From author and former creative writing professor Dave Farland:
In talking recently about writing genre fiction, I spoke about the chemical reactions that occur in the brain as we read. There is a large contingent who feels that fiction that targets emotion is somehow inferior to fiction that appeals to our intellect.
In a sense, they’re very wrong. In another sense, they’re exactly right. Let me explain.
Stories about ideas have can indeed change the world. If you look at books like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, or Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which was rejected by an astonishing 121 publishers before it was printed and became a bestseller) you’ll find that the plots are pretty thin. In fact, I can’t recall feeling much of anything as I read the books. But the ideas explored within the page were fascinating. I love books that explore ideas.
Why? Because books that appeal to the intellect allow us to think about our lives and make dramatic changes. It seems, then to me, that any story that I write as an author should appeal to the intellect, right?
I’m not so sure. Those trashy romances that women read, don’t they also change lives? Right now you may be scoffing. But years ago I wrote a Star Wars novel called The Courtship of Princess Leia. It was a romance/adventure. A young woman came to me shortly afterward and asked if I could sign a copy to a young man that she knew. She explained that she liked him, and she hoped that this would be a good way to let him know. I signed the book, and a few months later, got an invitation to their wedding. This happened two more times over the course of the next few months. A few years later, I was looking up “favorite quotes” as I was researching the great quotes of literary writers. Guess what came up? One of the quotes I found was from Han Solo, from my book, as he talked about the nature of love. So even though this novel wasn’t meant to discuss anything profound, even though it was primarily an appeal to emotion for Star Wars fans, it altered lives.
. . . .
Creating an “aha” moment in fiction is sort of cheap. Every mystery author begins a book knowing whodunit. But the author withholds that information, and the important clues, from the reader, doling out vital data very slowly.
Remember the hunting dogs? As they search for the scent of a rabbit, the brain releases dopamine as a reward. It’s the same pleasing drug that we get as we read a mystery novel. As we search for clues, our brain provides dopamine to maintain interest. That release of dopamine is the reward for all stories that appeal to the intellect.
When the dog catches the rabbit, the serotonin gushes through the bloodstream, a reward for having caught its prey. A similar thing happens when we finally “catch” our imaginary killer. The brain secretes large amounts of serotonin as a reward. Thus, we feel “good.”
In other words, the “cerebral” rewards that we receive in fiction come from similar chemical processes that occur when we read fiction meant primarily to stimulate only the emotions. That feeling of elation that comes when a great story falls together, that sense of revelation that arises as an entire novel is thrown into complex relief when a bit of information is revealed–it’s all simple chemical rewards.
So “intellectual” stories and ones that simply arouse emotions do roughly the same thing. The only real difference is this: a story that has no intellectual component doesn’t overtly offer the reader any long-term reward.
Once the emotional thrill wears off, the reader’s view of the universe isn’t enlarged, his thoughts any deeper.
. . . .
So in some ways, intellectual fiction can be —and often is—without merit.
At other times, the intellectual merits of a story are spurious. Pseudo-wisdom is frequently doled out by vapid authors. Opinion is touted as truth. An eloquent author who pens a novel on, say, the cause of the recent recession is taking on a huge challenge. If he gets the answer wrong, is the novel really providing valuable insights? Is it really going to change the world in a positive way? Probably not.
A few hundred years ago, the Black Plague spread throughout Europe. At about the same time, witch hunts were organized in an effort to root out the cause, and tens of thousands of people were executed. Did the storytellers of the time, who imagined that witches were spreading the plague, really have a positive effect on the world?
. . . .
Recent studies indicate that powerful emotions act as a catalyst for learning. In fact, studies show that we only learn when we have powerful emotions present. That’s why teachers require students to take tests. It creates fear. It plays upon our need to compete and excel. It gives the student an emotional incentive to actually learn.
Link to the rest at David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants