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Sunday, October 6, 2013

NPR Piece: "Want To Read Others' Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction" --Jane Austen Understood this Perfectly 200 years ago!



There was a segment on NPR on Friday by Nell Greenfieldboyce…


…which is absolutely spot-on in highlighting what I’ve been claiming for a decade about Jane Austen’s fiction, to wit: that, at the very top of Jane Austen’s agenda as an author, even beyond her desire to create great literature for the sheer satisfaction of such an artistic achievement, was her didactic intent to teach her readers (especially her female readers) how to read “life” more accurately.

Austen was particularly focused on teaching female readers, I claim, because England two centuries ago was in every way that mattered most, a man’s world, a world in which women were limited in their ability to exert their own power and choices. Prevailing customs, laws, & religious doctrine forced women to operate, in effect, with one hand tied behind their back.

From her own difficult life experience having her life choices consistently constrained by the demands and whims of her family (mostly her parents and brothers), Jane Austen realized that becoming a better psychologist was one crucial way of leveling that unfairly tilted gender playing field, especially because such psychological skills would enable women to operate covertly, without men even realizing they were being “worked on”, to use one of JA’s favorite phrases. I.e., “winning” by judo rather than brute force, winning without even being detected by the more powerful loser as having competed at all.

And, most important, I see this worthy feminist agenda as Jane Austen’s principal motivation for creating her anamorphic shadow story/overt story, double structure in all her novels. Women lived in the shadow of men, and what better way to enact that in fiction than by having the same novel text generate two alternative stories, one from a more deferential point of view, the other from the subversive female perspective. And this faithful representation of the real life of women in Jane Austen’s world also functioned as a teaching tool.  I can illustrate this last point best by quoting from the NPR piece I’ve linked to (although I urge you both to read the piece in full, and also listen to the audio clip, which is more complete):

“The scientists who did the study admit that it's hard to precisely define "literary" fiction, but say there is some consensus on how it differs from "popular fiction." Popular fiction tends to be focused on plot, says Emanuele Castano, professor of psychology at The New School for Social Research in New York, and the characters are rather stereotypical. "You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy." Literary fiction, in contrast, focuses on the psychology and inner life of the characters, he says. And importantly, characters in literary fiction are left somewhat incomplete. Readers have to watch what they do and infer what they are thinking and feeling. "This is really the very same processes that we engage in when we try to guess other people's thoughts and feelings and emotions, and to read their mind in everyday life," says Castano.”

I completely agree with Castano, but I raise his point to a higher level when I factor in JA’s shadow stories. I.e., the guessing game that Castano describes is elevated to a much higher level, when the reader not only has to engage in such processes in decoding the action in the overt story, (s)he also has to engage in the process of constantly determining whether one is operating based on accurate assumptions in assuming the overt story is the only story, or whether there is a subterranean story to be discovered, and then analyzed as to its different twists and turns.

To use Emma as the quintessential example, Emma engages in a guessing game during the last 2/3 of the novel, trying to ascertain what the mysterious Jane Fairfax is really up to, why she has returned to Highbury. Just before the end of the novel, it is revealed to Emma that Jane was actually secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, and Emma (and the reader) accepts that explanation, and the reader enjoys spotting all the clues during a rereading, that they missed on first reader. Due to the infinite complexity of that basic story line, Emma has justly been admired for two centuries as one of the greatest novels ever written.

But…what if the explanation given to Emma and the trusting reader is only a cover story, constructed by various other characters in the novel, in order to explain Jane’s presence in Highbury in a relatively benign way?  What if there is another explanation which Jane and those who love her have constructed, in a desperate attempt to save her reputation from the scandal of a concealed pregnancy of an unmarried woman? If that is so (and I have so claimed for 9 years now), then imagine the brainwork that a reader must deploy in order to suss out the details of that concealed pregnancy, and how it plays out in the shadows of the narrative, despite the constant obscuring effect of Emma’s clueless guessing. The reader must simultaneously turn down the volume of Emma’s thoughts, and turn up the volume of Miss Bates’s torrent of seeming trivia, in order to tune into that alternative story. That’s what I have done, painstakingly, for all of Jane Austen’s novels, and I can tell you, there’s no better puzzle ever been invented to stretch and test the human mind’s capacity to be (as Jane Austen terminology) a “studier of character”.

Now, imagine the beneficial effects on a reader’s ability “to guess other people’s thoughts, and to read their mind in everyday life” of the added challenge of having to evaluate explanations presented to us by other people, and deciding if we’ve been told the truth, or a cover story? My claim is that readers who engage with Austen’s novels on that higher, more difficult level, will receive commensurately higher benefits in terms of their performance on the kind of test Castano administered.

And I’ve just proposed exactly that further test to him today, and we’ll see whether he’s interested in
doing that further experiment!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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