing that creates a sense of nature that is hushed, perhaps not peaceful but certainly pure. The problem Morton draws attention to is that the ideology behind this pure hush is complicit in big and small environmental catastrophes. And Morton further argues that getting beyond that ideology is especially problematic because the desire to get beyond is a symptom of the ideology.

In her paper, Zunshine argues that Barbauld’s catechistic hymns rhetorically evoke a hierarchy of God above human beings using the categories of natural kinds versus artifacts. Zunshine makes clear that she is not claiming an ontological distinction between categories of natural kinds and artifacts. Rather, she argues that human beings have evolved to perceive such categories, to classify every perceived object into one of these two categories. Like the approach in Ecology Without Nature, Zunshine does not endorse the ontological distinction between natural kinds and artifacts nor does she try to move beyond those categories. Instead, her analysis of Barbauld’s hymns demonstrate how a writer can use the tension between these cognitive traits to ideological effect.

Perception of natural kinds is different from and evolutionarily older than perception of artifacts. Natural kinds have “natures”, intrinsic qualities. Artifacts have functions. The two cognitive domains also have different architectures with different inference procedures for dealing with objects belonging to each domain.

Barbauld’s hymns establish a hierarchy with God as a natural kind and human beings as artifacts, objects created by God. My own interest is how I might deploy similar rhetorical techniques to draw attention to the functioning of these two cognitive domains. I am currently working on an urban fantasy novel. The fantasy genre allows for a broad exploration of culture, history, and ideology in narrative form. Tropes that foreground the tension between natural kinds and artifacts are standard in fantasy. Golems and zombies, for example, are beings with agency who are actually artifacts. Haunted houses, on the other hand, are artifacts that behave like natural kinds. Zunshine’s article provides an analysis of how language can work to organize the world by activating these two cognitive domains. As I am writing in the fantasy genre, her analysis will be helpful in articulating and dismantling ideological hierarchies.

Often, I approach my own writing as a problem-solving, posing interesting challenges for myself such as representing the different ways time moves or expressing various shades of burgeoning love or explaining where monsters come from. I read the articles in Poetics Today v23 with a mind toward my own writing. I hope to glean some insight or strategy which could be applied to a particular writing problem, and if I am lucky, to find suggestions for new problems to work with through my writing.

There are many other papers in this volume that I found helpful. In my next blog post, I will respond to Francis Steen’s paper on Aphra Behn.

Poetics Today: Literature and the Cognitive Revolution

I have been reading the journal Poetics Today, a scholarly journal published by Duke University. Volume 23 collects articles from 2002 which are primarily concerned with “Literature and the Cognitive Revolution”. The endeavor has been a challenge for me. I’ve read academic writing in the past but not so thoroughly or consistently. The writing in this volume is not as turgid or intricate as literary criticism often is, perhaps because one influence the “cognitive revolution” has on literary criticism is to make it more technical and precise. Here I will respond to a few of the articles in this volume as they connected and influenced my own writing.

I’ll begin with Reuven Tsur’s article “Some Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Programs”. I had previously encountered Tsur in the chapter on deixis in Cognitve Poetics in Practice and was quite taken with his acuity and his detailed analysis. Not only is his research impeccable, but I also find his style of writing engaging.

In Poetics Today v23, Tsur argues that cognitive constraints can help explain and describe poetic conventions across cultures. He considers the impact of two cognitive processes on poetic form: short-term memory and gestalt rules of perception. The constraints on writing set by short-term memory are of interesting and useful, but I am especially intrigued by the application of the gestalt rules.

Can the gestalt rules of perception be applied to narrative structure in fiction? The gestalt rules of perception refer to our capacity to perceive objects as a whole rather than a mere collection of parts. The gestalt rules say that the mind tends to perceive an integrated whole when the individual parts are more complicated. Tsur applies these rules to an understanding of how various cultures share a preference for similar poetic meters, such as the placement of a caesura in a line of poetry or the bias for iambic over trochaic. Can this principle also be used to understand what makes a narrative complete? Or how many ways can a novel be subdivided into chapters and sections?

Questions about chapters and sections first came to me listening to a series of lectures by Catherine Brown on Literature and Form. Brown’s series of lectures provide an historical overview of various novelistic forms. And aspects of the cognitive approach toward these questions of narrative structure are laid out in the chapters on prototype and cognitive grammar in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. Tsur’s article suggests a way of approaching narrative structure that is both cognitive and historical.

