Why writing matters.

I'm not going to pretend that writers can change the world. There are very few books that have had a
monumental impact on thinking - the works of Marx excepted, and maybe Plato, and Rousseau, and Thomas Paine ...

I'm not going to destroy my argument by listing philosophers. Besides, I'm not thinking of them - but of the majority of us who tap away at our computers, teasing out stories from the general confusion of our ideas, and sending them out for some to read. They aren't earth-shattering; few will be remembered when we're gone.

Even so, I would argue that writing, even apparently trivial little stories, can contribute to big ideas and ways of looking at the world. For in the reading we employ our skills of curiosity, and of empathy - with characters, with the problems that face them in the contexts of their challenging settings. Imagine our reader, sitting up in bed, a partner ready to turn out the light, and yet she must read one more page, one more page. Not simply as an entertainment, but because in that moment it matters to her what happens to characters - who don't really exist!!!

The next morning, on the News, she hears of girls abducted in Nigeria. These girls do exist. They are living, right now, in terrible limbo. Our reader, empathy intact from last night's reading, is able to despair for them and their families.

Then there are stories of boys press-ganged into serving as soldiers. Our reader can shed a tear for them.

And then the hard one. Young men brought up in unremarkable Cardiff appear as terrorists. Our reader might well shudder at the thought. But, night after night, she has been putting herself in someone else's shoes. Now she can use those skills again - to wonder, not only what it is like for these boys's families, but also for the lads themselves. She can resist knee-jerk condemnation and speculate on their dreams and feelings - she doesn't have to agree with them to do that.

For this is why reading - and therefore writing - matters. It feeds curiosity, asks questions, invites the reader to explore a world outside him or herself and try to understand it. Given the state of conflict we are presented on the television, I'd argue that a bit more reading could go a very long way.

You can find links to my writing on my website here.


madwippitt said…
Spot on! I shan't say more - seems pointless as you've already said it!
Lee said…
Though I happen to agree with you about the importance of reading - duh. I'm a writer! -- you haven't actually established that reading can foster these qualities -- empathy, curiosity, understanding etc. -- better than other narrative forms -- films or good TV, for example. Or to put it another way, there seem to be plenty of readers who are willing to wage war, abuse children, murder their neighbours. I wish it were as simple as you suggest, but it isn't.
Dennis Hamley said…
It's not the reader who matters here but the story. 'Never trust the teller, trust the tale.' Stories, I feel, exist in terms of the words they are told with, those words and no other - whether oral or written. I have a little test which suggests this, which I stumbled on by accident as an author in schools and afterwards made think deeply. Yes, of course some films and good TV can do it for us and they're also story. Good drama can do it too. Shakespeare exists in the words even more than the action, which is why directors can do what they like with the plays but the uniqueness still comes through. I claim the supremacy of the book but I don't doubt the validity of other forms. I do believe that, as Harold Rosen once said, story enables us to 'live other lives than our own' because we all wish for more lives than one. Of course not every reader takes away what narrative offers. That's a product of empathy and understanding. I submit that the concentration and rumination which close reading of a story needs helps to foster both. I once heard someone say, 'Reading Sons and Lovers is better than taking degree in psychology.' Big talk, but there's a tiny grain of truth in it. The leader of the Russian separatists, of whom we've seen a lot lately, may be an avid reader but he doesn't show much of either empathy or understanding. My guess is that he's not a dedicated follower of Gogol.
Lydia Bennet said…
Agreed in general Jo and Dennis, though of course each of us reads a different story even if it's in the same covers and we all bring something different to the experience. Language (along with art and music in a slightly different way) is the way we express experience and allow others share it, we are lucky as a species to have methods of preserving words rather than relying on speaking one-to-one.
Susan Price said…
Lee, part of what I've learned while training as an RLF consultant, is that people need to be taught to 'close read' - that is, to understand the meaning of what they read, and not just to recite the words. I'm sure Dennis has known this for a long time, but I hadn't really appreciated it.

Further, they have to be taught to think beyond the immediate meaning into the deeper meaning - what does this character feel, is there irony in these words, what effect does this passage have on the whole?

I realise that this is what my mother was doing when she used to talk with me about stories. If someone has learned to do this, then I think it can be argued that reading a good novel can teach us to empathise more than any other medium, because it takes us in so close to the characters, let's us hear them thinking and feel them feeling.

If they haven't been taught to 'deep read', then no, they won't get much from their reading, and it will probably bore them - unless they read simply for technical information.

Other mediums - especially if they concentrate on action as many films do - is a step removed from 'deep reading.' We watch the characters, but we have to guess, most of the time, at what they're thinking or feeling - and it may not be conveyed accurately or efficiently.

That's why, notoriously, 'the film isn't as good as the book.' Because no film can bring us as close to the characters as a book can.

I'm finding this now, as I'm currently watching the TV series of A Game of Thrones. Not great literature, you might say, but very involving books with absorbing characters. If I hadn't read the books, I think the TV series would bore me. For all the visuals, it's a poor, filleted version of the books. - And the TV version of Winterfell and the heart-tree isn't a patch on my imagination. I fully expect the dragons to disappoint too.
JO said…
Many thanks for such thoughtful comments. It's rewarding, as a writer, when people engage with ideas like this. Maybe it proves my point?
Lee said…
I'm glad you've all expanded on the original post, and given it some meat. However, I don't really agree that a good film can't bring us as close to characters as a book, Susan. Yes, a piece of fiction can render inner life far more directly, but the very act of imagining is -- or at least can be -- an active and enriching process. I almost want to claim there is such a thing as deep reading of a film, too. On the other hand, I suppose you can argue that without the written text, viewers are projecting more of themselves onto a film's characters, thus learning less of 'the other', which isn't particularly conducive to empathy, for example.

Altogether, I suspect there are many paths to empathy, and most if not all of them begin in childhood with love, security, good role models, etc. In fact, I recall reading that empathy is increasingly considered to be innate in humans and some primates, but of course like all so-called innate qualities we can foster them. Or distort them.

I know a good number of intelligent and empathetic people who almost never read fiction. Would they be more empathetic if they did? Maybe. Or maybe it's their upbringing and life experiences which have been key.
Lee said…
Another point, Susan: my filmmaker daughter would probably argue that in a good film, one not concentrating mainly on action, the inner life of a character is made available through other means than words, but made available nonethless: through music and sound, the visual techniques, body language, and much more. I'm really not qualified to talk in any depth about this, but I'll ask her what she thinks.
Nick Green said…
Medium is irrelevant. A movie is written just as a book is.

It's like when films are described as 'CGI'. They're not really computer-generated images. Someone drew them, someone wrote the words. To call it computer-generated is an insult to the creators.

Any message, whatever the medium - needs a writer. So of course writing can change the world. Arguably it is the ONLY thing that can.

"We will never surrender."
Lee said…
Nick, I'd have agreed about the primacy of writing till coming across this:

'They [philosophers Patricia and Paul Churchland] appreciate language as an extraordinary tool, probably the most extraordinary tool ever developed. But in the grand evolutionary scheme of things, in which humans are just one animal among many, and not always the most successful one, language looks like quite a minor phenomenon, they feel. Animals don’t have language, but they are conscious of their surroundings and, sometimes, of themselves. Pat and Paul emphatically reject the idea that language and thought are, deeply, one: that the language we now use reflects thought’s innate structure; that thought can take only the form in which we humans now know it; that there could be no thought without language.'

Scroll down to the last section of the profile for more on this aspect of the mind-body problem.


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