A Compelling Story

“A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.”

This is Todd Walton discussing an interesting phenomenon, from Know Your Audience. And it is something he has personally experienced with his own fiction writing:

“I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

“Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.”

It’s not only that people were adamant about believing his fiction was real. They would get quite upset when told once again that it was fiction, even though they already had this explained to them before the reading. Some of them accused the author of lying to them. And a few left the room in protest.

From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

I quoted that in a post I wrote about a similarly strange phenomenon. It’s how people are able to know and not know simultaneously (a sub-category of cognitive blindness; related to inattentional blindnesscontextual ignorancehypocognition, and conceptual blindness). With that in mind, maybe some of those people in Walton’s various audiences did know it was fiction, even while another part of them took it as real.

This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we might suspect. The sometimes antagonsitic responses he got could have been more than mere anger at having their perception denied. He was going beyond that in challenging their dissociation, which cuts even deeper into the human psyche. People hold onto their dissociations more powerfully than maybe anything else.

There is another factor as well. We live in a literal-minded age. Truth has become conflated with literalism. When something feels true, many people automatically take it as literal. This is the power of religion and its stories, along with politics and its rhetoric. But some argue that literal-mindedness has increased over time, starting with the Axial Age and becoming a force to be reckoned with in this post-Enlightenment age of scientism and fundamentalism. That is what leads to the black-and-white thinking of something either being literally true or absolutely false (a blatant lie, a frivolous fantasy, etc). Iain McGilchrist describes this as the brain dominance of the left hempisphere’s experience and the suppression of right hemisphere’s emotional nuance and grounded context.

This mindset isn’t just a source of amusing anecdotes. It has real world consequences. The most powerful stories aren’t told by fiction writers or at least not by those openly identifying as such. Rather, the greatest compelling storytellers of our age work in news media and politics. The gatekeepers have immense influence in determining what is real or not in the public mind. This is why there is a battle right now over fake news. It’s a battle among the gatekeepers.

This connects to the smart idiot effect. It’s interesting to note that, according to studies, the least educated are the most aware of the limits of their knowledge and expertise. It requires being well educated to fall into the trap of the smart idiot effect (hence why it is called that). This is the reason media personalities and politicians can be so dangerous, as they are people who talk a bit about everything while often being an expert in nothing or, at best, their expertise being narrowly constrained. This is fertile ground for storytelling. And this is why attention-grabbing politicians like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump first became famous as media personalities — their being experts only in entertainment and egotism. Those like Reagan and Trump are storytellers who embody the stories they tell. They pretend to be something they are not and their audience-supporters take the pretense for reality.

This is seen in many areas of society but particularly on right-wing media. Interestingly, according to research, it is most clearly evidenced among the most well informed audience members of right-wing media who simultaneously are the most misinformed. The average Fox News viewer does know more factoids than the average American (maybe no great accomplishment), but they also know more falsehoods than the average American. What they don’t know very well is how to differentiate between what is true and not true. To be able to make this differentiation would require they not only be able to memorize factoids but to understand the larger context of knowledge and the deeper understanding of truth — the subltety and nuance provided primarily by the right hemisphere, according to Iain McGilchrist. Otherwise, factoids are simply fodder for talking points. And it leads to much confusion, such as a surprising percentage of conservatives taking seriously Stephen Colbert’s caricature of conservatism. Isn’t that interesting, that many conservatives can’t tell the difference between supposedly authentic conservatism and a caricature of it? The election of Donald Trump, an apolitical demagogue posing as a conservative, emphasizes this point.

It is maybe no accident that this phenomenon manifests the strongest on the political right, at least in the United States. It could be caused by how, in the US, authoritarianism is correlated to the political right — not so in former Soviet countries, though. So the main causal factor is probably authoritarianism in general (and, yes, authoritarianism does exist within the Democratic Party, if not to the extreme seen within the GOP; but I would note that, even though Democratic leaders are to the left of the far right, they are in many ways to the right of the majority of Americans… as observed in decades of diverse public polling). Research does show that authoritarians don’t mind being hypocritical, assuming they even comprehend what hypocrisy means. Authoritarians are good at groupthink and believing what they are told. They are literal-minded, as for them the group’s ideology and the leader’s words are identical to reality itself, literally. One could interpret authoritarianism as an extreme variety of dissociation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Todd Walton’s most offended audience members would test as higher on authoritarianism. Such people have a strong desire to believe in something absolutely. Self-aware use of imagination and the imaginal is not an area of talent for them nor the trait of openness upon which it depends. This is because they lack the tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a necessary component of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of fiction. It makes no sense to them that a story could be subjectively true while being factually false (or factually partial). Hence, the sense of being deceived and betrayed. The fiction writer is an unworthy authority figure to the authoritarian mind. A proper authoritarian demagogue would tell his followers what they wanted to hear and would never then tell them that it was just fiction. The point of storytelling, for the authoritarian, is that it is told with utter conviction — it being irrelevant whether or not the authoritarian leader himself believes what he says, just that he pretends to believe.