I must admit to being just a little enthralled by Tsur’s writing. Some Cognitive Foundations of Cultural Programs is exemplary as an application of cognitive poetics to poetic form. Prosody has always confounded and amazed me. I try to learn as much as I can about meter but always remain a novice, practicing finger exercises and laboriously sounding out words. I suspect that it is a skill which requires intense and extended focus to master, like the calculus or playing the violin. Although prosody is tantalizing, my devotion is to narrative. I am interested in extrapolating the points Tsur makes about poetic form to an increased understanding of narrative form, so that I can shape my own writing in ways that work with a reader’s cognitive capacities.

Next I will respond to the paper written by Liza Zunshine on the poet A. L. Baurbauld’s catechistic hymn.

Cognitive Poetics: Benito Cereno as Parable

A few months ago I posted about the Literature as Parable chapters in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice, chapters that brought together many of the ideas and techniques discussed previously in those books. Here I continue my response to Literature as Parable with some notes I made doing an exercise from one of those chapters. The assignment in Peter Stockwell’s textbook was to “investigate the main conceptual structure across a single long text” and to “sketch out the role this conceptual scaffolding plays in the global construction of the work as parable”. The long text I chose as subject for this exercise is the novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. In this post, I will consider how the peculiar structure of metaphors in the novella contribute to reading it as a parable.

Benito Cereno was published in 1855 when slavery was a major point of concern in the US. The Compromise of 1850 may have postponed open conflict between southern states and northern states, but neither side of the slavery issue was satisfied. And the Fugitive Slave Act further exacerbated the contention for many northern abolitionist. Harriet Beecher Stowe made the Fugitive Slave Act a central issue in her bestselling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, explicitly referencing the law in a scene depicting an Ohio senator and his wife debating it.

Slavery is also a central theme of Benito Cereno, which I read as a parable about the Fugitive Slave Act. Melville based the plot of Benito Cereno on an actual incident recounted by the real Captain Delano in his memoirs. The novella describes an American sea captain’s chance encounter with a Spanish frigate that has been taken over by rebelling slaves. The mutiny is not initially apparent, and Captain Delano, the focalizing character, only understands the situation at the point when he leaves the Spanish frigate to return to his own ship.

Irony is an important feature of Benito Cereno, and contemporary readers responded to the suspense and mystery evoked by Melville’s telling. Dramatic irony builds as the focalizing character makes curious observations aboard the Spanish frigate but repeatedly fails to conclude that the ship is not under the authority of Don Benito, the titular character. Melville sometimes tags the focalizing character’s perspective with quotes or phrases like “thought Captain Delano”, but at other times he employs the technique of free-indirect discourse. (Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville) It is evident throughout that the narrative is filtered through the mind and perceptions of Captain Delano, who is not unobservant but is also unable to comprehend the actual situation aboard the ship. The peculiar structure of the metaphors used by Captain Delano allow Melville to include detailed observations but steer clear of conclusions that would diminish the sense of irony until the last possible moment. This peculiar structure can also be applied parabolicly to the reasoning of northern supporters of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Three different metaphorical structures contribute to this parabolic reading and to the sense of irony for readers: (1) cognitive metaphors that reverse the prototypical mapping, (2) image metaphors, and (3) cognitive blends with metaphors as input spaces. Each of these three structures circumvent the tendency toward abstraction and meaning construction by the focalizing character.

As might be expected of a sailor, Captain Delano frequently relies on WEATHER as a component of metaphors. But he structures these metaphors in a way that limits their functionality, limits the effectiveness of the metaphors to construct meaning. WEATHER related metaphors are commonly used in literature and in everyday language to describe problems in the mind. Izabela Zolnowska has studied such metaphors and concluded that the “directionality of metaphorical transfer is uniform and proceeds from concrete to abstract concepts.” In her paper, Weather as the source domain for metaphorical expressions, she outlines several conceptual metaphors that all have the absence of problems as the target domain and WEATHER CONDITIONS as the source domain. Zolnowska provides the following examples from the category of CLEAR SKIES IS LACK OF PROBLEMS :

  • “His kiss was pure joy, winging happiness as if her spirit was soaring into a clear sky.”
  • “It is truly said that he can go to bed at night with a clear sky as far as Home Affairs are concerned and wake up the next morning with a major crisis.”
  • “It’s gonna be clear skies from now on.”

