I was recently on a plane for the better part of a day, and, finding myself with a roomy three square feet of free space, I decided to return to Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It is a nonfiction work that “…attempts to provide a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years.” Diamond writing is clear and engaging, and I found the subject fascinating. However, it took me over a year to finish.
I initially read at a brisk pace, but I didn’t make it far into the book before I stopped reading. I was distracted by work, social obligations, all the usual stuff. There were always errands to run or one more email to send. Dinner was on the stove, and I didn’t want to start reading only to stop twenty minutes later. A day without reading it turned to a week and into months.
I enjoyed Diamond’s exploration of the history of civilization. So why couldn’t I sit down and finish the book? It would be too easy to say that I was too busy, that every single thing I did was too important to be replaced with reading. That wouldn’t be true though. I could’ve gone to bed with Guns, Germs, and Steel instead of my smart phone, or I could’ve read it in lieu of browsing the internet. I could have made the time. But these other forms of entertainment were easier. Turning on the TV only takes one button and then the light and sound can wash over you. With smart phones and computers almost everywhere, you have nearly unlimited entertainment at your fingertips. I would be lying if I said after dinner I’ll crack open War and Peace, and I know I’m not the only one who will take the easy road. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But I know I’m depriving myself of great literature, stories, and ideas by avoiding the ‘harder’ works. There’s a feeling of fulfillment you get when completing a long, difficult story that doesn’t come with finishing the latest two hundred page pop fiction novel.
I’m not claiming that a longer story is inherently better. Some of the best works I’ve read were short. But in avoiding long fiction (and nonfiction, as in the case of Guns, Germs, and Steel) you do yourself a disservice. You would never read Infinite Jest or The Count of Monte Cristo (two of my favorites).
I plan to devote more time to tackling involved works of fiction and nonfiction. When the reading gets tough, when I have to look up yet another word, I’ll keep going. The remote may be nearby, but ten more pages first.
Do you read wrong? When you write, are you doing it badly? Not in the sense of sloppy prose or dangling participles, but the mechanics of the act of reading and writing. When is the last time you stopped to think about how you do what you do? Often we ask why we do something, but the question of how comes up less frequently.
Do you read your books on paper or digitally? Like it or not, more and more reading will be migrating to the world of pixels. It may seem like a mundane distinction, but I find I delve deeper into prose written on a page instead of a screen. This is a personal preference, but I know I’m not alone. I love the smell of a new book, the feel of leafing through well-worn pages, the repulsion at finding a book left open with its cover up and wearing out the spine. As it turns out, I am not alone in finding hard copies more rewarding. A recent study compared reading comprehension between readers of a short story on a Kindle and readers of a paperback. The Guardian has a nice summary of the study and its findings here at the link below.
The take-home message? Readers of physical books can recall more details and can feel more connected to the story. However, this is one study and the research is preliminary. Do not rush out to burn a pile of Kindles and iPads. If you consume all your text through a screen, try reading a hard cover book next. Pick up a newspaper (if you can find one). See if the printed page draws you in closer and keeps you reading longer. Consider how you do what you do.
As for writing, what works best for you? Do you flourish your pen or clack away at the keyboard? Or perhaps you dictate your work? There are many ways to write, and they all have their advantages. A computer can check your spelling and you have easy access to all the knowledge of the Internet. But freehand writing can be less prone to distraction. An email cannot pop out of a pad of paper. As for dictation, stories sound differently when you hear them as opposed to reading the words. You may find a character’s voice comes across differently when you verbalize their mannerisms of speech and affectations. I produce fewer pages when I dictate, and I obsess over single words in early drafts. So I know that method is not best for me. But to each your own, and if you find the spoken word to be a better conduit to your writing, keep at it!
Try new methods, and you may find a refreshing new way to read or write. Regardless of how you do it, be sure that you do.
The following is an excerpt from a longer work on the influence of fairy tales in contemporary short fiction.
