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Fear and Literature

Tim Parks

 

Is the novel a space of intense engagement with the world, of risk and adventure? Or is it a place of refuge, of hanging back from life? The answer will be all too easy if we are living in a country that does not allow certain stories to be told. For Solzhenitsyn writing novels was indeed a serious risk. But in the West?

In my last piece in this space I considered the idea that our personalities are formed in communities of origin where one particular polarity of values or qualities tends to dominate—fear or courage, winning or losing, belonging or not belonging, good or evil. As each person seeks to stake out a position for himself in his community and later in the world outside, it will be the position he or she assumes in relation to that polarity that will be felt as the most defining and any problems in establishing such a position (am I a strong person or a weak one, am I part of the group or not?) will be experienced as especially troubling.

 

Fear and Lit )
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Can a fictional character take you over?

A new US study suggests readers may change their behaviour to emulate a fictional character – so who's gotten under your skin?

Pride and Prejudice
What unrealistic expectations of romance are held by Jane Austen fans?

Good lord above! If this is really true then I dread to think what havoc is wreaked by people who've just finished reading A Clockwork Orange; what unrealistic expectations of romance are held by fans of Jane Austen; what heights of passion are reached by Wuthering Heights aficionados on a daily basis. Because, according to a new study from researchers at Ohio State University, "when you 'lose yourself' inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behaviour and thoughts to match that of the character".

Just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study gave undergraduates various stories to read and observed their reactions. In one example, students were given stories about voting, with the result that "people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later".

In another, 70 male, heterosexual students were given different versions of a story about a day in the life of another undergraduate. In one, he was revealed to be gay early on; in another, he was outed late in the story; in the third, he was heterosexual. The results? "Those who read the gay-late narrative reported significantly more favourable attitudes toward homosexuals after reading the story than did readers of both the gay-early narrative and the heterosexual narrative. Those who read the gay-late narrative also relied less on stereotypes of homosexuals – they rated the gay character as less feminine and less emotional than did the readers of the gay-early story."

Geoff Kaufman, who led the study, said: "If people identified with the character before they knew he was gay, if they went through experience-taking, they had more positive views – the readers accepted that this character was like them". Perhaps we could hand out some "gay-late narratives" to inhabitants of North Carolina.

But I'm not sure this is hugely earth-shattering news to anyone who loves reading. I've known I tend towards "experience-taking" when I read for ages; when I was younger I even tried to adopt the speech patterns of characters I admired – embarrassingly enough, when it was epic fantasy. The researchers sadly don't go into detail about what might happen if a story is violent, or homophobic, etc – would we still adopt the character's perspectives? Stephen King certainly worried we might, withdrawing his story Rage after the Columbine shootings.

Anyway, I'm fresh from reading Gillian Flynn's terrifyingly good tale of a marriage gone toxic and a wife disappeared, Gone Girl. I'll update you soon enough on the state of my own marriage. And if you don't hear from me, worry.

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Maurice Sendak dead: ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ author was 83

Maurice Sendak, the renowned children's author whose books captivated generations of kids and simultaneously scared their parents, has died. He was 83.

Sendak passed away on Tuesday from complications caused by a recent stroke, his editor told the New York Times. He lived in Ridgefield, Conn., and was hospitalized in nearby Danbury. According to the Associated Press, Sendak suffered the stroke on Friday.

Sendak wrote and illustrated more than 50 children's books--including "Where the Wild Things Are," his most famous, published in 1963.

The book--about a disobedient boy named Max who, after being sent to his room without supper, creates a surreal world inhabited by wild creatures--won Sendak the coveted Caldecott Medal, the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize, in 1964. "Where The Wild Things Are" was adapted into a live-action film by Spike Jonze in 2009.

"Where The Wild Things Are" was not only revolutionary--but it was also wildly profitable, selling more than 17 million copies, according to Bloomberg.com.

Sendak's other groundbreaking works include "In the Night Kitchen," "Outside Over There," "The Sign on Rosie's Door," "Higglety Pigglety Pop!" and "The Nutshell Library." "Bumble-Ardy," his first book in 30 years, was published by HarperCollins last year. A posthumous picture book, "My Brother's Book," is slated for 2012.

Sendak "transformed children's literature from a gentle playscape into a medium to address the psychological intensity of growing up," the Washington Post said in an obituary.

His "unsentimental approach to storytelling revolutionized the genre," the Los Angeles Times said.

"In book after book," the New York Times wrote, "Mr. Sendak upended the staid, centuries-old tradition of American children's literature, in which young heroes and heroines were typically well scrubbed and even better behaved; nothing really bad ever happened for very long; and everything was tied up at the end in a neat, moralistic bow."

That's why, perhaps, Sendak could never break free from being labeled a children's book author, despite his exploration of darker themes.

"I write books as an old man," Sendak said in a 2003 interview. "But in this country you have to be categorized, and I guess a little boy swimming in the nude in a bowl of milk can't be called an adult book. So I write books that seem more suitable for children, and that's OK with me. They are a better audience and tougher critics. Kids tell you what they think, not what they think they should think."

In January, Sendak appeared on "The Colbert Report," giving Stephen Colbert some advice on how to make it as a children's book author. "You've started already by being an idiot," Sendak said.

"I don't write for children," Sendak told Colbert. "I write, and then someone says, 'That's for children.'"

"Sendak understood," Slate observed, "that kids need literature that makes adults uncomfortable. They need books that reflect their chaotic and dark worlds, in which sometimes children do have to feed their mothers."

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