The source domain in each of these examples is CLEAR SKIES and the target domain is a problem-free situation. Features of the source domain are mapped onto the target domain, and the mapping does not typically go the other way. In other words, being free of difficulty can be said to be like CLEAR SKIES, but clear, blue skies is not said to be like having no difficulties.

In contrast, Captain Delano offers Don Benito the following advice on coping with depression following the mutiny aboard his ship. Notice the reversal of source and target domain from Zolnowska’s examples:

“See, yon bright sun has forgotten it all, and the blue sea, and the blue sky; these have turned over new leaves.”

When Captain Delano claims that the sun, sea, and sky have “forgotten it all”, he is trying to map features of an abstract mental state onto the actual, concrete weather conditions. Essentially, he is telling Don Benito to make his mind like the fair weather that day. But reversing the direction of the metaphorical mapping ignores salient features of the human mind. And so goes Don Benito’s reply:

“Because they have no memory,” he dejectedly replied; “because they are not human.”

Captain Delano is undeterred by Don Benito’s argument. He anthropomorphizes the weather: “Warm friends, steadfast friends are the trades.” Reversing the usual direction of WEATHER metaphors makes some sense for a sailor. But outside the nautical world—for example in the political and social worlds—the reversed direction limits the capacity for Captain Delano to make sense of Don Benito’s condition despite his detailed and curious observations. And the term “trade” suggests the mercantile implications of Captain Delano’s congenial outlook. Throughout the novella, Captain Delano fails to understand Don Benito’s situation because of the metaphors he uses to make sense of his observations.

In addition to reversing the direction of WEATHER metaphors, Captain Delano makes frequent use of image metaphors. Image metaphors, as Peter Crisp explains in Cognitive Cognitive Poetics in Practice, do not map features of a concrete domain to a more abstract domain but instead map from one experiential domain to another. Again, Melville is able to provide descriptive observations through the focalizing character while withholding full understanding of the situation aboard the Spanish frigate.

In the following three examples from the novella, image metaphors map concrete aspects of the Spanish frigate to aspects of another type of dwelling in ways that are thematically suggestive:

“…the ship…appeared like a white-washed monastery after a thunderstom.”

“Peering over the bulwarks…throngs of dark cowls…Black Friars pacing the cloisters.”

“…frigates…like superannuated Italian palaces, still under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state.”

These image metaphors are suggestive, implying something amiss aboard the ship: The ship has been through an ordeal and washed of its “whiteness”. The people peering over the bulwark are devoted to an authority higher than the ship’s captain. And the master of the ship, Don Benito, no longer holds power. But these conclusions can only be arrived at after the facts of the narrative are known. Image metaphors themselves do not, as Peter Crisps states, “…play a direct role in constituting metaphorical resources for abstract reasoning.”

A focalizing character who is oblivious to his surroundings would make telling and reading the story difficult. But a focalizing character with acuity would spoil the suspense and mystery of the story. Captain Delano is fully aware and attentive, demonstrated by the rich abundance of metaphors used to describe the Spanish frigate and its crew. But he fails to construct meaning from his observations because the metaphors he uses do not enable abstract reasoning.

One metaphor in particular was exemplary of Captain Delano’s attentive but impotent awareness. He observes that Atufal, one of the slaves, moves like a mute. Such a comparison implies Captain Delano is very focused on Atufal, but little sense can be made of the observation. Even if one could conceive of attributes belonging to the movement of mutes, what would it mean that Atufal has those same attributes?

Some metaphors Captain Delano employs do seem to follow the prototypical pattern of mapping from a concrete domain onto a more abstract domain. He uses several bestial metaphors to describe slave women and their children aboard the Spanish frigate:

“…like a doe in the shade of a woodland rack”

“…her wide-eyed fawn.”

“…unsophisticated as leopardesses, loving as doves.”

Comparing the women and children to animals maintains Captain Delano’s impression of their subjugation, as does his comparison with Babo, the leader of the slave rebellion, to a “shepherd’s dog”. The text makes Captain Delano’s patronizing attitude explicit, suggesting he is self-aware:

“…like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.”

On their own, these bestial metaphors preserve Captain Delano’s racist attitude of white supremacy and his self-perception as a man with a “good, blithe heart”. But when Captain Delano compares the Spanish sailors to poachers, hunters, and animals of prey, these metaphors blend with the bestial metaphors to alter generalizations made by the reader. The target and source domains of both sets of metaphors can be mapped onto a generic space relating elements of territory and authority. The blend that comes from this mapping marks the Spanish sailors as trespassers and puts the slaves in a position of authority and dominion over the Spanish frigate. This blend is not done by Captain Delano, even though he provides the metaphors that act as input spaces. The sense of irony and suspense depend on the reader making use of the focalizing character’s observations in a way that that character does not.

