Wednesday, 9 January 2008

A Holiday from Ourselves: literature and emotional well-being

Is the purpose of fiction to offer escape into a world of fantasy, or to confront harsh realities? This is a pretty shop-worn question. The traditional Manichean assumption is that light, disposable, low entertainments offer the former; while serious, important, high art does the latter. Obviously the truth must be more complex, but how does one prove it, and what is the function of escapism or harsh reality in literature in the first place? A fascinating article by Blake Morrison in Saturday’s Guardian sheds new light on the issue. In fact, ‘The Reading Cure’ doesn’t exactly focus on this issue at all: instead, it’s about ‘bibliotherapy,’ the experimental use of books and book groups to alleviate pain and mental distress. The programme, underway in Merseyside in the north of England, has apparently met with great success, with patients reporting a reduced experience of pain and psychiatric patients showing noticeable improvement.

One might be excused for being wary of the idea of literature as therapy: the injection of literature into the self-help culture has not always had happy results. When Joyce Carol Oates appeared on Oprah’s Book Club, she encountered for the first time and en masse a kind of reader that she had never before encountered, who treated books like ‘lifebuoys to be clung to.’
“Since I’m a literary person, I look upon books as texts that have been imagined and written. But the general reading public looks upon books as documents of reality, and so the people on Oprah would say, for instance, ‘I have a mother just like that.’ Or, ‘My father was just like that.’ Or, ‘This happened to me.’ They don’t seem to perceive - nor do they wish to perceive - that this is a novel…” There is nothing wrong with reading as therapy, but there is something perhaps painful to an author in seeing readers gobble up their books as an excuse to “basically talk about themselves”.
A populist at heart, I hate to join so many voices in rubbishing Oprah’s Book Club; but there is something fundamentally creepy about this approach to literature: it turns books into an emotional crutch, an addiction that must, like all addictions, inevitably imprison rather than liberate.

A whole genre of writing, often in the form of confessional memoirs, exists to exploit this kind of reader. Morrison refers to them as ‘misery memoirs,’ and describes them this way: ‘they invite readers to be prurient rather than to identify, exaggerate where no exaggeration is necessary, and are too clamorous to grant the space to contemplate and withdraw.’ What is fascinating about the Merseyside bibliotherapy programme is that it specifically avoids this kind of book: the emphasis is not on ‘improving’ content, but on literary quality. Nor are the chosen books particularly cheerful:
As Thomas Hardy recognised, “If a way to the better there be it exacts a full look at the worst.” Hence Davis's preference for classic texts which address existential concerns, not anodyne pep-ups.
Although, as Morrison notes, the scientific evidence for bibliotherapy’s efficacy is by no means conclusive, this programme appears to offer strong evidence that great literature offers both escape and reality, and not merely in tandem, but in a complex inter-relation. One patient puts it this way:
“Reading pushes the pain away into a place where it no longer seems important. No matter how ill you are, there’s a world inside books which you can enter and explore, and where you focus on something other than your own problems. You get to talk about things that people usually skate over, like ageing or death, and that kind of conversation - with everyone chipping in, so you feel part of something - can be enormously helpful.”
And a hospital official concurs:
“People who don’t respond to conventional therapy, or don’t have access to it, can externalise their feelings by engaging with a fictional character, or be stimulated by the rhythms of poetry.”
The ‘misery memoir’ forces the reader into debilitating solipsism, and the ‘feelgood book’ offers no real consolation. But the great work of literature offers a feeling of escape in which the reader is able to confront harsh realities with the illusion of distance. These harsh realities must of course be the reader’s own, or else there would be no interest (as David Mamet puts it in his excellent book, Three Uses of the Knife, who cares if Othello kills his imaginary wife?), but their apparent alterity gives the reader a feeling of safety that allows her to explore her own feelings all the more thoroughly. At the same time the experience is universalised, giving the reader the feeling that she is not merely reading ‘about herself,’ but about everyone. As Morrison says:
It’s often said that books “take us out of ourselves”, but in reality the best literature is surreptitiously taking us inside ourselves, deeper than we might have expected or chosen to go.
Or Mamet: ‘When remedy is exhausted, so is grief.’

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