Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Fighting for fiction - Nicola Morgan

A couple of days ago the Daily Telegraph told us that "Schools in America are to drop classic books such as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye from their curriculum in favour of 'informational texts'." The article went on to say that "American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014."

OMG, clearly.

Well, that was the desired reaction and it was the reaction I duly gave. However, it appears, judging by the early comments below the piece - which I hadn't read at the time because comments beneath online newspaper items generally give me appalling indigestion - that the article was wildly misleading. The third comment, by Deborah Brancheau, seems particularly informed and suggests that we needn't worry too much.

Anyway, I am not here to say who may have exaggerated what and why, or not checked which facts. I am here to shut the stable-door before the horse bolts, just in case anyone from our Government could possibly be so stupid as to consider trying to undermine the importance of reading fiction. Hard to imagine, but still.

I have done many different talks about literacy and the reading brain over the years, as it's one of my hobby-horses. I will also admit that I used to recommend non-fiction as equal in value to fiction, particularly as I used to teach reluctant readers and am a dyslexia specialist, and keen never to undermine anyone's reading choice.

However, while it's certainly true that readers should be allowed to come to a love of reading by whichever types of book they wish, I can't get away from the increasing research that suggests compellingly that reading/listening to fiction is necessary to developing empathy and an expanded Theory of Mind, which are in turn necessary for tolerance, wisdom and the strong foundations of human society.

If you are interested in this research, here are some resources:

Four fascinating books:
Proust and the Squid – Story & Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf
Such Stuff as Dreams – The Psychology of Fiction, by Keith Oatley
Grooming, Gossip & the Evolution of Language, by Robin Dunbar
iBrain – Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, by Gary Small

And one online article: “Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood”, by Marr, Djikic and Oatley. Keith Oatley is the author of Such Stuff as Dreams, mentioned above, and this article is an academic but shorter introduction to that message. He and his colleagues find numerous links between degree of empathy and reading fiction and their work seeks to find explanations for such links, in psychology and neuroscience. I find their findings compelling and fascinating and I urge you to read the article and to try some of the books above if you're interested in pursuing this.   

In the article, they ask: "Is fiction just a pastime, an entertainment, or does it have psychological effects that can be distinguished from those of reading non-fiction? Does reading the works of great artists have effects that can be distinguished from reading the same information but without artistic form?" And the work in Such Stuff as Dreams and on their blog, Onfiction, suggests that the answer is Yes, and provides possible explanations and greater detail.

Let me offer one quote from the article, describing one study which goes to the crux of the argument: "Students read either a chapter of a novel about the difficult life of an Algerian woman or an essay on the general problem of women’s rights in Algeria. As compared with those who read the essay, those who read the fictional piece said they would be less likely to accept current Algerian norms for relationships between men and women. In another study Hakemulder (2000) found this same decreased tolerance for current norms in students who read the fiction piece under instructions to mentally project themselves into the situation, as compared with those asked to mark the structure of the text with a pencil instead." The latter finding, they suggest, shows "that it is our imaginative projection of the self into the described situations that is key."

Narrative transportation - that "imagined projection of the self" - it's what humans can do, and what fiction facilitates. And it's this, they (and I) believe, that generates empathy, the human understanding that what is in my head is/may not be what is in your head, at the same time allowing the difficult skill of guessing what might be in your head, based on a combination of what is in my head and a generalisation of what I have experienced from the other heads I've been able to enter - in fiction.

So, if a government were to introduce any circumstances that would make fiction rarer, harder to access, available only to those wealthy enough to buy lots of novels and stories - supposing, for example, libraries and librarians were threatened - they would be threatening empathy, wisdom, tolerance and society. 

And that would never happen, would it?