Donald Barthelme (1931-1989) was a contemporary writer best known for his weird and witty short stories. The short story “Game” can be understood as a kind of modern fairy tale.
“Game” is the story of two men, Shotwell and the narrator, trapped in an underground bunker. They hadn’t planned on being in the bunker for very long, but when the story begins they have been in the bunker for one hundred and thirty-three days. The two of them have the power to launch a nuclear missile, though that is never explicitly stated. “If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys…If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies,” (Sixty Stories, 56). Each man has one key for one lock. Both men have been instructed to watch the console, but also to watch each other. If either behaves strangely the other is under orders to shoot him. Not only does each man have a .45 issued to him, but they each also have a concealed firearm. Shotwell plays jacks by himself, refusing to allow the narrator to play. The narrator writes descriptions of natural forms on the wall (4500 words describing a baseball bat in one instance) using a diamond in a ring he bought for a woman. Neither man can tell if the other’s behavior constitutes as being ‘strange’. They both attempt, at different times, to reach both locks by themselves, but the locks are placed too far apart for just one man to reach. The narrator claims to know what Shotwell wants to do (turn both keys and let the bird fly), but he refuses until he gets his turn with the jacks.
“Game” opens with an image of Shotwell and his jacks. While it does not provide the immediate distance from reality that a fairy tale beginning does, the opening to “Game” does show what the narrator’s focus is. The narrator is obsessed with Shotwell’s jacks, he even goes so far as to attempt to pick the lock on Shotwell’s attaché case to get to them. The second paragraph of “Game” gives the reader their first glimpse into the world these characters inhabit. Both men are trapped in an underground bunker, waiting for a prompt from the console which never comes. In short, the narrator and Shotwell are trapped (it is worth noting that their situation is similar to that of the fairy tale hero being trapped in the deep, dark woods). In the opening two paragraphs the reader knows this is a story about isolation and the effects it can have on a person. However, the opening of this story isn’t fully realized until the ending, when the potential consequences of the narrator’s obsession with the jacks are revealed. “…I understand what it is Shotwell wishes me to do. At such moments we are very close. But if only he will give me the jacks. That is fair. There is something he wants me to do with my key, while he does something with his key. But only if he will give me my turn. That is fair. I am not well,” (Sixty Stories, 60). If the narrator gets his turn with the jacks, then the bird will fly. Thus, the very first image in “Game” contains all the stakes of the entire story (and being a story about nuclear weaponry the stakes are high indeed). Not only does the opening of “Game” function in the same manner as the openings of fairy tales by introducing the reader to the truth of the world, but it also presents the central image and conflict as well.
There are only two real characters in “Game”: the narrator and Shotwell (there is a third character, Lisa, but she is only mentioned in one, albeit telling, line). The two characters are quite similar in many respects: they both want the bird to fly, they both have concealed weapons which take up “a third” of each man’s attention, and they have both tried, all alone, to turn the keys at once. While both of these men are enduring incredible stress from being trapped in the bunker for such a length of time, Shotwell is holding up better than the narrator. Shotwell’s activities strengthen, or at the very least maintain, his connections with the outside world (in the form of working on his business administration degree program), while the narrator uses his last item from the outside world (a diamond ring for Lisa) and inscribes descriptions of natural forms on the walls. Just as in fairy tales these two characters can be seen as simple representations of a single, more complex character. Isolation is a difficult thing to endure, and the characters in “Game” could be interpreted to be an isolated person’s desire to give up (the narrator) and their desire to fight on (Shotwell). By Shotwell refusing to give in to the demands of the narrator (in the form of the jacks) the determined aspect of the character wins out over the aspect that wants to give up. If, however, Shotwell were to give in and allow the narrator to play with the jacks it would have disastrous consequences for the world of “Game” and for the person stuck in isolation.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about willing censorship and the kinds of people who enforce it, allow it, try to understand it, and secretly fight against it, and what makes Fahrenheit 451 such a powerful book is that it is so terrifyingly plausible. Two aspects I try to imitate in my writing are how the characters’ speech reflects their personalities and goals, and also how Bradbury takes a familiar story (the battle against censorship) and manages to make it eerily relevant and plausible over fifty years after it is first published.
