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October 09, 2013

Why Fact-Checking Art is Dumb Criticism

The Realism Canard, Or: Why Fact-Checking Fiction Is Poisoning Criticism. - Parabasis
This odd tension-- that narrative art creates its own world yet helps shape our view of ours-- has given birth to (or at least popularity to) a new brand of criticism that measures a story against real life to point out all the ways that it is lacking. You've seen it before, right? "Five Things Parks & Rec gets right about small town budgeting bylaws." Now with Gravity busting box office records, we're getting astronauts and scientists telling us that there are many points where the film departs from real life. Entire critical careers are now founded on churning out "What X Gets Right/Wrong About Y" blog posts, posts that often completely ignore issues of aesthetics, construction, theme or effect to simply focus on whether in "real life" a given circumstance of a story would be possible. In real life, people don't talk the way they do in movies or television or (especially) books. Real locations aren't styled, lit, or shot the way they are on screen. The basic conceits of point of view in literature actually make no sense and are in no way "realistic." Realism isn't verisimilitude. It's a set of stylistic conventions that evolve over time, are socially agreed upon, and are hotly contested. The presence of these conventions is not a sign of quality. Departure from them is not a sign of quality's absence. The Realism Canard is the most depressing trend in criticism I have ever encountered. I would rather read thousands of posts of dismissive snark about my favorite books than read one more blog post about something that happened in a work of fiction wasn't realistic or factually accurate to our world as we know it. Dismissive snark, after all, just reflects badly on whomever wrote it (at best) and (at worst) cheapens the work it is written about. The Realism Canard gradually cheapens art itself over time. It's worse that the reduction of art to plot, or to "content." Those can still form the basis of interesting conversations. Instead, we're talking here not only about the complete misreading of what something is (fiction vs. nonfiction), but the holding of something to a standard it isn't trying to attain and often isn't interested in (absolute verisimilitude). We're talking about the reduction of truth to accuracy. We're talking about reducing the entire project of fiction so that we can, as Grover Norquist said of the Federal Government, get it to the size where it can be drowned in the bathtub. And I suspect on some level this is part of the point of the The Realism Canard. That art in its size and complexity is too much to handle sometimes, and too troubling. That even though we say fiction's job is to take us out of ourselves, we don't really want to be pushed. So we must take it down a peg, to a point where it is beneath us and thus can be put in its place. And the easiest way to do this is to cross check it against "real life" and find it lacking.

October 08, 2013

Reading nuanced fiction greatly improves empathy

Reading literary fiction makes you a nicer person - life - 07 October 2013 - New Scientist
They randomly assigned volunteers to one of three groups – literary fiction readers, popular fiction readers and a non-reading group. The first read extracts from texts shortlisted for the US National Book Award, while the second read extracts from Amazon.com bestsellers – popular fiction books with characters that are likely to be two-dimensional and straightforward to understand. All three groups were then asked to identify the emotions behind facial expressions – a standard test of empathy. Those who had read the literary fiction showed a heightened ability to empathise compared with the other groups. The result was the same when they ran different tests with different volunteers (Science, doi.org/n5p). "I like the study, and one would want to believe the outcomes, but at the same time, there are a lot of questions," says Matthijs Bal at VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, who also investigates the link between fiction reading and empathy. "The study was not clear on what the stories included – so which aspects of a story really make the difference?" says Bal. It might just be that literary fiction is more challenging to read and so requires more cognitive effort, he says. Bal's work suggests it takes several days for reading to affect empathy, which makes the instant results in the new study surprising, he says. "If I were to guess, I would say that the effect is short-lived, dissipating within hours or days at best," says Castano. "This research, we hope, marks a first step towards better understanding the psychological consequences of living in communities that support and promote literature." . . .