Authoritarians aside, it should be noted that most people appear to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between non-fiction and fiction. People will say they believe all kinds of things to be true. But if you give them enough of an incentive, they will admit to what they actually believe is true (priming them for rational/analytical thought would probably also help, as various studies indicate). And it turns out most people agree about a lot of things, even in politics. Dissociation has its limits, when real costs and consequences are on the line. But most storytelling, whether fictional or political, won’t effect the concrete daily life of the average person. People want to believe stories and so will take them literally, especially when a story has no real impact. For example, believing in the literal reality that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is an attractive story for it being largely irrelevant, just a pleasant fiction to create a social bonding experience through ritual (and evidence indicates that many ancient people perceived such things metaphorically or imaginally, instead of literally; the mythical being a far different experience from the literal). Literal-minded people forget that something can have truth value without being literally true. That is what stories are about.

So, it’s possible that if there had been some concrete and personal incentive for self-aware honesty (at least some of) those seemingly naive audience members would have admitted that they really did know that Todd Walton’s readings were fictional. It’s just that, under the actual circumstances with little at stake, their only incentive was their own emotional commitment in being drawn into the story. To be told it is fiction is like being told their experience is false, which would be taken as a personal attack. What they are missing, in that situation, is the willingness to separate their experience of the story from the story itself. It feels so real that they it would ruin their experience of it to imagine it not being real. That is a successful story.

(By the way, this helps explain why Plato so feared the poets, the storytellers of that era. See some context for this in an earlier post of mine, On Truth and Bullshit: “Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind.”)

* * *

For some further thoughts from Iain McGilchrist:

The Master and His Emissary
pp. 49-50

“Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, that in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right frontal lobe for its meaning to be conveyed or received. 132 The right hemisphere understands from indirect contextual clues, not only from explicit statement, whereas the left hemisphere will identify by labels rather than context (e.g. identifies that it must be winter because it is ‘January’, not by looking at the trees). 133

“This difference is particularly important when it comes to what the two hemispheres contribute to language. The right hemisphere takes whatever is said within its entire context. 134 It is specialised in pragmatics, the art of contextual understanding of meaning, and in using metaphor. 135 It is the right hemisphere which processes the non-literal aspects of language, 136 of which more later. This is why the left hemisphere is not good at understanding the higher level meaning of utterances such as ‘it’s a bit hot in here today’ (while the right hemisphere understands ‘please open a window’, the left hemisphere assumes this is just helpful supply of meteorological data). It is also why the right hemisphere underpins the appreciation of humour, since humour depends vitally on being able to understand the context of what is said and done, and how context changes it. Subjects with right brain damage, like subjects with schizophrenia, who in many respects resemble them, cannot understand implied meaning, and tend to take conversational remarks literally.”

pp. 125-126

“Metaphor is the crucial aspect of language whereby it retains its connectedness to the world, and by which the ‘parts’ of the world which language appears to identify retain their connectedness one to another. Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”

p. 332

“Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought. What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is that, ultimately, metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’. 2 The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.”

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The Stories We Tell

[W]ithin each of our individual introcosms we are always “seeing” ourselves as the central characters in the drama of our lives. However, a certain selectivity to this inner theater is apparent, since we choose those images of ourselves that fit into our favored scripts and ignore those that do not. This attribution of causes to behavior or “saying why we did a particular thing is all a part of narratization. Such causes, as reasons, may be true or false, neutral or ideal.” An interiorized self is “ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing,” and a “stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact.” We are not “consciously aware of all the information our mind processes or of the causes of all the behaviors we enact, or of the origin of all the feelings we experience. But the conscious self uses these as data points to construct and maintain a coherent story, our personal story, our subjective sense of self.”
~Brian J. McVeigh, A Psychohistory of Metaphors (Kindle Locations 2736-2743)

I’ve lost what little faith I have in rational public debate, democratic process, and the liberal dream. The stories we tell about ourselves and our society.

We don’t live in a free society. I’m not sure what a free society would look like in a country such as this. I simply know it would not be this way. In a free society, corrupt power-mongers would not become leading candidates in elections and certainly not elected into positions of power. A free people wouldn’t tolerate it. But we aren’t a free people in a free society.