In good fiction a character’s voice can tell you much about who is speaking. This is particularly true in Fahrenheit 451. All of the characters, from Clarisse McClellan to Guy Montag to Mildred to Captain Beatty, differ in both what they say and how they say it. This is a way Bradbury can give the reader more detail about who the characters are without resorting to long sections of narration. For instance, at the start of the novel Guy Montag is a regular fireman. He burns books when there are books to be burned, and he is happy doing it. However, once he meets Clarisse McClellan, his attitude begins to change and he starts questioning things he never thought to question before. This change in his character can be seen in his dialogue. Early on in the novel there is an exchange between Clarisse and Montag which shows his character through his speech.
“Do you ever read any of the books you burn?”
He laughed. “That’s against the law!”
and a few lines later,
“Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?”
“No. Houses have always been fireproof, take my word for it” (8).
So from the dialogue we get that Clarisse is an inquisitive girl, who asks uncomfortable questions, and that Montag (at least at this point in the story) believes he has the answers to her silly questions.
Later on, when Captain Beatty arrives at Montag’s house when he decides to call in sick, their dialogue reveals how Montag’s thoughts are changing, and it also shows how Beatty thinks. Starting on page 57, Beatty details how it was not the government that forced censorship upon the masses, but the masses themselves that brought about the book burning world. By explaining the declining history of the books, Beatty leads Montag to wonder about the firemen’s history. Beatty is, of course, prepared for this question, and he then explains the history of the firemen and why they are needed. This entire conversation has Beatty feeding Montag information and leading him to the conclusions that Beatty wishes. From this the reader can see Beatty’s cunning nature, and also Montag’s new found curiosity, which leads him to reading the books he had been stashing for the past year.
Dystopian stories of a future with an oppressive government aren’t difficult to come by (just pick up a newspaper), but what Fahrenheit 451 does to elevate itself above the rest is to present a convincing path from the present to that future. Fahrenheit 451 does this so well that some aspects of the Montag’s lives are indistinguishable from the lives we lead today. Mildred’s constant use of headphones is a good example. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t know what an iPhone is. But it is not just the minute details that Bradbury captured, but the way he explained the attitudes which led to the world of Fahrenheit 451 that is so compelling. Montag learns, both from Beatty and Faber (two sides of the same coin, you could argue) how ideas devolved from the complex stories contained within books to the harmless sound bites produced by the programs in the parlor. Bradbury presents a real starting point and uses his knowledge of society and the human mind to connect that starting point to his oppressive future. Through this idea Bradbury is able to create a convincing dystopia, and that believability allows the reader to be engrossed by Fahrenheit 451.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a story about the firebombing of Dresden, but there is a catch. It’s funny. Vonnegut uses humor and the absurd nature of the story (Billy coming unstuck in time, his time on Tralfamadore, and the structure of the narrative) to make Slaughterhouse-Five more lighthearted and entertaining. The novel is still very grave and serious, but way the story is narrated makes the events seem more distant and muted. It is the combination of the humor, absurd events, and the narration which prevent Slaughterhouse-Five from being a ghastly, depressing tale of the horrors of war. In fact, they make it a funny, entertaining novel which is able to address these serious events and not lose the reader in the absurdity of the tale.
