Reading fiction: rehearsal for life?

Ken Taylor and John Perry of Stanford University taped their Philosophy Talk radio program/podcast at Z Space in front of a live audience during Litquake, San Francisco’s annual literary festival. The topic of the evening was “How Fiction Shapes Us.” It was my favorite of all the festival sessions I was able to attend.

Philosophy Talk at Litquake 2012

During the show, Philosophy Talk’s co-hosts presented opposing arguments, as they typically do.

According to Taylor, “Fiction shapes us by giving us practice at living, and if you practice anything, you become better at it. Reading fiction makes us more psychologically astute, more empathetic, more attuned to moral complexity.”

Perry, on the other hand, contended that we enjoy fiction because it’s entertaining—that’s all.

Every individual is confronted with questions of how to relate to others and how to lead a better life. By reading fiction, it’s possible to experience what it might be like to live in another person’s world. “You are what you make of what you read,” said Taylor.

What have studies shown to support either scholar’s perspective?

In psychological research at York University, Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar demonstrated that the more fiction people read, the better they were able to understand other people’s emotions, or theory of mind, in real life. The most challenging, artistic literary fiction also gave the readers they tested slightly modified opinions of their own dispositions. In addition, these researchers found there wasn’t much difference between the brain’s response to something fictional as it was being read and the same situation when it was being experienced.

The guest on Philosophy Talk for the evening of October 10, 2012, at Litquake was Stanford professor of French and Italian and literary theorist Joshua Landy, author of How to Do Things with Fictions. Landy briefly discussed the questions raised by the show’s co-hosts and concluded that fiction can, but doesn’t always, influence a reader’s cognitive skills. Much depends on the quality of the fiction and the reader’s personal initiative in interpreting it. Perhaps the most difficult and brilliant fiction, he explained, does not cause readers to become more moral or compassionate but makes them more of whatever they already are. In Landy’s view, this occurs:

Because it might be that after I’ve practiced making my moral judgments—the judgments I make about certain situations—I’ll become even more of a horrible person, or even more of a selfish person, whatever it is that I was, going in. So there’s no guarantee. I think it serves an extraordinarily valuable service of making us more who we are.

The outcome depends on the capacity of the individual. Although fiction serves as a simulation of real life, without the risks, it also requires the reader’s effort and desire to extract a lesson from it.

The free 50-minute Philosophy Talk podcast also touches on the following questions:

  • Is first-person narration more effective for presenting moral dilemmas?
  • Will the reader always imagine herself as the narrator?
  • Can films evoke our emotional reactions more easily than books?
  • Are some people better than others at reading fiction?

“How Fiction Shapes Us” and Philosophy Talk’s other weekly podcasts can be downloaded from iAmplify and the program also is broadcast.

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