Freedom is an odd notion. It is an ideal, a social construct that is reified through repetition. We talk about it so much that we take it for granted without understanding what we’re talking about. It relates to other notions, such as free will—the ability to act freely. The term ‘free’ etymologically goes back to a basic meaning of being among friends, which is to say being treated by others as they would treat themselves. As such, it actually has more of a connotation of mutual relationship than of independent individuality. To be free, in the oldest sense, is to belong among those one knows and trusts.

Our modern sense of freedom is rather abstract. It’s become entirely disconnected from the concrete reality of human bonds within a specific community. We know freedom from the stories we tell or rather from the media we consume, not so much from our lived experience. American communities aren’t locations of freedom, in any sense of the word. And we don’t have a culture of trust.

When I observe people in American society, I don’t see freedom of thought and action. What I notice most of all is how blindly and unconsciously people act, the dissociation and ignorance that rules their minds, how trapped people are in the life conditions that have shaped them, the persuasive rhetoric of media and politics, and the reactions to emotional manipulations. Even the ruling elite who love to play their games of power aren’t any more free than the rest of us, maybe even less so as they exist within the echo chambers of a self-enclosed establishment, based on the demented belief that they make their own reality.

The entire society forms a near hermetically-sealed reality tunnel. That is what it means to be in a society like this, to be a subject of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. We can’t see out, much less see beyond to other possibilities.

I keep coming back to a basic insight. We humans are a mystery to ourselves. I mean that profoundly but also simply. We don’t know why we are the way we are or why we do what we do. We know so little about the very things that matter the most, specifically our own nature. The ideals of a liberal society are the light glinting off the surface of deep waters, indicating mere ripples while leaving the currents beneath unseen. That nice-sounding rhetoric does not make the world go round nor does it tell us where the world is heading.

It’s pointless to expect a functioning democracy under these conditions. We are like children at play, knowing not what any of it means. Asking for democracy from an American politician is like asking for healthcare form a child playing doctor. Games, endless games. We are better able at imagining than in acting, for our imaginings are but daydreams and fantasies. As for voters, they only demand one thing, to be told comforting lies and entertaining stories. Our political system is a spectacle of lights that blinds us to the darkness around us, as we stumble along, more likely over a cliff than out of Plato’s cave.

We are all stuck in this mire and sinking deeper, even those who claim to be outside of it. The critics, left and right, are simply hypnotized by other scripts. Genuinely original thought and deep insight is so rare as to be practically irrelevant. Nothing will change, until conditions force change, and when it happens no one will be able to predict where those changes will lead.

At some point, the stories we tell ourselves stop making sense, as the world refuses to conform. What then?

* * *

The Elephant That Wasn’t There

The Stories We Know

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions

The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.

PKD vs the American Mythos

I’ve been listening to audio versions of PKD’s books, mostly his novels but some of his short stories and his Exegesis. The last two books I listened to are Eye in the Sky and Counter-Clock World, both of which I have read previously. I find myself, as usual, amused with the worlds created by PKD’s unique mind.

Those two novels (EITS & CCW) have been part of the background noise, for the past week or so, to the foreground focus of my thinking about culture. A recent blog post of mine was about the linguistic history of liberty, freedom, and fairness. It’s even more fun to think about such ideas with a PKD spin.

What really got my brain juices going is how PKD’s characters grapple with the realities they find themselves in. Some of his characters are more aware and others less so. To speak in the terms of culture is to already be standing part way outside the frame of the culture(s) in question. If a cultural paradigm is truly dominant, it is simply taken as reality itself and so not easily seen for what it is.

The less aware characters in a PKD fictional world don’t question the strange nature of their reality. It is similar in our world. Every world is a fiction of sorts, but of course a world is compelling only to the extent it isn’t seen as a fiction.

Culture is in particular closely related to the storytelling predisposition of humanity. Politics as well and we can’t leave out economics. It’s easy to think about religion as involving stories. What differentiates religion from most other areas of life is how obviously mired it is in the narrative mentality. However, I suspect religion just makes obvious what otherwise can go unnoticed.

Economics is a good example. What makes economics powerful in organizing society is the same thing that makes religion compelling to the believer. The compelling quality is belief itself, especially considering the often theoretical nature of both economic and religious ideologies.