The actual story in Slaughterhouse Five doesn’t begin until chapter two, with the first chapter being written from Vonnegut’s point of view and about events that happened to him. He then segues into Billy Pilgrim’s story by saying: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (29). This is the real introduction to the story, as the first chapter is background into Vonnegut’s reasons for writing the novel. It is in chapter two that the narrator gets into the surreal humor which defines Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim becoming unstuck in time forces him to randomly jump to various points of his life, from his birth to his time in the war to his death. This random walk through time allows Vonnegut to still present the horrors of the war to the reader, but by jumping from the war to later points in Billy’s life also gives the reader a reprieve from the depressing conditions of the war. “The Americans’ clothes were meanwhile passing through poison gas. Body lice and bacteria and fleas were dying by the billions. So it goes. And Billy zoomed back in time to his infancy,” (107). Billy coming unstuck in time and his experiences with the Tralfamadorians are certainly not regular experiences. They are fantastic, unbelievable events. However, Vonnegut doesn’t let himself get carried away with them, and he keeps the focus on the horrid conditions of the war. He uses the absurdity to strengthen the narration instead of overpowering the narrative.
The narration in Slaughterhouse-Five is third person, but it is close to Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut does an excellent job of structuring the narrative so that it emphasizes the distance between Billy and the events of his life. I think the best example of this is repeating of the phrase “So it goes”. This phrase often follows a tragic event or description of something terrible, e.g. “…Edgar Derby, the high school teacher who would be shot to death in Dresden. So it goes,” (125) or “In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.” (182). This phrase adds distance to the events, and allows Billy (and the reader) to detach himself from what his happening around him. It emphasizes the general apathy of the narrator, who treats the events involving Tralfamadore with the same tone that he treats the events in Dresden and those of Billy’s time in the optometry practice. This narration is consistent throughout the story, which is important because the story can be difficult to follow. I think if the narration were too emotionally charged and Vonnegut tried to emphasize the drama of every war scene, then the reader would be exhausted after reading and the book wouldn’t flow well. As it stands the narrative does a good job of presenting the fantastic nature of the story in a way which makes the events and timeline clear and also reflects Billy’s character.
Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel that uses fantastic elements and a very fitting narration to tell the story of Billy Pilgrim’s time as a P.O.W. in Germany during World War Two. The narrator never steals the spotlight or shifts the focus away from the actual story. The fantastic elements are not the object of the story, but simply a way to tell it. Slaughterhouse-Five expertly weaves the narrative into the events of the story to create a tale which is believable yet fantastic, absurd yet grounded, and horrific yet engaging.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughter-Five. New York: Random House, 1969.
Judy Budnitz’s Nice Big American Baby is a collection of short stories that each have a fantastic element. Some are completely different from everyday life (“Sales“), some could be happening just down the street (“Elephant and Boy“), and the rest land somewhere in between. When reading the stories set in alternate realities I paid special attention to how the characters dealt with their surroundings because their environment is so foreign to me. There are many perils in creating such interesting worlds, but Budnitz handles it well. Of all the stories in Nice Big American Baby, I found “Visitors” to be the most powerful. The eerie situation with the narrator’s parents is juxtaposed against the trivialities of everyday life which makes the story feel more realistic, tense, and believable.
In “Sales” a family of husband, wife, and husband’s younger sister live in a world suffering from constant dust storms so fierce that the local kids can ride them like waves in the ocean. There are also hordes of travelling salesmen who move between towns and cities and who occasionally stop at the family’s house and end up captured by the husband. Budnitz walks a fine line in “Sales“. The setting needs to be vivid and interesting, but it needs to serve a purpose beyond existing for the sake of being fascinating. However, if the writer dwells too much on the minute details of the setting then they can get lost in the world they created and lose sight of the actual story. Just as Aimee Bender, in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, uses strange circumstances and characters to emphasize what the actual story is, so too must Budnitz not focus too much on her setting and instead use it to enhance the story. Also, in setting “Sales” in such a unique environment, the author has to be cautious when creating the characters. Since these characters live in such an isolated world and their (seemingly) main form of contact with others is through these salesmen the characters can’t be too knowledgeable about the world beyond their borders. It would be a completely different story if the husband was a renaissance man and knew how to build the windmill or if the sister was formally educated and knew about the development of the human body. Budnitz uses this setting to make a story about living in isolation and being stuck with what little knowledge, correct or not, the family members have.
