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April 01, 2010

Knowing They Know That You Know: Triangularization in Fiction

Most of us like to read fiction, but sometimes I wonder why. Is there something inherently intriguing about someone else's story? Or do we like to get lost in another world - in the case of fantasy or science fiction - for example?

Or is there something else going on?

A recent article might shed some light on what it is about fiction that appeals to us, and it might not be...

...what you would expect.

A recent New York Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/books/01lit.html?pagewanted=2 explores this idea and comes up with some intriguing ideas.

If you consider fiction - especially classic British fiction - there is a continual flow of misunderstandings and mistaken identities. This makes novels hard to follow - but it also makes them vastly more interesting - hence worth reading.

The article is based on the work of Lisa Zunshine, author of Why We Read Fiction which offers a fascinating overview of the most exciting area of research in contemporary cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" and discusses its implications for literary studies. She analyzes a broad range of familiar fictional narratives, from Richardson’s Clarissa, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

Her assumption is that we, as readers, are drawn to the complexity, the drama if you will, of other people's complications. Literary drama, like our personal drama, can be difficult to sort out and make sense of. Fiction can sharpen our perceptive skills and help us make sense of our own dramatic complications.

This research also highlights the fact that serious reading is real work.

When I was teaching English in China, the most popular books in English were these classics; Dickens, Austen and others, and I often wondered how fully these books were understood by non-native English speakers. Since I have been teaching English back in the USA, I wonder how fully native speakers of English understand these fairly complex texts.

The classics of British literature are wonderful, but not easily absorbed. They certainly do reward the work of reading. (On personal note, I have recently revisited the works of Elizabeth Gaskell, they have been delightful).

For more from Lisa Zunshine, I highly recommend Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative which explores some of the recurring literary motifs of confused twins (from Shakespeare to Parent Trap and others issues that we see across cultures and centuries.

Her books provide a 'new way of seeing' which helps us ' see more' than we would otherwise, and is therefore a valuable contribution to readers, and especially to those of us who love to read about reading.

We are all always learning. And we, as well as the world around us, are always changing. And we never know what stray novel or short story might shed some light on a situation or make us wonder or be thankful for the life we have.

It is always more fun to learn together, so let me know what it is about English that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


About the author of this entry:

Morf has a B.A.from the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and an MAT (Master's in Teaching English) from the University of Washington (Seattle). Morf prefers international and independent films, foreign foods he can't pronounce, music no one else has heard of and riding his bicycle in foreign cities.

Posted by mmorf at April 1, 2010 10:22 PM

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