The peculiar structure of Captain Delano’s metaphors do more than obfuscate meaning and prolong suspense. The metaphorical structure also enriches a parabolic reading of Benito Cereno as related to slavery. Allegorically, the Spanish frigate represents the Southern states where slavery is legal and the American ship represents the Northern states where slavery is illegal. The Spanish ship suffers the consequences of slavery—Don Benito is unable to recover from the ordeal and dies in a monastery within a few months. And Captain Delano, who is initially tolerant of the practice of slavery, becomes complicit in its enforcement, the position of the northern states under the Fugitive Slave Act. Although the tale does not suggest dire consequences for Captain Delano as a result of his actions, which would be expected of a morality tale, the impotence of his reasoning and observations eliminate him as the hero or as one to be emulated. The only character left to fill the role of hero, then is Babo—or no one.

In my previous post on Literature as Parable, I noted that Michael Burke self-consciously admitted he could have used different conceptual metaphors from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2 to generate a very different reading than the one he wrote for Cognitive Poetics in Practice. Having done this exercise reading Benito Cereno, I more fully understand his statement. There is much more to Benito Cereno than I’ve considered in these notes, more richness to the writing techniques of Melville and more depth to the parabolic implications about slavery. But this exercise has been especially effective toward pursuing my goal in studying cognitive poetics which is to become a more capable writer. Narrowing in on Melville’s use of peculiar metaphorical structure for his focalizing character has provided me with a better understanding of one way to use a focalizing character to generate suspense and mystery.

Ten Years

About ten years ago I started this blog with the intention of archiving my writerly pursuits. At the time, I had decided to go for a master’s degree in creative writing, a decision I came to after several years of writing and studying on my own. My first blog posts were a review of Haruki Murakami and some thoughts on Mark Twain’s anti-war writing. My interests have not changed much since then. I still post responses to books I’ve enjoyed and my thoughts on literary topics. But as a writer, I have changed. Writing means more to me now than ever before.

In this blog, I documented my years as an MFA student at Naropa University. Having an MFA now seems ordinary to me because I know so many people with the same degree. But ten years ago I was anxious, scared of failure, and unsure if I was capable or worthy of an advanced degree. Apparently I was.

As a practical consideration, the MFA has provided little benefit. No editors or agents called me after I submitted my thesis. No employment opportunities have opened up to me that even take into consideration the degree. In fact, the only ones who seem to care that I have an MFA are the debt collectors who want my their money.

The summer I applied to Naropa I asked my teacher Jim Hall to write a recommendation letter. Graciously, he did. And he gave me some advice—I have continually returned to Jim’s advice on so many things over the years—he said the only good reasons to do an MFA is to become a better writer and, perhaps, to find a sangha (community), because an MFA can’t offer much else. He was right.

I have become a better writer than I was ten years ago, and my teachers and classmates at Naropa were tremendously helpful. I didn’t find a sangha, no network of supportive friends and acquaintances, but the fault in that rests solely on myself. I lack the personality or temperament to maintain any such network. I did make one or two very good friends that have become so close I call them family. Going by Jim’s criteria, I consider the MFA mission accomplished.

The frequency of my posts to this blog has changed over these last ten years, partly due to demands on my time and partly due to my own demand for more thoughtful writing and research. During the years I was studying at Naropa I often posted several times a week. I was immersed in writing and could devote to it as much of my time as I wanted. Other than serving chai at the student café, writing was my only job.

I took a year off from the blog entirely in 2008 to earn a second master’s degree, this time in teaching mathematics. Working as a full time teacher and taking a full load of graduate courses pushed writing to the periphery of my daily life, a situation I found untenable. By the second year, even though I was still working full time and taking a full load of graduate classes, I had returned to writing and to this blog. I wrote whenever I could. I wrote in the evenings. I wrote on the weekends. I joined a writing circle in the neighborhood for support. I was able to post a blog and bring a story to the circle about once a month.

Last year I started a new job that once again impinged on the time I had available for writing. Having learned my lesson from 2008, I aimed to reduce the frequency of my blog posts rather than take a hiatus. Posting every other month was manageable. I was able to do the research I wanted and take my time with the writing, while still performing well enough at my day job that they asked me to come back for another year.