“Visitors” was the story in Nice Big American Baby that stuck with me the longest. I grew attached to the characters and I was happily carried along for the ride all the way to the end. Budnitz fills the story with tension and it works well. She juxtaposes the phone scenes, which are actively tense and always leave the reader wanting more, with the scenes between Meredith and Parrish, which are quieter and have a different, softer kind of tension. In the phone scenes the reader is worried about the safety of the parents; in the domestic scenes the reader worries about the emotional health of Meredith. Her parents are in dire situations, yes, but by shifting the focus to the couple at the apartment, Budnitz makes the reader feel what Meredith must feel as she has to wait through these indeterminable stretches of time between phone calls. The dialogue between Meredith and her mother also works to heighten the tension. They don’t always answer the questions posed to them, in a manner true to life, and instead change the subject or mention information only tangentially related to the topic. On page 83, the parents encounter a roadblock and the mother mentions that they are in a rural area. “‘Rural areas? Where are you?’ / ‘Here comes your father.'” (83). The mother doesn’t answer the direct question, instead shifting the conversation and frustrating Meredith (and the reader, but in a good way) with her deliberate avoidance of the question. It’s a natural part of conversation, and it works well in “Visitors“.
Nice Big American Baby is a terrific collection of short stories that kept me reading from start to finish. Budnitz balances strange environments and actual story well, and she is able to use those settings to tell realistic yet fantastic tales.
Budnitz, Judy. Nice Big American Baby. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 2005.
John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells A Truth is one of the best craft books I’ve read. The part I found to be the most helpful was the group of exercises at the end of each section. Many other craft books that I’ve read had recommended exercises scattered throughout, but Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells A Truth organizes them far better than any other text. If you’re having trouble writing a conversation, it is great to be able to flip to the chapter on dialogue and look through a dozen exercises. Dufresne’s tone also resonated with me. He was down to Earth and accessible, which is not always the case with craft books.
Out of all the lofty advice and sound bites about how to improve one’s writing found in craft books, I’ve found that nothing helps me improve my writing craft as much as a good exercise. Other craft books have some exercises in them (I believe Gardner’s The Art of Fiction had some), some books don’t have any (Baxter’s Burning Down The House was exercise free), but none have had nearly as comprehensive a library of exercises as Dufresne’s work. When I first read through The Lie That Tells A Truth I didn’t do the exercises immediately. I would read a section then read over all the exercises and mark ones I thought would be most useful or that generated good ideas when I first read them. I would then work on a few exercises throughout the week. Two of the exercises that helped me the most are the interview exercise in the ‘The Method’ section and the talking in bed exercise in the ‘Let’s Talk’ section. The interview helped me understand my main character in a short story I was working on. I had a semi-solid picture of him in my mind, but by forcing him to sit down and answer all the questions I had (and thought an interested reader might have) I learned so much about his back-story and why he is where he is when the story begins. I didn’t know that his parents worked blue collar jobs and that they were poor. I didn’t know the specifics of what his company actually did. These were all things I would have figured out later on anyway, but the specific format of the interview exercise helped me to think about the questions that will actually matter to the reader and focus on those. Once I did that I was free to let the character open up to me. The talking in bed exercise allowed me to explore the relationship between my character and his wife. She isn’t on the page much in the actual story, but their relationship defines much of who he is. I used the talking in bed exercise to help figure out how the husband and wife’s relationship changed after the death of their daughter. In my mind it wasn’t clear if they were on the verge of splitting up, or if they were able to stay close and help each other through their difficulties. That bedroom scene, which didn’t make it into the story, helped me figure out that it is a bit of both. Not all of the exercises were as useful as the two mentioned above, but by including a lot of exercises on varying topics The Lie That Tells A Truth helped me more than any other craft book I’ve read so far.
