Monday, September 12, 2016

"Inside Pckwck"/ "Why fiction is good for you"

Jun. 29, 2016 "Inside Pckwck": I cut out this article by Abby Ohlheiser in the Edmonton Journal on Oct. 16, 2015: 

Joshua Cohen — who has already written what he considers his real, good novel about the Internet — is writing another novel this week. Except he’s doing it online, with the text appearing live on a public site, subject to the scrutiny and criticism of a small horde of anonymous commenters.

The book is called PCKWCK and it’s an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s early serialized success, “The Pickwick Papers.” The concept is also an anxiety nightmare come to life for anyone who writes.

“Uh-uh,” Cohen responded in a phone interview on Tuesday morning, before starting his second day of live writing, “try trying to do it.”

Every afternoon from 1 to 6 p.m., until the end of this week, Cohen will write at The words appear as he types, like watching a group-edited Google doc. To the right of his writing, there’s an anonymous chat room. To the left, observers can watch a  webcam image of Cohen’s face. And on the big wide frame where Cohen’s novel is being composed, anyone can, Periscope-like, click the text and make a heart appear right on screen.

“It’s very difficult — I’ve found out now — to write with all of these hearts going everywhere,” Cohen told us. “Did you see those hearts?”
While the hearts might have interrupted Cohen’s writing as it happened, the comments were a bit more invasive in substance. The first day’s running chat was pretty much what you’d expect from an anonymous Internet forum, focusing its attention on the worth of a single person and his work: chaotic, funny, hostile and personal.

“There’s only a certain amount of times that I can read about how small my penis is,” Cohen said, after reading through the first day of comments. “It’s what I expected, you know? It’s what I expected. It’s what happens when you give the world anonymity.”

Cohen, whose “Book of Numbers” examines the extent of surveillance and the permeable boundaries of technology, has his reasons (both personal and public), for agreeing to participate in this madness — including the fact that the novel won’t stay online past its completion on Friday, a kind of mercy killing to a piece of writing that Cohen doesn’t expect to be very good.

“I, as a writer, am firmly from the generation of the book. Of the fixed text, of the text that you pore over and fuss over and that needs to be perfect,” he said. “The attention to the aesthetic whole and the formalist presentation of your best self. Right?”

But he thinks his generation is the last to have this particular relationship with the book.
“The ways that communication is enframed has deeply changed. These most perfect products, perfect cultural products that we make, are put out into the world and enframed by these very messy communications,” Cohen added.

“The idea that these, that these careless and thoughtless utterances, seem to be the primary modes bothered me. It also bothered me that I clung in my vanity to this sort of perfectionism.”

The idea for this undertaking comes from Cohen’s collaboration with Useless Press, run by Alix Rule, Adrian Chen and Sam Lavigne. “People watch video games being played by others (Twitch), other people going to brunch (Periscope),” Rule explained in an e-mail. “Why not watch a novel being written?”

Cohen chose “The Pickwick Papers” to adapt in part because of the novel’s own chaotic birth: It began as a series of loosely connected stories about a group of rich, adventuring Englishmen, published in serialized installments. The book was originally written to accompany a series of illustrations by a popular artist.

PCKWCK, fittingly, is being illustrated as Cohen writes by Leon Chang, a reintroduction of some of the particular uncertainties that Dickens faced when he was writing.

Importantly for PCKWCK, Dickens’s work wasn’t planned as what it became. Cohen was drawn to the story in part because it’s an “energetic book” driven by a group of characters who set out to help us understand our own world better, but instead occupy many of their adventures by “getting drunk and getting into fights.” While “Pickwick” largely focuses on the lighter side of what happens when rich men seek adventure out of self-interest, PCKWCK will examine the darker side of the same, Cohen said.

Cohen isn’t reading the comments as they’re posted each afternoon, he said, but goes through them all overnight, preparing to incorporate them into the next day.  Day one began without any such input, so Cohen set out alone to “establish some sort of narrative that would …. set up a story that would evolve through interrogation.”

PCKWCK began as a legal declaration written by a protagonist, Shamil Al-Waked, against PCKWCK, which — in this adaptation so far — is a mysterious, corporate-type entity. Cohen abandoned the form of the legal document after about 19 bullet points, instead abruptly placing the character into an interrogation and torture scene.

In some ways, Cohen isn’t being subtle at all in PCKWCK about what he wants to say: In the first chapter, Shamil, a writer, disappears from a public cafe while in the middle of carefully, slowly deliberating over a single sentence he’d written that wasn’t quite right. The resonances with Cohen’s own thoughts about the carefully chosen, perfect words and the volume and tone of today’s communicative realities are obvious

There’s still a lot to process personally, Cohen said, about this entire experiment, and he hesitated to wade into too dark of a territory while speaking to a reporter on Tuesday morning. For day two, he had one concern he wanted to address: that he was being too subtle about what he thought of the commenters.

“I was actually shocked — I don’t mean to sound like an a**hole — that when I got to the middle of the story, that people didn’t seem to see or care where it was going and that, as my commentators, they were being cast in the role of my future torturers,” he said.

For day two, Cohen set out to be “the opposite of subtle” on this point. “I’m going to be plagiarizing them, you know?” True to his word, Chapter Two begins with a lengthy cut-and-paste of some of the worst comments thrown his way from the first day.

You can participate in PCKWCK here, and the chatroom seems to work even when Cohen isn’t writing. It’s probably best not to wait until the whole project is finished to take a look at what Cohen has written. The entire thing disappears from the Internet on Friday after Cohen finishes and will become a very limited-run printed novel later this year. All proceeds from the printed result will go to the ACLU.

