Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction

October 20, 2011

If you've ever wondered why you're addicted to Dan Brown thrillers, passionate about Proust, or obsessed with Pride and Prejudice, Keith Oatley's Such Stuff as Dreams aims to provide an answer.

Oatley is a cognitive psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. His book is the fruit of his research in psychology, but it is also the product of his own passions. He is a novelist, and his first book, The Case of Emily V, imagined Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes investigating the same problem.

I confess to being slightly disappointed with Such Stuff as Dreams. To set out to explain "how fiction works in the minds and brains of readers, audience members, and authors" is a worthy and ambitious aim. Reading the book, however, one is not always left convinced that it delivers what it promises.

From a literary standpoint, some of Oatley's critical readings are rather superficial. We are told, for example, that "dream" was an important word for Shakespeare, that iambic pentameter was central to his work, and that he used a lot of metaphors. To be fair, the book's readings of Jane Austen are more successful - and more closely attuned to the ironic tone of the writing.

Another problem with Such Stuff as Dreams is that its focus veers at times towards the solipsistic. After all, reading literature is not just about one individual mind making a connection with other individual minds - texts are read in historical, social and political networks. Yes, there is some discussion here of the wider social problems that Austen addresses in her novels (the marriage market of the early 19th century), but not enough.

The book is more successful when it opens up the fascinating area of what actually goes on in our heads when we read fiction. For Oatley, the origins of our attraction to literature lie in our experiences of childhood play. In make-believe we become things we are not, transforming the world around us - a banana becomes a telephone, a paddling pool the Caribbean. This "play" becomes the basis of how we later engage with fiction, an idea that Freud first formulated.

Oatley also shows how feelings of empathy appear to develop at a particular point in childhood. In an experiment that Oatley recounts, a group of children were told that a little boy has some chocolate that he keeps in the blue cupboard. His mother comes and moves the chocolate to the green cupboard. When asked where the boy will look for the chocolate when he comes back, children under four tended to say he would look for it in the green cupboard, while those aged four and above said he would look for it in the blue cupboard.

In other words, children around the age of four seem to develop the ability to see something from another person's point of view. Oatley regards novels and plays as a kind of training in empathy, where we learn to inhabit other worlds, other minds.

While these discussions offer a compelling insight into the different ways we read literature, the book sometimes feels like it is cramming too much in. Writers are discussed as well as readers, films mentioned as well as novels and plays.

Where a shorter, more concise study concentrating on the workings of the mind might have been more successful, this book feels somewhat unfocused.

There remains a lot to be said about the psychology of fiction. Such Stuff as Dreams serves as a decent, if in parts somewhat muddled, introduction to this fascinating area.

Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction

By Keith Oatley. John Wiley & Sons, 290pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780470974575. Published 1 July 2011

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Reader's comments (1)

Point taken. I would want more depth too, but it seems as though the alternative is studying this topic one journal article at a time. . .

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