Dufresne’s tone in The Lie That Tells A Truth felt less like he was an instructor lecturing but more like a buddy sharing writing tips. This is in part due to the language he uses, and part is simply due to his jovial attitude in the book. Some previous craft books that I’ve read felt very weighty and bogged down in the vocabulary used (Baxter, I’m looking at you). But it isn’t just the vocabulary used in The Lie That Tells A Truth, but also that Dufresne feels like he’s having more fun with the material. That makes it easier to process and more enjoyable for me as both a writer who is trying to put this advice into practice and as a reader who is just trying to get through the book. On page 59 he writes: “The First Commandment of writing fiction is, Sit Your Ass in the Chair. And sit it there daily. Strap on a seat belt if you must, but sit. (Velcro slacks?)” (59). I write because I enjoy it (among other reasons), and it is easier to learn if I feel the craft book treats it in the same way.
No one book on writing is perfect, but The Lie That Tells A Truth is a good place to start for new writers and a welcome refresher for those with more experience. Dufresne is both comprehensive in his treatment of the material and engaging in its presentation, and he has a terrific collection of writing exercises. The exercises alone would have made the book a worthwhile text, but the pages of The Lie That Tells A Truth are also filled with good ideas and helpful advice.
Dufresne, John. The Lie That Tells A Truth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a novel about an aging butler, Stevens, who has spent his whole life trying to be the best butler he can be, to the point where he almost seems incapable of emotion. He pushes away those closest to him (Miss Kenton and his father) because he values his professionalism above all else. What makes The Remains of the Day such an enjoyable read is the way in which Ishiguro shows the reader the conflict between Stevens’s actions, thoughts, and emotions. Often Stevens is only aware of the first two, being too professional to let his emotions even intrude on his thoughts. Ishiguro also structures the novel in such a way that the reader gradually comes to know what Stevens has been aware of from the beginning of the story. The Remains of the Day does a masterful job of drawing the reader in by keeping them at a distance early on, and gradually bringing them closer to the narrator in ways the character is unaware of.
The butler Stevens is a fantastic example of an unreliable narrator. He is perfectly earnest when addressing the reader, but his actions and emotions are often at odds with what he says and thinks. This opposition provides many great opportunities for humor, which Ishiguro uses well, but this is also where the true heart of the story shines. We can see from the way Stevens conducts himself in the first few pages that he is a professional of the highest caliber. But it is not until midway through the novel that the reader is able to see the toll that maintaining this level of professionalism has on Stevens, and it isn’t clear that Stevens realizes the price he has paid for being a butler of the highest class until the end of the novel. The real glimpse of conflict between Stevens’s thoughts and his emotions occurs when his father falls ill during an international conference of the greatest importance to Lord Darlington. Stevens is informed by one of the cooks that his father has suffered a stroke, but Stevens is required downstairs to attend to the conference guests. It is clear that Stevens loves his father (from any number of Stevens’s actions earlier, ranging from getting his father the position at Darlington Hall to the obvious embarrassment when forced to scale back his father’s responsibilities), but he has defined himself as a distinguished servant, and that is where he feels he is most needed. However, even Stevens’s professional exterior cannot hold back the emotion that he feels at this moment. Both Mr. Cardinal and Lord Darlington ask Stevens if he is all right in quick succession, and though he replies that he is fine his tears say otherwise.
“’Stevens, are you all right?’
‘Yes, sir. Perfectly.’
‘You look as though you’re crying,’” (105).
By making other characters notice what Stevens himself cannot, Ishiguro is able to show the reader all sides of Stevens in a tragic, realistic manner. Up until that moment Stevens had been little more than an interesting character to me, one who I wasn’t invested in. Ishiguro utilizes the unreliability of Stevens perfectly to give him a human side while still allowing Stevens himself to be proud and professional.
