Friday, July 06, 2012

Pleasure Reading and Cognitive Work

We’ve had emo-alphas forever. But what we haven’t had is the totally-spelled-out-and-explained-in-words-of-one-syllable emo-alpha, the emo-alpha male who is no longer a mystery. How can he be, when he’s telling you about himself all the time? [...]

Clearly the in-your-face, obvious, wordy explanations of the hero and his angst/pain/redemption work for a lot of readers. They don’t work for me.
And that’s why, henceforth, I’ll nod my head when people rave about the next book with the emo-alpha hero. I know what they’re talking about now, and I know why they like it. But I’ll pass, thanks. I like my authors to leave me some of the emotional and cognitive work. (Sunita at Vacuous Minx)
When I read Jennifer L. Barnes's recent article about "Fiction, Imagination, and Social Cognition" I was reminded of Sunita's insight into the differences between romances which demand a fair amount of "cognitive work" and others in which the characters' emotions are spelled out. Barnes observes that
Zunshine (2006) put forth the theory that fiction is pervasive and appealing because fictional stories feed a ‘‘hungry’’ or ‘‘greedy’’ mechanism for getting inside the minds of others, often referred to as ‘‘Theory of Mind.’’ We watch films and read books, she would contend, because we have a need to process mental states: we want to hear stories about people, imaginary or not, so that we can imagine, think about, and dissect their mental states and relationships. (300)
Barnes suggests that "autism spectrum conditions (ASC),particularly high functioning autism and Asperger Syndrome, should be of great interest to researchers exploring the cognitive science of fiction" (301) because they "may provide an ideal test case for many theories of fiction" (301).

It would seem that individuals with ASC are less able to do the kind of "emotional and cognitive work" which Sunita enjoys:
Individuals with ASC were less successful than controls at providing context-specific explanations for characters’ behavior, while they had no such difficulty providing explanations for the events in purely physical stories. (305) 
Individuals with ASC may pay attention to what people say, but sometimes fail to grasp what they mean, and it is unclear whether or not they actually find fictional stories– rife with non-literal utterances and complicated social relationships – to be enjoyable or appealing at all. (307)
Barnes asks:
How many stories in our popular culture hinge on a lie? How many minutes of Grey’s Anatomy or House could a person possibly watch without running into a sarcastic utterance? What would modern fiction look like if every word of dialogue was literally true, if no-one had ulterior motives, if people never attempted to mask what they were feeling, if there were no subtle or complicated social mores? These results seem to support Zunshine (2011)’s claim that consuming fiction not only requires complex theory of mind skills, but that fiction itself bears the indelible stamp of an audience hungry for embedded mental states: he thinks that she thinks that he doesn’t love her, he’s lying to mislead her about his true motivations, and so on. (306)
Perhaps, though, some fiction is particularly successful because it does lay open the truth of the characters' emotions and so the reader does not have to do so much "emotional and cognitive work"? Perhaps it appeals both to those who find such work difficult, and to those who prefer, at least on occasion, to avoid this kind of work and instead find pleasure in other aspects of the text? Perhaps they allow readers, once again, to enjoy the kinds of insights that were previously achieved through the use of a reliable, omniscient narrator?

  • Barnes, Jennifer L. "Fiction, Imagination, and Social Cognition: Insights from Autism." Poetics 40.4 (2012): 299-316.
The images are from Wikimedia Commons. The first is a photo of "Le Penseur at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor" taken by Yair Haklai and the second is a photograph of Erzsébet Korb's Girl's Portrait (Thinker, Contemplation).


  1. Thank-you, Laura for this post!
    Pam Regis

  2. I've been thinking about this since you posted it, because I don't associate an omniscient narrator with novels that don't require "cognitive and emotional work." It might be, though, that something like Middlemarch is demanding a very different kind of work from us than a book with a more limited point of view.

    It is interesting, though, that both omniscient narration and first-person are pretty much anathema in romances written today (at least for adults). Most readers like deep third person and they also want the hero's point of view, where it seems to me a lot of older romances did not provide that. So I do agree that the popular narrative form--deep third person, shifting between the hero's and heroine's point of view--in m/f romance is a kind of substitute for omniscient narration, in allowing us access to both characters' thoughts, but doesn't have the distancing effect many readers feel from an omniscient narrator.

    Thanks for this provocative post! I'm really interested in POV in romance fiction and its effects.