This summer I reclaimed more space in my life for writing with a couple of retreats and writing projects. I began work on a novel and now have an outline and first draft. I’ve made preparations for maintaining this writing space during the fall and winter months. I will continue working on the novel while I am also working to pay bills. My writing pace will slacken but not still. I will continue posting to this blog once every other month. The research and writing I do here is essential for my continued growth as a writer. My work on the novel will continue also with concentrated efforts during long weekends and holidays.

This blog continues to be an archive of my writing life, a record of my endeavor to become the best I can be at something. Embedded in this record of my avocation for writing are the distractions such as school and work that pull me away from my life’s passion. But these distractions also enrich my language, provide fodder for my stories, and engender in me a discipline that sharpens my writing.

Reader and Writer on a Contemplative Retreat

This month I went on a short retreat at a Catholic monastery. For just a few days I slept in the rooms where monks had slept, walked the forested paths surrounding the monastery, ate meals prepared by the monks, and attended their prayers. The monastery is where Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal had lived. I felt a writerly connection to the experience, as well as a spiritual connection.

In 2011, I met Ernesto Cardenal when he was reading in Denver. I was moved by the presence of his poetry, the ability his words have to attend to the moment. His poems were playful and tender, a mimetic balance between the essential qualities of life. Questions from the audience at the Museo de las Americas reflected Cardenal’s aesthetic, religious, and political activities. He fielded the questions as a poet, a priest, and as a respected political figure.

Thomas Merton also had some notoriety as a political figure due to his public denunciation of US involvement in Vietnam. But primarily Merton was spiritual. I first heard of him while learning about the Dalai Lama. Merton and the Dalai Lama met in 1968, shortly before Merton’s death. For both monks, their time together was significant. Seven Story Mountain is an account of Merton’s early life and the transition from debauchery to asceticism. Merton also wrote spiritual and contemplative texts. And later in life, he studied and valued Buddhist teachings, although he remained a Catholic monk.

The retreats I’ve been on in the past have all been Buddhist. Some were silent and fully structured with every hour accounted for with meditation, chores, meals, and sleep. Other retreats were only partially structured, about eight hours of meditation, discussion groups, and instruction. The retreat I went on this summer was a mix of both.

The monks at the monastery live a prescribed life. They begin their day at 3am with prayer, and they come together again several times during the day for prayers and church services. Throughout the day they work various jobs and eat meals at scheduled times. Retreatants, on the other hand, did not have much of a schedule apart from meals. Prayer and church services were optional. I attended vespers and the evening service but spent most of my time walking the grounds, reading Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, and writing in my room.

The monastic life, whether Buddhist or Catholic, can be very attractive when it’s only for a short period of time. Temporarily giving up worldly attachments can enhance one’s appreciation of those worldly attachments, making the return to those attachments a delicious experience.

Meditation is the cornerstone of Buddhist practice in the west. Not all Buddhist traditions emphasize meditation is the starting point of the Buddhist path. In some traditions, mediation comes very late in one’s spiritual path. This difference surprised me at first. I had assumed mediation was the Buddhist corollary to Christian prayer. I could hardly imagine a Christian who didn’t pray; it’s kind of the first step. Buddhism also has prayer, which in form are similar to Christian prayer with chants, ritual, and incense. But from what I have learned from Buddhism, mediation is a contemplative practice distinct from prayer.

Merton’s essays in New Seeds of Contemplation describe contemplative practices within a Catholic context. There are many similarities with Buddhist contemplative practices. Human beings engaged in contemplation share many of the same experiences as they would with any shared activity. For example, people running on a soccer field, on a basketball court, or around a track will all experience increased heart rate and breathing. But there are also differences. The object of contemplation that Merton writes about is not the breath but grace through Jesus Christ. For a religious person, these differences are of grave concern.

I am a private person, not a religious one. And being in total silence for a few days was not unusual for me. In my daily life, when I’m not teaching, I’m occupied with my books and my writing. While on this retreat I did much the same as I would at home; I read and I wrote. I went for walks. I also attended some of the prayer services, vespers and the evening prayer. The only way I can describe these services is beautiful and holy. Monks practice these simple and elegant rituals daily. Symbolism pervades their every action, every nuance bringing internal and private thoughts out into the world as a shared communal experience.

