one last post

It was a privilege having all of you in the class. Some of you are going onto to life post-Colby, and we all will miss you. To those of you remaining, I look forward to seeing you this fall.

On a more bureaucratic note, I’m not counting new submissions her towards your grade.

Enjoy the summer. Here’s one last article on (non-18th-century) novels:

Fear and Literature by Tim Parks | NYRblog | The New York Review of Books.

In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.

This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)

The same New York Times article quotes Keith Oatley, a cognitive psychologist and, significantly, “a published novelist” who claims that “reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers…. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”

If Oatley genuinely believes this I suspect he is not a very good novelist, novels being largely about form and convention. Halfway through Seven Years Peter Stamm, who I believe is an excellent novelist, has his narrator describe his oddly quiet and passive mistress thus:

My relationship with Ivona had been from the start, nothing other than a story, a parallel world that obeyed my will, and where I could go wherever I wanted, and could leave when I’d had enough.

Nothing other than a story. How disappointing. How reassuring. The passage seems to be worded in such a way as to suggest the author’s own frustration with his quiet and safe profession. But a mistress is a mistress, and a novel a novel. To ask her or it to be more than that would be to ask the mistress to become a wife, and the novel a life. Which it can never be.

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