The Assumptions of Mercy

So I’ve been thinking about my unexplored beliefs lately, partly inspired by The Lean Startup‘s description of “leaps of faith,” or untested assumptions made by businesses in the early stages of development (such as “is anybody actually going to buy this shit”). This idea led me to realize that I have been operating on a series of assumptions about my own work for some time — some plausible, some reasonable but untested, and some pretty far out there. What follows is a brief outline of my theory of fiction:

First Assumption: Suspension of Disbelief

I assume that to consume fiction is to enter a state of mild hypnotic trance. This is also commonly known as narrative immersion or suspension of disbelief. If this is true, then it’s likely that many observations about hypnosis will also prove true for fiction, providing a useful basis for classification and experimentation. Some quick testable comparisons spring to mind:

  • Depth of trance varies widely depending on a variety of factors, including the skill of the hypnotist and suggestibility of the subject. This obviously also holds true for fiction also.
  • There is no known 100% successful method for inducing trance; suggesting that there is likely no such thing as the universal novel.
  • Hypnotic suggestion operates on a bell curve. This suggests a small percentage of people will be extremely vulnerable to narrative immersion and a broad range of the population will be able to go under fairly easily with assistance.
    • A small percentage of the population should also be completely incapable of reading fiction and even struggle with understanding stories at all. I will admit that I haven’t found a lot of evidence for this yet but there is a recognized medical condition (dysnarrativia) and I have — forgive my anecdotalism — met people in the past who claim to suffer from more limited forms of this condition.
  • Certain writers and readers, despite success elsewhere, will be unable to reach sufficient rapport to create a cooperative state.
  • A small percentage of writers should be able to induce narrative immersion in a much wider range of the population than their colleagues. This should be possible to mimic with observation and training.
  • Some people will “read” much more deeply than others and get more benefits from the experience than others.

My guess is that suspension of disbelief is a unique neurological state that could be recognized on an EEG monitor 1. There will also likely be differences in how suspension is experienced depending on medium, an observation made as early as the 60s by Herbert Krugman, who noted that his research suggested that “television is a medium of low involvement as compared with print.”2 There are also numerous references online to an experiment by Thomas Mulholland — though I was sadly unable to locate the paper itself, I did locate a description of it in the clearly unbiased “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:”

“Ten kids were asked to watch their favorite television programs. Our assumption was that since these programs were their favorite shows, the kids would be involved in them and we’d find there’d be an oscillation between alpha slow-wave activity and beta. The prediction was that they would go back and forth. But they didn’t do that. They just sat back. They stayed almost all the time in alpha. This meant that while they were watching they were not reacting, not orienting, not focusing, just spaced-out.”

In the future I hope to dig into the scientific literature some more and see what other experiments have been done — I would hypothesize, for example, that brain wave activity probably varies dramatically depending on what type of television is being viewed. (I am also curious to see what effect subtitles would have.) Complexity seems to matter, as well.

Second Assumption: A Map of the World

I assume that readers and writers both hold a model of the world in their mind. This is increasingly the view of cognitive psychology as well:

 Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica.3

This model will vary from individual to individual and culture to culture, and the greater the distance, the most difficult it will be to share that model. Some people will particularly enjoy the challenge of bridging this gap, while new technology will help to make it easier to cross — there is now a plethora of study guides for the classics online, for example, and Grant Morrison’s recent Batman run was written from the explicit assumption that anyone who read it would have access to online encyclopedias and annotations.

Third Assumption: The Architect

I assume the writer, as creator of the story, has the power to make alterations to this model. The reader has the ability to accept, reject, or interpret this model, sometimes in dramatic or unexpected ways.

 Fourth Assumption: The Rules

I assume there is a set of traditions that writers and readers obey when engaging in this process, both in terms of the model and how it is presented. Perceived violations are a frequent source of conflict between writers and readers (and readers and readers) and forms a great deal of literary theory. Many of these rules are arbitrary cultural constructs, although the near-universality of certain tropes suggests that some may be artifacts of the biological composition of our minds and shared human experience4. Genres often act as guideposts to regularly occurring, generally accepted variations in the model — a thriller will focus less on complex political realities and individual psychology in favor of thrilling, for example.