I thought about this transformation of private to public as I read Merton’s essays, but reading and writing is a more intimate experience than public ritual. Writing is an inherently personal communion with the reader. The reader communes with the writer but not like two people coming together.

As I write, I read and rewrite and read again. As I read, I also write. I write the meaning and read and rewrite again, making sense of the words, a personal sense that only I could write. Hopefully, I have to rewrite and reread several times. First I go for the gist and then reread again for a clearer understanding. And if I’m fortunate, I go on rewriting for hours and days or longer still.

When I left the monastery, I rode my motorcycle to my brother’s house, only an hour away. I stayed with him for a couple of days, eating meals with his family, sitting on the back porch talking, enjoying the company of a loving family. I missed the monks, even though I had not spoken or directly interacted with them. But their presence and devotion had enveloped me, held me during those few days. I don’t mean this in a mystical sense, except that the mystical is very ordinary. The monks had fed me, gave me shelter, and welcomed me in peace and love.

As expected, my appreciation of worldly attachments has been enhanced. I feel more spacious and able to fully enjoy life. But I am also keenly aware of the paradox that it is from the absence of these experiences that appreciation develops. Constraint fosters creativity. Poverty engenders generosity. Solitude leads to compassion. And these paradoxes are what I contemplate now.

Cognitive Poetics: Literature as Parable

The chapters in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics in Practice on literature as parable bring together all the concepts from previous chapters to describe how meaning is made of whole texts. Each of the carpenter’s tools has been studied thoroughly. The hammer, saw, measuring tape and chalk, framing square, and nails are ready to hand, and the real work can begin. Prototypes, figure & ground, deixis, and scripts are used to build both micro and macro structures from a textbase. Cognitive metaphor and conceptual blending help explain how these structures interact to generate meaning from texts, both personal and general meanings, and how intertextuality provides literature with the capacity to modify the cognitive models that form our world views.

In What Are They Saying about the Parables?, David B. Gowler argues there are “no spectators in the dialogic word of parable.” He is referring specifically to the Biblical parables but his argument can apply to all parables and all literature read as parable. A parabolic reading of a text is a synthesis of the writer and reader as co-authors of the texts meaning. This fits nicely with post-structuralist theories about authorship. As Ellen Spolsky argued in a 2002 paper titled: Darwin and Derrida: Cognitive Literary Theory as a Species of Post-Structuralism, cognitive poetics makes the same argument as post-structuralism:

“…the meanings of texts are indeed unstable and dependent upon contingent contexts.”

But cognitive poetics does not proclaim the death of the author nor even the primacy of the reader. Instead, these chapters on literature as parable provide tools for a detailed analysis of the dynamic relationship between text and meaning. In Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, Stockwell begins by commenting on the literary distinction between plot and story, proposing that cognitive poetics can map out the complex and inherently subjective relationship between plot and story—the implications of such a mapping apply not only to literature but to broader human experience using the theory of embodied cognition.

A reader first compiles facts about the text, constructing a microstructure from the textbase. These facts are assembled on the fly to construct a macrostructure using five cognitive strategies or macrorules:

  1. citation
  2. local deletion
  3. global deletion
  4. generalization
  5. construction

For example, in reading Jane Eyre I construct perceptions of characters and settings based on a description in the text:

Four equestrians galloped up the drive and after them came two open carriages. Fluttering veils and waving plumes filled the vehicles. Two of the cavaliers were young, dashing looking gentleman. The third was Mr. Rochester on his black horse Mesera. Pilot bounding before him…

From this description I form a perception, which not only includes the image of guests arriving at the mansion but also the perspective that frames the scene: Jane Eyre watching from a high window. Many details are quickly disregarded, such as the specific number of riders and carriages, even before the description concludes. Rather than a specific number of guests, my perception is of more than one, several, or a crowd of guests. Other facts linger, such as Miss Ingram’s attire and her “rich raven inglets” and Mr. Rochester on horseback. I share the main character’s interest in both these characters. But within a few more pages some of these details also fade. Of the facts picked out from the text and not deleted I begin to form generalizations about Mr. Rochester’s appearance, his personality, and his place in society. Also, because the whole scene is framed in Jane Eyre’s perspective from the window, I make generalizations about her and her world view. These generalizations combine with my sociocultural knowledge and beliefs of 19th century England as well as my opinions on class and gender as I build a macrostruture, which is my reading of Jane Eyre.