Sept. 10, 2016 "Why fiction is good for you": I cut out this article by Kate Taylor in the Globe and Mail on Sept. 10, 2011:

When psychologist and author Keith Oatley writes his next novel, he can make sure that each description of a scene includes three key elements – to better help the reader create a vivid mental image. Not one element; that would be forgettable. Not six elements; that might be boring.

He could have learned this from Anton Chekhov, master of the short story. Oatley, a great admirer of the Russian writer, recalls one Chekhov story that includes a description of a pond under snow. With a factory. Across from a village.

In fact, Oatley learned the lesson from a study that used MRI scans to show brain activity in readers: The area of the brain used to create a mental image was best activated when descriptive passages used three elements.

Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, is also the author of three novels, including The Case of Emily V. which won the Commonwealth Prize in 1994, but his most recent work combines the two fields. Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction is part of a growing movement to find hard evidence for a soft pursuit, looking to various sciences to explain the power of fiction. Contrary to the notion that art merely copies life, Oatley's argument is that a movie, play, story, poem or novel creates a mental model in which readers can try out ideas about themselves and others.

“If you say fiction to anybody, they immediately say ‘Oh, something that has been made up.' … What you really want to know is what is the subject matter of fiction,” he said. “The subject matter of fiction is what people are up to with each other and within themselves, what it is to be a self, interacting with others in the social world. … If you want to read about genetics you read [Richard]Dawkins or someone, and you get good at understanding genetics. If you read fiction, what you get good at understanding is what goes on between people.”

Oatley and his several colleagues are actually trying to measure that knowledge. In one study, they used a test in which subjects are asked to choose the emotion expressed in a photograph of a person's eyes, a measure of empathy developed by the British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who studies autism. Fiction readers scored higher, even when the psychologists subtracted out influences that might suggest the more empathetic people would tend to read more fiction.

To further test that empathy is a product of reading fiction rather than the reverse, York University psychologist Raymond Mar experimented with two groups of randomly selected subjects, one of which read a short story and the other a piece of non-fiction. He then subjected them to a test of social reasoning and found the short-story group performed better.

Oatley would like to repeat such a study with a much larger group over a longer time period, perhaps signing up subjects who would agree to read only fiction or non-fiction for a year.

In another study, Oatley's UofT colleague Maja Djikic rewrote the Chekhov short story The Lady with the Little Dog as a piece of non-fiction, as though this story of an illicit love affair were the transcript of a trial. When asked to perform standard personality tests, subjects who had read the real thing instead of her rewrite showed more signs of shifts in character traits. And the more emotions they reported feeling during their reading, the more they changed. There was no particular direction to these shifts in personality: If propaganda, rhetoric or marketing aims to push the reader one way, fiction simply opens up the possibility of movement.

“It is not that one puts bread into a toaster and it makes toast,” Oatley said. “It is an opportunity for the reader or the movie watcher to change. It's not a straight causal effect.”

Stressing the studies are preliminary, he speculates the personality shifts may be produced by the reader entering into the fictional character's mind.

He uses the metaphor of a flight simulator to explain fiction's role in our lives: Just as the flight simulator allows the pilot-in-training to quickly and safely encounter all sorts of contingencies that might happen in the air, so fiction allows us to experience emotions in a safe place, training us to understand ourselves and others.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful example of the simulator effect. In the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy, both of them intelligent and proud, initially misread each other, but gradually come to an understanding of one another's minds that will then grow into love. Oatley points out that the reader undergoes a similar process, coming to know and love the characters as Austen unfolds their story, thus experiencing the same dawning understanding and growing attachment.

“That is a beautiful structure,” he said.
This function also explains why reading groups are popular, and in Oatley's scheme, very important: They take the emotional training and multiply the effect.

“When you read the book yourself you have a particular understanding, but it is always very partial, so the moment you start talking with someone else about it, you are increasing the amount of brain power and coming at if from all these different directions,” Oatley said. He has participated in the same book club for 20 years and finds its discussions often deepen his understanding not just of the book, but also of his friends in the group.

So, a book club improves what psychologists call “theory of mind.” Acquired around the age of five, theory of mind is our awareness of our own and others' consciousness – and of the possibility they may believe something different from us.

U.S. English professor Lisa Zunshine was one of the first to suggest fiction trains us in theory of mind. Similarly, U.S. philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that fiction teaches empathy, and so should be required reading for public leaders.

Following that work, Oatley's cognitive approach is part of a trend toward seeking concrete explanations for literature's utility both inside and outside the English department. The so-called literary Darwinists see evolutionary purposes behind a kind of mental training that is crucial to living in groups, and argue that storytelling has evolved as an art form because of the prestige that accrues to the socially necessary storyteller.

The evolutionary theorists put great emphasis on the storyteller; Oatley prefers to give pride of place to the reader. But both schools do permit their practitioners to judge the writer's art, even as some literary critics complain these new approaches are reductionist. Brian Boyd, a Nabokov scholar from New Zealand, subjects The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who to evolutionary criticism in his recent book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. He shows how the master storyteller holds his audience's attention and draws it toward particular aspects of his tale: Through the sympathetic Horton, Dr. Seuss makes us feel for the plight of the microscopic Whos.

For his part, Oatley is convinced that the better the writer, the more powerful the simulation, and he makes a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.

“You can have a good read, but it is sort of like going on a roller coaster. The engineers have constructed it so you have a particular set of experiences. You get off, your heart is beating a bit, but you are still the same person,” he says of reading a thriller or detective story. On the other hand, “Chekhov was a great artist: The effect is different – the extent to which [the reader]can really inhabit another mind.”

The roller coaster may be fun, but the flight simulator … now that's art.

My opinion: This is like a psychology article.

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