[If you'd like me to speak about any aspect of literacy acquisition, Reading for Pleasure, and/or the reading brain, whether for parents or educational professionals, do email I've done a number of conference keynote speeches this year and a series of talks to parents for Education Scotland.  I've got dates lined up for trips to London and elsewhere (Kuala Lumpur and Prague!) throughout 2013 and I'm happy to add talks onto those visits, thus saving you some costs. Have brain, will travel!]


catdownunder said...

I am with you all the way on this!

Stroppy Author said...

Non-fiction is far more threatened than fiction! And children's access to BOTH are threatened by closure of libraries. Both have a vital place. As for the empathy, etc issue - it's hardly a new discovery - Aristotle made that point 2,500 years ago.

Of course, I agree whole-heartedly that children, including American children, should be encouraged to read fiction - and whole novels, not just gobbets to analyse. But children's exposure to made-up stories is not in any danger. Even if they don't read books (of any type) they see films, TV dramas, read comics, play narrative computer games... fiction is thriving. It doesn't have to come in the form of novels to provide the emotional and mental nourishment a child needs.

After all, there were no novels, and no children's literature, before 1700 and the world was not filled with emotionally stunted individuals. Did Greeks suffer from having to take their Sophocles on stage and their tales of gods in the temple? The evidence doesn't suggest they did. And you can learn as much about empathy and what is in someone else's head from staring at Titian's Rape of Lucrece for 10 mins as reading Twilight. More, probably. It's not time for a moral panic about the state of fiction - but yes, encourage them to read stories AS WELL AS non-fiction.

Ms. Yingling said...

Students do need to read more nonfiction than they do currently, and their ability to extract information from all text is not what it should be. Still, I am taking Common Core with a huge salt pile-- there will be another ridiculous initiative in ten years that demands something else.For right now, I'm offering my students a wide selection of different types of literature and will hopefully continue to do so long after Common Core has moved on!

Nicola Morgan said...

But, Anne, it's about story, which has been around for far longer than written non-fiction or written fiction. That's what the narrative transportation idea is about - not the act of reading, but of imbibing story.

Sorry about haste - just realised I posted a day early and am now discombobulated and embarrassed!

Nicola Morgan said...

Back again, though not at much more leisure as my internet keeps crashing. Anne, note that i did say "reading/listening to fiction", because this is nothing to do with the act of reading but about the importance of story. And I do very much think that fiction is threatened, but I didn't say or suggest that non-fiction wasn't threatened. This was a piece about fiction because that's what this research is specifically about. Most of what we read online is non-fiction, not fiction, and we are bombarded with more and more - digital overload of soundbite non-fiction, not related narratively, coming at us often faster than we can properly process, the limbic system overloaded before the prefrontal cortex (which is slower to react) can intervene to interpret. Fiction in many forms is enormously threatened and this piece was trying to stand up for it, to make sure that we realise its importance, to make sure we don't make the mistake of thinking that's it's "just" pleasure and has no crucial function.

Emma Barnes said...

fiction is thriving. It doesn't have to come in the form of novels to provide the emotional and mental nourishment a child needs

But Anne - does a video game, or even a film or play, encourage empathy in the same way that a novel does? They don't go into the characters heads in the same way. You don't stand in the same shoes as a character when you are watching them, as you would if you are inhabiting their thought processes through the pages of a book.

Aristotle may have been a towering genius, but his empathy for slaves and women might have been a bit more developed if he'd read a good novel about them ;-)

Found this a fascinating post, Nicola, and thanks for providing further references to follow up.

Nicola Morgan said...

Anne - the empathy isn't a new issue but the brain research to support it is.

Penny Dolan said...

I strongly believe that there is a thoughtful quality in fiction as written word that does more than just create "must read on" excitement.

Also, I wonder how much the move to n/f is that, in our IT driven classrooms, it is more amenable to whiteboard technology and easier to mark, especially on the fill-in-the-correct-answer online marking systems being pioneered and adopted by various institutions.

I'm not against IT, just wary nowthat I go into schools and can't easily get a flipchart & paper because all is done via the whiteboard.