Application of these five macrorules is not linear or unidirectional. Even citation, direct recall of specific text, can vary between readers. The facts I pick out and notice will differ from the facts another reader or I myself upon re-reading may pick out from the same textbase. This nonlinear, multidirectional relationship between the facts (microstructure) and meaning (macrostructure) of the text is what literature as parable describes.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Michael Burke applies aspects of blending theory to explain how multiple input spaces (macrorules) blend to create new spaces that do not have a direct relation to the original input spaces. These blended spaces are also input spaces: macrorules that blend again to make new spaces. Three phases of blending (composition, completion, and elaboration) can extend the blending for as long as a reader is interested.

A parable, religious or otherwise, works on the reader to alter ways of perceiving and thinking about the world. Michael Burke uses the example of a biblical parable from Mathew 20 that tells of workers in a vineyard who are rewarded evenly regardless of how much work they performed. A narrative does not have to be explicitly didactic to be read as a parable, though. The assumption made in treating literature as a parable is that a change occurs in the reader as a consequence of reading. The allure of this assumption is strong because it fits well with my own experience as a reader and supports my motivation as a writer. But having recently read Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen, I have a healthy doubt of extrapolating this assumption too far. Keen highlights the lack of strong evidence to support most extravagant claims about the salutary effects of reading.

However, the claim Stockwell and Burke make about reading does not extrapolate but interpolates deeper into the dynamic process of reading. Parable is a cognitive process that constructs meaning in the real-world, not only literary texts. Parabolic projection is a cognitive blend with input spaces that are mapped onto generic spaces. Parabolic reading is how human beings experience and make meaning of the world using various conceptual tools.

Burke makes a case study of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2 and identifies multiple source domains, including textual features, social knowledge, intertextual connections, and personal memories. He identifies a main conceptual metaphor: PROCREATION IS ETERNAL LIFE and other conceptual metaphors that “parabolically [feed] this one.” Continuing to re-read the sonnect, Burke identifies two more conceptual metaphors: LIFE IS A BATTLE and LIFE IS A VENTURE that trigger other source domains. The field of meaning is constrained to the text but is not limited by it. The only limit to meaning is the amount of attention the reader is able and willing to give.

Burke is self-conscious of how meaning is made and remade while engaging with the text. At times he seems to be engaged in free-association, but he returns to the text after each new turn, not only to ground his reading but also to gather more associations. In his summary he admits that he could have made entirely different connections with equally valid conceptual metaphors. The purpose of parabolic reading is to show that meaning making is multi-directional and expansive, not to find the true or correct meaning.

Stockwell also provides a case study, a parabolic analysis of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His analysis sticks close to one central concept: LIFE IS A GAME and does not examine as many source domains as Burke. But Stockwell allows for multiple subdivisions of that metaphor, and he reinterprets the nature of the text itself as a fairytale, a moral fable, a romance, and possibly a satire. There seems to be no end to the creative process of making meaning, a process in which conclusions reverse back to alter the nature of premises.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Michael Burke compares the medieval conception of meaning to principles of cognitive poetics: neither of which support absolute knowledge. Cognitive poetics establishes prototypes and blends, which do not have the feel of solid answers. Although I am drawn to this open-ended approach, my confidence was tested while treading the shifting spaces of parabolic reading. How far do I trust my own interpretation of my own reading?

One of the study questions at the end of Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction is to “investigate the main conceptual structures across a single long text” and to “sketch out the role this conceptual scaffolding plays in the global construction of the literary work as a parable.” I chose Herman Melville’s novella, Benito Cereno. At sometime I will share my notes from this exercise here. Identifying the main conceptual structures was not difficult and re-reading Melville with close attention was a delight. But the connections I made between the conceptual metaphors and the global construction feel tenuous. I know I could have drawn entirely different conclusions and made altogether different connections.

Texts are not like mathematical functions with a fixed output associated with each input. A text generates multiple and various meanings for each reader, meanings that change even before a reader has completely read the text. I’m fine with contradictions and explanations that provide multiple answers. The cognitive poetic approach to literature as parable promises an approach that is systematic and allows multiplicity and contradiction.

I want to write stories that enthrall readers to the point that their perception of the world around them changes. As a reader, I’ve attributed that feeling of being enthralled to the text I’m focused on at the moment. But the text is only one input space among many input spaces that go into the cognitive blend that shapes my reading experience. Stockwell and Burke offer insights to how readers use the textbase to create a macrostructure. The explanation provided by cognitive poetics goes beyond the basic platitudes that bombard anyone trying to become a better writer, such as “show don’t tell” and “make it count”. Instead of mundane advice, cognitive poetics offers a description of the reading process that contributes to the construction of meaning.

