On Being and Essence (De Ente et Essentia)

As I worked on my final paper for this semester’s class on Animals and Ecology in the Middle Ages, I had to read up on Reader Response Theory and more recent developments in the field of what allows readers to connect with the characters they read about, even knowing full well that they’re fictional.

On my Young Adult book review blog, I use the voice of a teenager to write my analyses, since that’s the general demographic who reads the blog. And while I of course address the aspects I find intriguing and possibly useful to my academic work, I also “gush” about characters. I “ache” for heroines, I “fall in love with” heroes, I feel hate, I feel shame, I feel guilt for and with the characters. At least once, I caught myself within the review and reflected on it. I had this to say about Robyn Schneider’s The Beginning of Everything:

“I love both Ezra and Cassidy, I love their relationship, I love their friends. And in a weird sort of way because they are completely fictional characters (though why this is any weirder than loving them, I’m not sure) I admire them.”

Why do we feel such an affective response when we read about people we know don’t exist, never have, and never will? How can we love and hate these people so strongly?

My own research was geared more towards applying these ideas to readers’ interactions with animal characters. I’m still working on that, and I hope to have clearer ideas about that as I revise this seminar paper. But more generally, the ideas behind what happens when we read intrigue me.

I still don’t have very clear ideas about any of it, though my work this past semester and now, as well as the work I’m doing as a research assistant, is letting me explore that a bit more. But for now, just a few related thoughts.

Susan L. Feagin’s book Reading with Feeling: The Aesthetics of Appreciation makes some points that I found really intriguing. One of them is that each reader will react differently to any particular passage, which of course creates problems with Reader Response approaches altogether.

Here’s a part in the intro I marked emphatically:

“[W]hat warrants or justifies one’s responding in the particular way one does, to what one does? Rosamond makes some readers angry but leaves others cold. The pretty angle at which she tilts her head strikes some readers as endearing but makes others go ballistic. It is crucial to the whole structure of this book that affective responses can be assessed. As I hope will be apparent from Part Two, assessing emotions and affects makes assessing beliefs look like child’s play. The bulk of my discussion is directed toward showing how it is possible to make such assessments at all, that is, what it is about emotions and other affects that occur as part of appreciating a literary work which enables us to make assessments of them.” (4)

She goes on further to explain how each individual reader brings his or her own personal baggage to the book, and that is what enables each reader’s experience to be so different. She describes the way reading a certain passage will activate certain memories or associations for a reader, who then applies those personal elements to the characters in the fiction.

“[W]hen the reader empathizes with fictional characters, the initial stage of the simulation does not have to consist of mental states having the same content of the protagonist’s…”

and instead the reader summons his or her own subjective experiences and feelings and can then

“use the feelings generated to understand how [the character] felt, supplementing them, as it were, with the relevant content” (98)

The way I understand that, what we’re responding to then is basically our own experiences, our own worldviews and perceptions, filtered out of ourselves into the characters and then back into us.

Maybe that’s why some of us gravitate toward books that don’t tell us anything new about the world or about any kind of situation but instead books about characters in situations almost identical to our own. What readers like that are looking for is affirmation of their own ideas and feelings.

But even for those of us actively looking for books that will broaden our personal worlds, does this application of our own experiences cripple that goal? If the only way we can interact with a book, with characters, is filtered through what we already “know,” how effective is the reading in changing what we know? Enriching, yes, but changing?

I do believe, though, that books, fiction especially, do have that capability of changing us. So I need to find out more about this idea, find out if there are any opinions arguing against this one about reading experience being limited and bounded by an individual’s subjective reality. (Remember, though, that this is my interpretation of what Feagin says. I’m not sure she would agree with me either.)

Another, shorter point. I realized that I have stronger affective reactions to fictional characters in movies than in books. Horror films are simply out of the question for me, but I can read most horror and only be sleeping with the light on for a few days instead of a few weeks. I sniffled when I read The Fault in Our Stars, but I cried, real crying, when I saw the movie.

My initial idea about why that might be is that when I’m watching the movie, I see the characters and action as imagined by the filmmakers, and there’s no room for me to ignore certain aspects or change them, mold them to fit a shape more easily dealt with, less affective. But when I read, the images I see are being created in my own mind. am in charge of what those images look like. And it looks like I’m taking the easy way out and, without even realizing it, shaping those images to be as easily digestible as they can for me.

That’s not a good thing necessarily.

In my Intro Creative Writing class as a freshman, I had to write a “blurb” for a classmate’s play as an introduction before other classmates acted the play. I wrote something about the “deceptively simple” dialogue, and the professor’s comments were puzzled – there was nothing simple about the dialogue, deceptive or otherwise. The dialogue was explosive and inflammatory. And after I saw those comments, I reread the play and it dawned on me that I tend to read in a mind-monotone.

I read aloud for a while after that, to try to train myself to see the characters in action, maybe not exactly as the author intended (because I have major problems with that assumption) but at least so they’re not two-dimensional, that they come to life more fully.

And that brings us back to the question: how can I even think in those terms – that the characters are being “brought to life?” They never lived and never will. Part of Feagin’s explanation is that the ability to empathize with a fictional character is a desire to understand and feel what another is feeling combined with an ability to simulate a psychological state to match that. She does raise the question of the impossibility of that idea, because we can never feel what a character felt – the character never felt that and never will.

But I’m not quite satisfied by her treatment of this problem. I still want to know more about it.

Pieter van Houten (yes, The Fault in Our Stars was released only a short while ago and I’m obsessed with it, because the movie is a perfect adaptation of the book and because John Green is a genius) gets angry when Hazel wants to know what happens to the characters at the end of the book. “Nothing happens to them! The book ends!”

In a style of meta-ness genius typical of John Green, this is what begins the book:

“This book is a work of fiction. I made it up. Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.”

Why do made-up stories matter? Well, scholars and philosophers have been exploring that since time immemorial. Catharsis is one reason. But how does that even work? How can reading about a fictional character experiencing something the way some author dreamed it up be relatable and cathartic? That’s the question I’m reading about now.

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