Money or even gold as a symbol of value might be the greatest fiction ever created. This is most evident with gold which has very little practical application. Paper money at least has some very basic uses in that paper is one of the most useful things ever created. Despite all the hording, no one knows what to do with all of the massive piles of gold all over the world. People have sacrificed their lives and taken the lives of others, empires have risen and fallen, all based on gold being pretty and shiny.

Any monetary system is ultimately symbolic… but symbolic of what? The US dollar is backed by two things: the brute force of a global military empire and “In God We Trust”. As such, the US monetary system is backed by power of two (some might say closely related) varieties. It’s not just the physical power that matters. US currency with its invocation of God is a magical talisman. Only God and the banking system can create something out of nothing (whether in terms of the federal reserve printing money or private banks gambling with wealth that doesn’t actually exist in the real world).

The economic systems of other countries aren’t fundamentally different. Money never represents anything tangible or else money wouldn’t be necessary at all. Relationships or rather the perception of relationships is what money is about. All of the wealth and all of the debt in the world is an imaginary agreement. It is all ephemeral. The entire scheme could shift dramatically or disappear in a blink of an eye.

If the global economy collapsed, nothing objectively would have changed. The gold in vaults would continue to sit in piles. The natural resources would remain as they were before. The human capital would still be where it always was.

The reason there is starvation and malnutrition in the world has no objective cause. There is plenty of food to feed the entire world’s population and there is no lack in our ability to transport the food where it is needed. It’s like the Irish potato famine which was an intentionally created catastrophe. Capitalists couldn’t make much if any profit by selling or giving potatoes to poor starving people, and so they sold Ireland’s remaining potatoes to less hungry people elsewhere who had money. The same basic dynamic continues today with global capitalists who are even wealthier and more powerful.

We live in a corrupt system that is rotten to the core, but we collectively can’t imagine it being any other way. This is what some people call capitalist realism. Those who point out the problems get called commies or worse.

But it goes beyond mere economics. It’s our reality tunnel.

If our world was part of a story, a reader looking in on us would think he was reading dystopian science fiction. The fictions that we live and breathe on a daily basic don’t seem ludicrous because we have no equivalent comparison and so no larger perspective. A reader from the future would find the historical accounts of our period very perplexing. They would wonder why we couldn’t see the obvious immorality that our society is built upon and why we didn’t revolt, the same kinds of things we wonder about those who lived in early America with its slavery (or revolutionary era England with its socioeconomic caste system or any other number of examples). Slavery like capitalism is just another fiction that gains its power from those who believe in it or accept it or submit to it or become fatalistically resigned to it (not to say that some of the oppressed didn’t try to resist or revolt at times).

Like many PKD protagonists, I feel confused by the world I’m in. Things are a certain way and that is just the way it is. I don’t have any more rational understanding of why time flows forward than do the characters in Counter-Clock World understand why time flows backwards. We could quickly solve all of humanity’s problems if we wanted to, but it’s beyond me why we don’t want to or, to put it another way, why there isn’t a collective will to do so.

To be cynical, one could argue that the story of human misery apparently satisfies something in human nature. It’s all about compelling stories. The story of human misery is compelling because it is part of a mythos of compelling stories: the American Dream, meritocracy, free markets, entrepreneurial progress, cultural superiority, white man’s burden, manifest destiny, spreading democracy, etc.

Human misery is just the flipside of the Devil’s Bargain that the US was founded upon. There has to be losers for there to be winners, so the story goes. It’s a Manichaean battle between the makers and the takers, between the job-creators and the welfare mothers, between the hard-working meritocracy and the lazy slaves/workers. The worse off the losers must mean that we are experiencing some serious progress.

That is the thing with stories. You can say they aren’t real, yet they certainly have real consequences. The stories we live are real to the degree we force them onto reality and hence force them onto others. For those of the less powerful persuasion, we can participate in the story of power by submitting to some role within it that might allow us to have greater power than someone, just as long as we aren’t on the very bottom… and even the bottom has its narrative-justified comforts and contentments as there is always something further below us (animals, nature, etc).

Storytellers like PKD attempt to recast our collective narratives and offer a new symbolic context. Just being able to imagine something different is a power not offered by the status quo storyline.

Love of Stories: Modernism and Education

 
PLOTJon Krause
A good story is a dirty secret that we all share. It’s what makes guilty pleasures so pleasurable, but it’s also what makes them so guilty. A juicy tale reeks of crass commercialism and cheap thrills. We crave such entertainments, but we despise them. Plot makes perverts of us all.