When I’m writing, I consider what aspects of the text are likely to be held onto by the reader and for how long. The goal is to include sufficient details in the text to allow the reader to construct a meaningful world. The world of the text is necessarily incomplete. If not, then what would the reader do? Writing is as much about what you don’t say as what you do say. In visual art this idea is called negative space.

I am practicing how to track the dynamic process of reading and make connections between conceptual metaphors and global construction of meaning. My confidence improves. I am able to recognize connections in my own writing. At least half of writing is reading to revise. Recognizing false triggers, those that a reader may use to activate unrelated blends, will enhance my revisions. I will also look for details to include in the text that suggest specific blending space. Allusions or certain styles of prose can activate intertextual blends. A setting may activate schemas that function as input spaces to enrich cognitive blends. Literature as parable has clarified aspects of the revision process for me which will help me revise more thoroughly and efficiently.

Review: Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen 2007 Oxford University Press

Although proclamations of the novel’s imminent demise seem to be an annual occurrence–see last year’s eulogy–in the 21st century, attacks on the novel usually come in the form of radical apathy (people just don’t read). Defenders of the novel usually respond with radical fervor, lobbing specious exaggerations about the novels importance. But these often superbly articulated encomiums are little more than lances aimed at unperturbed windmills. And if I may continue the allusion to that first and best modern novel: with Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen is like the faithful Sancho, applying herself to identifying the erroneous assumptions but never leaving the side of intrepid bibliophiles.

I am such a bibliophile, bookish even. My reading, whether it be Dante Alighieri or Laurell K. Hamilton, is motivated by a belief in the redemptive capacity of narrative. My writing is, likewise, motivated by my belief in love and the power of stories to engender love in myself and my readers. Empathy and the Novel challenges these beliefs and in doing so enriches and advances them.

Keen explores the tangled and subtle relationship between empathy and the novel from the perspectives of both readers and writers. Furthermore, she delineates the surprisingly tenuous connection between empathy and altruistic action.

Empathy, the spontaneous sharing of feeling with another, is a primitive response that can lead to more complex emotional responses. Empathy itself is a derivative of emotional contagion, the automatic mimicry of another’s emotional expressions, a capacity shared by humans and some animals. Keen challenges the assumption that human empathy leads to altruism. Empathy may foster complex emotions such as sympathy, guilt, and even apathy, but none of these emotions entail altruistic action.

A study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner on holocaust rescuers showed no marked difference in empathy levels between rescuers and non-rescuers. Both groups had similar capacities for empathy. So even if novel reading does enhance and develop our ability to empathize, there is no evidence to support the belief that novel readers would be more inclined toward acts of compassion.

However, Sancho Panza’s devotion is relentless. Empathy and the Novel does not stop at debunking the myth that empathy leads to altruism. Keen also challenges the notion that novel reading enhances our ability to emphasize. As a reader, and especially as a writer, I take for granted the empathic experience of engaging with a story. What else is the experience of reading if not empathy? But Keen points to the enchanted helmet and says it might just be a wash basin turned upside down. The research suggests that empathizers make better readers in the first place than nonempathic peopleempathic ability at eight to nine years old predict[s] reading achievement at ten to eleven years  Reading does not cultivate empathy, rather being empathetic is what makes reading possible.

Keen is thorough and original in her writing. She provides a historical overview of ethical perspectives on the novel from the 18th century to present, revealing mutable attitudes and borrowed assumptions of critics and the reading public. Empathy and the Novel investigates the relationship both readers and writers have with novels, drawing on research from psychology, sociology, and neuroscience.

As a bibliophile, I am not yet ready to recant my love for and belief in the power of stories. But in the place of faith and hyperbole, I have a more nuanced appreciation and curiosity for the object of my literary passion. There are limits to empathy and to language. I’d like to explore those limits, push them if I can.

Empathy and the Novel replaces the specious exaggeration that novel reading propagates altruism with a refined analysis that explains why empathy is central to literature but leaves–appropriately–unanswered the bigger questions about the novel’s role in social improvement. The thoroughness of Keen’s own research reveals the paucity of research on the bigger questions: What is the relationship between empathy and altruism? Does novel reading impact empathy and altruism in the lives of readers? And what kinds of novels (if any) influence empathy and altruism?