Books on story

This year I’ve been doing pretty well getting through my reading list. Particularly, I’ve just knocked off two of the books I had on my list on writing and fiction; Lisa Zunshine’s Why we read fiction, and Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction.  

Lisa Zunshine’s Why we read fiction

I started reading Zunshine’s Why we read fiction several years ago; while I was in Mongolia, in fact. I’m just getting around to finishing it now.

Zunshine’s book is essentially an exploration of how humanity’s ability to have a theory of mind (ToM) interacts with fiction. ToM is a fascinating concept, and I think a hugely important tool. But I also don’t want to try and unpack it here; as a start, the Wikipedia page has some material, and this explanation of the smarties test is probably a helpful introduction to a simple practical example.

Zunshine unpacks that idea in her book, and then explores how it relates to fiction. Her central thesis is essentially that:

Theory of Mind is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allows us to navigate our social world and also structures that world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focused ways, our Theory of Mind. 

She spends the first third of the book essentially looking at what that means, practically, in relation to a given piece of fiction, and its interaction with the reader. As part of that, essentially has an interesting exploration of narrators – reliable and unreliable – and how it is that information gets to the reader from the writer, and the role that ToM plays in that transfer.

The second part relates to what she describes as ‘meta-representationality’. This is an idea that she introduces – of the importance of tagging the source of (and potentially other attributes about) information. As a simple example, if we hear that there is a wolf in the town, we will note the source, and interact with the information differently if we hear it from an authoritative newspaper or town crier, rather than from a boy who’s already falsely cried ‘Wolf’ twice.

The third and final section relates to ToM in the detective novel. As someone who doesn’t read detective novels often, I found this interesting but not gripping.

Overall, Why we read fiction is quite a good read. I think it does a good job of unpacking the relationship between ToM and fiction. I felt at points as though it relied a little too much on someone with a background in literary criticism interpreting a body of research in the psychology discipline. In some ways that was good, but the book might have benefitted from a co-author who was a psychology researcher (particularly in the ToM area).

But for all that, if you’re interested in the interaction between psychology and reading, or how the reading process works, it’s worth a look. And it’s a much better read than The Storytelling Animal.

Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction

Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction is a slightly dense book. I’ve been reading it on and off for a while, and only really buckled down this year, when I put it on my reading list. And now that I come to the end of it, I find that I have very mixed feelings.

On the one hand, there’s a lot to like in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Booth is someone who loves stories and good writing, and that shows in his analysis. He carefully explores a whole range of examples, and prepares lists of different aspects of storytelling, that are interesting, and worth thinking about. Different narrative techniques, different authorial voices. At his best, it’s a pleasure to listen to him unpack different ideas, and look at how different approaches are used in different stories.

He also talks about some interesting ideas in relation to writing, and his conception of fiction as rhetoric is a very helpful one. What is it that authors are trying to persuade us of? And how do the different techniques they use serve that end?

For all that, though, I find myself somewhat frustrated at the book as a whole. In  part, this is possibly because of how I read it. The Rhetoric of Fiction is a somewhat dense piece, and Booth has a tendency to wander. Dipping in and out of it as I did over the space of several months, and not taking notes as I was going, weren’t the most effective way to read it. But for all that, Booth isn’t the clearest writer. While he helpfully signposts headings, he has a slight tendency to wander off-topic (for example, from a particular literary technique to a broader question about ethics in art), and in one case I noticed he started by noting there were three main points; and then listing the first and third.

It’s interesting, too, reading both the original book (published in 1960), and a subsequent afterward for the second printing (1983). Booth’s central argument, in 1960, is that all fiction is in some sense rhetorical. Authors are trying – deliberately – to persuade us of something. He talks about this in some length in relation to authorial technique, in particular critiquing the focus of the then pre-eminent realist schools; arguing both that there is a cost to impersonal narration (some things are easier for a narrator to simply tell, rather than show), and that universal rules are often too general to be helpful.

In his afterward, he reflects on the earlier book he’s written, and its reception. To some extent it’s frustrating to plough through 400+ pages of (slightly meandering) text, only to have the author repudiate them. It feels sloppy. None the less, it is helpful to see him step away from some of the more specific statements. He acknowledges that while a critique of realism was relevant at the time, the more fundamental point was that fiction should be seen as rhetoric, and I think that’s still a useful way of thinking about writing.

Booth covers a multitude of technical points; if you care about how writing works, and which techniques cause particular effects, you’ll probably enjoy this. I found it thought-provoking, but at the same time felt that it lacked a larger framework. Because Booth didn’t clearly articulate a theory of communication (drawn from either psychology or linguistics), it felt as though some of his categories and analyses were somewhat subjective; you could have easily heard someone argue the other side, and left undecided. But for all that, I think it reflects well on Booth in that this is one of those pieces of literary criticism that leaves you more excited about reading good writing, rather than less – there is always a danger that lit. crit. ends up crippling that which it tries to understand, by focusing on the mechanics without seeing the vital force within.

A final, and quite important part of Booth’s thinking, relates to morality. In arguing that fiction is rhetorical, he subsequently argues that inherently, then, every piece of fiction must have an ethical component. In turn, then (he argues), how we respond to a piece of fiction can and will be different depending on the ethical standards it incorporates and espouses. I’m still thinking about this aspect. At times Booth can come across as a cantankerous lecturer, waving a cane from the front of a dusty lecture hall at ‘the young ‘uns’. But I think his fundamental point isn’t so easily dismissed. I want to do more thinking on this.

In the conclusion of his afterward, Booth adopts a stance which I found frustrating at other points in the book. Essentially, having spoken at length for some time, and developed quite detailed categories and systems, he then goes on to say that ‘we students of literature can never become as scientific as our forebears hoped … in what sense can we be said to progress? We seem, instead, to move in circles … ‘the state of the art’ … is permanently unfixed in our art …. I had an exhilarating hour once, talking with my son’s fellow fourth-graders about the rhetoric of fiction. “How do you tell the good guys from the bad guys?” I asked, and the kids were off and running’.

While I’m all for making material accessible to children, this isn’t a book that is accessible to everyone, by any means. Instead, this is a stance Booth takes at other points; refusing to reach a conclusion, to commit to a clear articulation of a useful theory. As a reader, it’s intensely frustrating to wade through material, only to find that the person writing isn’t themselves convinced of what they’re spouting.

This isn’t the piece I’d put at the top of a reading list, even for people who care about literary criticism. It’s interesting and thought provoking, but it takes time to wade through; and reading literary criticism from 1960 it’s hard to forget, when a particularly sententious statement goes past, that there are literally decades of debate that have been missed. This might be worth a read if you’re interested in his particular framework of fiction as rhetoric, or want to think about different types of narration; but definitely check what else is out there first.


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