Fifth Assumption: His Master’s Voice

I assume that, as in hypnosis, writers benefit from establishing trust with their readers. This trust can be established in many ways, such as popularity, status, linguistic skill, and what is typically termed “experience,” or the ability to create what seems like a highly accurate model of reality. (Please note that I use the word “trust” here instead of “authority.” There is a small but significant minority that reflexively responds negatively to authority — consider some people’s automatic distaste for best-sellers, or the frequent accusations of selling out, or the conviction held by some that real truth can only be found at the margins.) It’s facile to note how strongly people respond to authority, but easy to forget how little is needed to establish it — for example, studies indicate we are far more likely to take orders from people in uniforms and suits, and a simple lab coat can improve compliance dramatically — even outside of the lab. This trust need not be legitimate. Master hypnotherapist Milton Erickson tells a story in one of his books about a client who was proving to be highly resistant to induction. Finally, Erickson simply held up a pen, asked the subject to close his eyes, threw the pen away, and then asked the subject to open his eyes, claiming that the pen had been made invisible through suggestion. Upon this demonstration, the subject immediately became more compliant. Or consider the example of Micah Wright, who wrote a military-themed superhero comic which drew on his experiences as an Army Ranger, and whose work drew wide praise for its authenticity and detail — until it was revealed that he was a liar whose total military experience consisted of a stint in ROTC. It was not accuracy that mattered, so much as the belief in accuracy. This leads us to our next assumption:

Sixth Assumption: Mimesis Matters (Somewhat)

I assume that one way writers can establish trust is with a demonstrably more accurate model of reality, or mimesis. I hypothesize that, all things being equal, readers tend to respond more positively to accuracy — legal thrillers written by lawyers, detective fiction written by detectives, or anything that has been researched well. While I am sympathetic to postmodernist arguments about the limits of truth and the impossibility of objectivity, readers respond positively to what they perceive as the accurate representation of reality. Now, readers are very open to changes to the model — this is, after all, the foundation of fantasy and science fiction — but only insofar as these alterations are coherent and consistent. In American fiction, the alteration should generally be announced up front — if you throw in an alien invasion at the end of your romantic comedy or stop your action movie for a half-hour meditation on the nature of evil, the natives will very likely grow restless. All that said, if forced to choose between great writing and great research, readers often prefer the former. Tolerance will vary — a minority of the population will be perfectly comfortable with stories that barely follow the rules of logic and are essentially tone poems, while others will struggle with anything that falls outside of their immediate experience.

Seventh Assumption: The Spectrum

I assume that this is a fidelity to mimesis exists on a spectrum; some readers will go along with any old bullshit, while others will immediately abandon a book if a single character behaves even slightly implausibly or a police officer calls in a 10-13 when they really want a 10-20. I suspect that these thresholds can be tracked by population — your literary critics are not your obsessive detective fiction readers are not your drunken businessmen looking for a distraction on their layover. There are several clear (if limited) exceptions to this rule:

  • Plot: the majority of readers believe that, unlike reality, fiction should have purpose and direction. The challenge of balancing plot and mimesis is one of the great difficulties of writing fiction; this is a complicated idea I’ll need to unpack fully some other time.
  • Comedy: nearly anything will be forgiven as long as it’s funny (see also: the end of Blazing Saddles). Nearly anything, mind you — this is not a blank check. Consider the plight of the tv show Community, which claims the hat trick for being one of the weirdest, funniest, and least successful shows to air on network television.
  • Emotional appeal: some readers are willing to ignore mimesis if it makes them feel better. See also: romance novels. There is a well-known rule in writing fiction that its okay to give your characters a break every now and then if the reader can be convinced that it is “deserved.”

It may be possible to re-examine broad cultural trends in storytelling by their changing relationship to mimesis, which we can divide into two major camps, defined as the “romantic” versus the “realist” tradition for now because why not. The trend in cinema for a while now seems to be toward increasing realism, while in comics several writers (in particular, Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman) are exploring the older romantic traditions of talking monkeys and gun-toting sexy nuns. Few stories fall entirely into one category or the other.

To be continued….

  1. So Kendall Walton can go screw.
  2. Brain Wave Measures of Media Involvement” by Herbert E. Krugman.
  3. Your Brain on Fiction,” by Anne Murphy Paul.
  4. Yes, I am familiar with the intentional violation of these rules in defamiliarization and deconstruction. We will talk about that some other time. Go away.