It is not until page 136 of The Remains of the Day that it becomes clear why Stevens regards Lord Darlington in the way he does. The best word I would use to describe it is pity. The reader gets a sense of this subtle tone of pity throughout the novel (more so in the later parts), but its source is not apparent until page 136. This is when Stevens reveals to the reader that Lord Darlington had contacts with the Nazi party and often dined with Herr Ribbentrop, one of Hitler’s most useful pawns in England at the time. Even in the present time of the novel Stevens defends the actions of his former employer, saying: “The fact is, the most established, respected ladies and gentlemen in England were availing themselves of the hospitality of the German leaders…” (137). This is a surprising bit of information, but the reader doesn’t know the full effect of Stevens’s pity for Lord Darlington until near the end of the novel, when Stevens is awaiting the turning on of the pier lights. Stevens has had his meeting with Miss Kenton (the only scene in the book where Stevens actually admits to having feelings for Miss Kenton, saying: “…at that moment, my heart was breaking…” (239), which was, for me, one of the most touching parts of the book), and he tells a stranger of his time at Darlington Hall. Here, finally, we get to see Stevens acknowledge how he actually feels about being in Lord Darlington’s employ: “I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom…I can’t even say I made my own mistakes,” (243). That is a powerful revelation. Stevens has spent the entire length of the novel defending and pitying his former employer, and now it is clear why. If Ishiguro had begun the novel by telling the reader that Lord Darlington had been used as a pawn by the Nazis, and that Stevens consequently regretted his lifetime of service there would be no emotional impact in that knowledge. But, by revealing this information slowly over the course of the novel, the reader forms a bond with Stevens. We feel his pain when his father dies, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it at the time. We feel loss when he discovers that Miss Kenton had considered starting a life with him, when it was so clear to us the entire time. Stevens has missed out on these things because of his singular pursuit of dignity in his profession, and by slowly informing the reader of all the details Ishiguro fills The Remains of the Day with heart.
Stevens is an endearing and worthwhile character in part because of his unreliability as a narrator, and not in spite of it. By pitting Stevens’s thoughts against his actions Ishiguro demonstrates the inner conflict inside us all.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. Toronto: Faber and Faber, 1990.
Great stories affect us all in different ways. Some might make you cry or shout or sit in cold silence, while others can change the way you view the world. We, as writers, know all of this to be true. However, a recent article in the journal Science, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” has demonstrated that reading literary fiction leads to improved performance on psychological tests that measure one’s understanding of the emotional states, beliefs, and intentions of others. Now there is evidence that you can indeed expand your worldview by reading literary fiction.
Theory of mind, as defined in this article, is split into two categories, affective and cognitive. Affective relates to “the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions” and cognitive to “the inference and representation of others’ beliefs and intentions.” The experiments tested both of these types of interpersonal understanding, and found them both to be improved when the reader was primed with literary fiction. Crucially, the scientists also tested works of popular fiction, nonfiction, and control groups which were given nothing to read. The group that read literary fiction outscored all the others.
The reading material provided to the participants was short: either a short story, a few pages from a novel, or a short article. Some of the more well-known writers used in the study were: Don DeLillo, Danielle Steel, Anton Chekhov, Robert Heinlein, and Alice Munro (her inclusion being fitting given recent events). The selected works and methodologies of the researchers can be found in their supplemental materials online.
So what does this mean to you as a reader and a writer? For starters, it does not mean that literary fiction is the only type of writing that is worthwhile. It also does not mean that your literary short stories have the ability to brainwash anyone. It does mean that well-crafted, truthful stories can give the reader an experience that (at least temporarily) deepens their understanding of the human condition. This result may seem underwhelming if you have been reading and writing your entire life, but to be able to demonstrate it in a laboratory setting is incredible. Don’t put down the popular fiction novel you are halfway through or scrap the nonfiction essay you’ve been writing. But if you aim to write stories that can enlighten readers as those in the study do, you must make a world as just as rich as our own with characters that live, breathe, and die.
And if anyone ever asks you why you read literary fiction you can point them to the last line of the article. “These results show that reading literary fiction may hone adults’ ToM [Theory of Mind], a complex and critical social capacity.”
“Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind”, Science. Kidd and Castano, 342 (6156): 377-380. Published Online October 3 2013.