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Appealing to Intellect in Fiction

21 December 2011

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

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

5 Comments to “Appealing to Intellect in Fiction”

  1. An expert at creative writing he may be. An expert in psychology, he’s not. “… studies show that we only learn when we have powerful emotions present.” If you want to make overblown statements, it’s much easier to ignore that the results of psychological studies never account for every single test subject. That not everyone requires “powerful emotions” in order to learn. As far as fear of testing is concerned, that’s the most specious type of inducement for learning, and is entirely unnecessary. It’s akin to the belief that children learned best when they were beaten. The predominance of fiction meant to appeal primarily or only to the emotions would seem to prove his point. All it really proves is that, for most people, learning doesn’t have a fraction of the charm that huge dollops of emotion have. That might have something to do with the scarcity of well-written and interesting books that appeal to the intellect.

  2. I did scoff, but not for the reasons I was “supposed to.” I scoffed at the choice of words, “Those trashy romances that women read.” As opposed to what, those trashy SciFi/Fantasy series that women read? Those trashy noir novels that men read?

    “Trashy” and “intellectual” are not mutually exclusive. Some of the stuff Ayn Rand wrote was, IMHO, trash. Sure, Atlas Shrugged was about the existential crisis of the artist in modern society, but it was also about kinky rape scenes and melodramatic bombings. Mostly the sex.

    Also, no, teachers do not require tests to make us learn through fear. They require tests because it is a simple, straight-forward way to evaluate who is worthy in our culture and who is not. You obviously don’t /learn/ while you’re being tested; you learn while you’re having fun in class, or absorbed in a hands-on activity. If fear was really necessary for teaching, then all Kindergarten classes would be conducted in the dark, with periodic shouting and randomized capital punishment. I’m sure I would’ve learned my ABCs a heck of a lot faster that way.

  3. Tamara got to the crux of my ire before I did. Why, why WHY do people use “trashy romance” as if it were a single word,trashyromance?? Particularly pompous idiots who somehow wish to make themselves appear smart and inte-lek-shoool. Fie on them and a pox on their houses. He said it best himself: “Pseudo-wisdom is frequently doled out by vapid authors.”

    And THIS is a perfect example of THAT.

  4. When I read books, or really enjoy any form of entertainment media I enjoy it on two levels. (Such is the curse of taking film critic classes in college. It will ruin your life.) The first level I call “mind candy” it’s go no redeeming nutritional value at all. It’s the popcorn flick or the trashy genre book of choice.

    The other level I enjoy media at is the “shiny idea” level. This is the “Oooh, look at that pretty idea, what a nifty take on something so commonly seen,” category. This is what I do when a work tosses my brain a bone and I gnaw at it. It doesn’t have to be a philosophical discussion of Plato. It could be the simple question “what if JFK never died?” Basically it makes me think about something.

    This is not the typical distinction of intellectual vs emotional storytelling. But frankly I think that the distinction that is generally used, that there is some sort of Mason-Dixon line of literature is not only fallacious but dangerously vile and arrogant.

    To suggest that something is less worthy simply because it’s focused on evoking emotion is laughable. Aristotle argued that catharsis provided a healthy outlet for a person’s feelings.

    But pure emotion is little better. As a teen girl I read my mother’s regency romances. I probably read several hundred of them. Until one day I realized that there were only two plots and nothing else about them was memorable at all. If something makes you feel and respond but in the end you walk away with no memory beyond the emotion it left in you… I find the emotion hollow, transient and without grounding.

    Both sides are an extreme that fails, ultimately to hold my attention. I want a well rounded book that tickles the brain and the heart. A really good book, for me, must do both, or in the end I have no reason to read it again.

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