  3. Glad you found it interesting, Pam!

    I don't associate an omniscient narrator with novels that don't require "cognitive and emotional work." It might be, though, that something like Middlemarch is demanding a very different kind of work from us than a book with a more limited point of view.

    In terms of a narrator reducing the amount of cognitive work which has to be done by the reader, I was thinking of the narratorial voice in Northanger Abbey, because there the heroine is the kind of "reader" of other people who does take everything at face value and, as a result, she's often extremely puzzled by their behaviour. We, though, have the narrator (and some of the other characters) helping us feel confident that we do know what's going on.

    I think you're right that an omniscient narrator would tend to have a distancing effect and that reminds me of a recent Mills & Boon slogan:

    Harlequin marketing manager Robyn Ball said the Live The Emotion campaign was about tapping into people's need to escape.

    "The reason people read Mills & Boon is because they want to experience through the novel what the characters are experiencing," Ms Ball said. "So Live The Emotion seemed like a perfect slogan; particularly for the younger market."

    So if omniscient narrators get in the way of "living the emotion" I can see why they'd not be very common in popular romance.

    In terms of the development of romances, it seems to me that perhaps one can see a trend towards increasing emotional involvement alongside a reduction in the amount of work the reader needs to do in order to understand the characters' feelings. If there was a move from

    (a) romances in which the alpha hero is a mysterious figure whom the heroine loves but doesn't understand (rather like in the modern gothic romances, although his character isn't explicitly made part of a mystery) to

    (b) romances in which the reader has access to both the hero and heroine's point of view to

    (c) romances with an "emo-alpha" as described by Sunita

    then I suppose it could well have had the effect of increasing emotional involvement (in the sense that the reader can engage with the emotions felt by both protagonists) and so increase emotional enjoyment while decreasing the amount of "cognitive and emotional" work the reader has to do in order to understand what the characters are feeling.

    1. I'm re-reading The Sheik for a blog I'm doing this summer, and it's interesting how the narration brings us through these stages - and not only with the hero, but also the heroine.

      First we have no access to the heroine's 'feelings', then we get a lot (for me, a bit too much - like Sunita's feelings about the emo-alpha, I'm a bit exhausted by her emo-ness).

      And then we get access to the hero's pov, although he never quite reaches the 'emo-alpha' point (in my opinion).

      All this is to say that it might not be a straightforward historical development, since The Sheik was first published in 1919.

    2. it might not be a straightforward historical development, since The Sheik was first published in 1919.

      No, I'm sure it's not straightforward, particularly if you're looking at romance/romantic fiction over a longer time-period. I'd been thinking of romance novels in fairly recent decades but I have a feeling there were lots of emo-heroes in nineteenth-century fiction because when I was doing my research on Mills & Boon I came across a reference to a gothic novel in which the characters (male as well as female) kept swooning.

      Sadly, with the exception of Manon Lescaut, I've not read any of the fiction described below, but it seems to describe a very emo type of hero:

      The Romantic character was an impassioned, sometimes defiant, but always hyperbolic character who experienced both joy and grief in an excessive manner. Outlines of this extreme emotionalism can be found in some late eighteenth-century writings, such as Rousseau's Rêveries and La nouvelle Héloïse, or the Abbé Prévost's novel Manon Lescaut. The Romantic hero is overly sensitive, prone to emotional extremes, and moved easily to tears, even fainting spells. The beauty of nature, the witnessing of suffering in others, even the prospect of impending happiness are causes for emotional collapse or loss of consciousness. The Romantic hero is particularly preoccupied and dismayed by death and the inevitability of temporal destruction. In consequence, he is particularly sensitive to loss of any kind. (University of Missouri)

      I've been reading your blog, by the way, and I've been meaning to post a link to it.

    3. I hope you're enjoying it!

      A little off-topic (since it's film, not prose and I presume the cognitive work is different), but many of the 1920s film heroes are also very Romantic in the way described above. We seldom have to guess how they might be's all in their face and bodily disposition...

  4. Fascinating, Jessica! I've taught The Sheik several times, and I always draw my students' attention to when and how we shift point of view. The first moments when we get into Sheikh Ahmed's head and stay there are really dramatic, to me. Hull's not an elegant or subtle writer, but those turning points are a good way to show her sense of structure (and psychology) in action, I think.