Well, that is a bit melodramatic.  Good storytelling is far from being limited to “crass commercialism and cheap thrills”.  People simply enjoy good storytelling whether or not it’s considered high art by academics.  But it’s no secret, dirty or otherwise.  I do understand the point he is making.  For any ‘intellectually respectable’ person, maybe good storytelling has been somewhat of a dirty secret… but I’ve never considered intellectuals who can’t think for themselves as ‘respectable’.

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly?

Unfortunately, Mr. Grossman only manages a partial answer.  There are some truly great analyes about the relationship between high and low genres, but you’ll have to look elsewhere.  That said, I did appreciate this article.  His pointing out the enjoyment of plot does touch upon something quite significant.  And I agree Modernism represented a pivotal era.  Writers, especially in America, were seeking a distinctive voice.  They didn’t just want to write entertainments but to offer some semblance of reality.   However, what the modernists didn’t realize is that ‘realism’ is just another genre with rules.

I think that not only some of the most popular but some of the best fiction of the last 50 yrs has come out of the genres. Mr. Grossman is correct that many people turn to fiction written for the young (which often equates to genres) for the simple reason that genre writers know how to tell a good story.  At the same time, the most innovative writing has come from genre writers and mainstream writers experimenting with genre.

If you look at recent genre writing, it’s as much about breaking rules as following them. Genre writers are less confined than mainstream realism writers in both what they can write about and how they can write about it. Mr. Grossman points out that modernist writers invoked realism as their ideal, but what they forgot is that imagination is a part of human reality… or, to put it another way, subjectivity isn’t a mere extension of objectivity. Genre writers are more open to the mixing of realism and imagination which is why genre writers often come closer to the reality of genuine human experience.

I’ve found the fantasy genre inspires many authors with a basic love of storytelling.  Fantasy is rooted in the first stories we heard as children.  We read in order to have someone help us imagine something different than our normal experience.  Even so-called realistic fiction portrays people and event outside of our normal experience and helps us understand them.  There is no such thing as purely realstic fiction because imaginaton is always invoked when a story is told.

I think that the freedom allowed by genre fiction gives authors the opportunity to think outside of the box.  When not constrained by the rules of realism, authors can more easily capture the subtle and complex aspects of reality.

 – – –

David Walter Banks for The New York Times

Lorrie McNeill gives her middle school students a wide choice of reading in Jonesboro, Ga. More Photos >

But fans of the reading workshop say that assigning books leaves many children bored or unable to understand the texts. Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.

If a kid learns to hate reading, then trying to teach them difficult texts is rather pointless.

Critics of the approach say that reading as a group generally leads to more meaningful insights, and they question whether teachers can really keep up with a roomful of children reading different books. Even more important, they say, is the loss of a common body of knowledge based on the literary classics — often difficult books that children are unlikely to choose for themselves.

Many kids simply won’t read a book or will just read the cliff notes.  You have to first to encourage them to want to read because you can’t force anyone to anything.  I remember as a kid writing a book report about a book I never read and the teacher even gave me a good grade for it.  I did have some decent English teachers, but I must admit that I had to learn my love of reading on my own.  I’m just glad that no teacher taught me to hate reading. 

Ms. McNeill, an amateur poet whose favorite authors include Barbara Kingsolver and Nick Hornby, wondered if forcing some students through a book had dampened their interest in reading altogether.

Every child (and adult) natualy loves stories.  It takes great effort to destroy that love.  Many adults learned to not enjoy reading fiction and have only regained their enjoyment of reading through books such as the Harry Potter series.

Though research on the academic effects of choice has been limited, some studies have shown that giving students modest options can enhance educational results. In 11 studies conducted with third, fourth and fifth graders over the past 10 years, John T. Guthrie, now a retired professor of literacy at the University of Maryland, found that giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.

This is so obviously true.  Even without the research, it just commonsense that giving kids some choice engages them in the learning process.  Once the kids are engaged, the teacher can then guide that learning process.

Most experts say that teachers do not have to choose between one approach or the other and that they can incorporate the best of both methods: reading some novels as a group while also giving students opportunities to select their own books.

Duh!  This isn’t a new concept.  You have to meet kids where they’re at and go from there.  Also, kids are different… have different past education, have different levels of reading comprehension, have different learning styles.  The goal is to get kids to learn and a teacher should do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.  Some kids learn best when given more freedom to explore for themselves and some kids learn best when told what to do.  Some kids only need the merest enocouargement and some kids need direct guidance.  Whatever method is necessary, the primary goal is to teach a love of learning and kids are born with a desire to learn.  If a teacher can establish a love of learning (i.e., not destroy the child’s natural curiosity), a kid will carry that with them for the rest of their life.