It Lives!: Fantastic Fiction, Neuroscience, and [Un]Reality Hunger

moonFantastic fiction takes us back to the very roots of the narrative impulse. When our ancestors gathered around fires, they told stories of fantastic things: of gods whose bodies stretched the length of the sky, of women turned to reeds, of monsters and giants and talking animals. For this reason, extraordinary stories form an indelible part of what psychologist Carl Jung termed the collective unconscious.

Likewise, extraordinary narratives are part and parcel of the history of literature. When Mary Shelley’s monster came to life, it wasn’t considered science fiction; when Poe’s House of Usher fell, it wasn’t considered horror; when Kafka’s Samsa underwent his strange transformation, it wasn’t considered slipstream or any other slippery term: it was considered literature.

But something happened in the last hundred years or so. The tradition of literature—American literature in particular—became a kind of heavily barricaded edifice: a castle, if you will.

Brick by brick, book by book, this castle barricaded itself against fantastic fiction. Serious literature, with a few exceptions, eschewed the extraordinary, and sought to hew ever more closely to the ordinary, to our lived, day-to-day experiences. This movement hit its apex with the “dirty realism” of authors like Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason, and those authors trafficking in the fantastic were banished to the hinterlands of genre fiction, that stuff deemed fit for geeky teenagers and other members of the unwashed masses. (Where, it’s worth noting, they have flourished.)

It’s also worth noting that the invention of these so-called genres was essentially a matter of marketing—a way to let the book-buying public know what they were in for, and how to find more of what they already liked, should they happen to be browsing the aisles of a bookstore. But as academia embraced these distinctions in matters of genre, so, it seemed, did writers, especially those who wanted to be taken seriously.

But by the 1950s, a hairline fracture had already appeared in the wall of the castle of literature, when the Latin American Magical Realists became known to the Western world. These authors—including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, and Alejo Carpentier (and earlier authors who influenced their work, such as Jorge Luis Borges) presented such an undeniably literary version of extraordinary reality that there was no doubt that their work belonged to the canon. These writers helped to open the way for authors like Salman Rushdie, Louise Erdrich and Toni Morrison in the 80s—but still, by and large, an author writing about devils, talking animals and ghosts had to work very hard to be taken seriously by the literary establishment.

Increasingly, that’s no longer true. Not only have wizards, vampires and zombies enjoyed a stunning among of time on bestseller lists in the past decade or so, fantastic literature has quietly but assuredly been storming the castle of literary fiction.

We see this in the popularity of new writers taking bold leaps of the imagination in clearly literary ways—many of them  female writers, such as Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Alissa Nutting, and Kellie Wells.

They’re being met with help from within the edifice itself, by literary mainstays (many of them male) like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem.

Additionally, the smash success of that stunningly surreal work of fiction known as 1Q84 by international literary heavyweight Haruki Murakami, published in 2011, seemed to leave no room for doubt: the book was hailed by The Guardian’s Douglas Haddow as “a global event in itself, [which] passionately defends the power of the novel,” and was selected as No. 2 in Amazon’s top books of that year.

Together, these and other writers have helped to uncover the trap door entrance, if you will, the hidden door opened by the golden key, the secret passageway in the castle of literature, that leads to a forgotten labyrinth in the basement, at the roots of the narrative impulse.

It would appear that fantastic fiction, like the zombie or the vampire—while it may appear vanquished at times—is virtually impossible to kill, and possesses perennial appeal.

As I noted earlier, the fantastic really does exist at the very root of our impulse to tell stories. So we know, first of all, that this type of works exercises a deep appeal at the level of the collective unconscious.

But neuroscience offers another lens by which we can understand the appeal of the fantastic. There’s a recent book by a writer teaching and story consultant named Lisa Cron entitled Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. This book doesn’t necessarily offer any earth-shattering advice on writing you won’t hear from me or many other qualified professional, but what it does offer is why this advice works, based on the latest in scientific research.

One of the most interesting takeaways, for me, is the fact that when we read about a character performing an action or enjoying a sensory experience, the same parts of our brains light up that would if we were actually performing this action or having this experience for ourselves. The human brain literally can’t tell the simulated experience from a real one—a fact we can easily verify from the experience our own dreams.

The stories we read, like our dreams, feel real while they’re happening. And later, they join the story of our memory, higgledy piggledy with those things that we actually have experienced. (That’s part of why it’s so extraordinary to read a book like The Great Gatsby, knowing that you are actually joining the vast ranks of people who have shared in the same “life experiences” of this story.)

Many of us have heard the old adage ‘show, don’t tell’? Here’s why I believe it’s so important: when we’re experiencing fiction in concrete, clear images, unfolding in what appears to be real time—as opposed to abstract summary and narration—our brains literally can’t tell the difference between the real and the imagined. We are in what the author John Gardner called “the vivid and continuous dream.”

How amazing is it, then, that fantastic fiction actually allows us to do and experience otherwise impossible things? Impossible things such as, say, spotting that unmistakably sinuous motion of a dragon in flight–or experiencing the subtle hiccup of realignment with local time as your faster-than-light space vessel arrives in port? This is part of why, as an editor specializing in fantasy and sci fi, I always tell my clients that the more extraordinary the thing is that you’re describing, the more concrete your physical description must be. To read fantastic fiction is to literally experience the impossible.

Another takeaway from modern neuroscience for fantastic fiction in particular is the fact that the evolutionary purpose of story, as far as many smart people can tell, is to prepare us for situations and conflicts we have not yet encountered, and hopefully give us the tools, emotional and otherwise, to survive the unforeseen. (This is, by the way, also the prevailing theory on the evolutionary purpose of dreams.)

To my mind, there is no form of fiction that so squarely hits that evolutionary imperative on the head as science fiction, be it hard, soft, or over easy. Ursula K. LeGuin’s protestations aside [if you want to know more about that, check out her brilliant introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness], I believe that sci fi does indeed look ahead, and help us both to choose the kind of future we want to live in, and prepare for the future we’re currently on track to collide with.

As far as why we’re experiencing a bit of a fantastic fiction revival at this particular point in time, I have my own theory.

Whether or not you have actually read Reality Hunger by David Shields, you have likely caught wind of Shields’ bold proposition that readers no longer care about fiction, and are turning instead towards nonfiction, as evinced by recent publishing trends.

These are fighting words for many of us. But it’s true that nonfiction and memoir really are hot right now. (As evidence of this, just count how many times you’ve run into some mention of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild over the past year or so.) It occurs to me that we may be in a historical moment somewhat akin to the turn of the last century, when photography gained popularity as an art form, and, as a consequence, realist painting fell out of vogue.

Artists at that point in time seemed to be asking themselves, why painstakingly reproduce in paintings what can so easily be captured by film? It seems that perhaps both readers and writers are asking a similar question now: why should we painstakingly reproduce in realistic fiction what can nonfiction and memoir can now more faithfully represent?

In this sense, perhaps the current resurgence of fantastic fiction is not only something like a return to our traditional narrative diet of the extraordinary, but the fictional equivalent of Impressionism or Cubism—which is to say, it’s something you can only do in a made-up story.

[This post is an excerpt from a talk I recently presented at the Mid-Valley Chapter of Willamette Writers, as well as a version of a talk I presented at the Willamette Writers Conference in 2011. If you have thoughts on any of this, I would–of course!–love to hear them.]

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5 thoughts on “It Lives!: Fantastic Fiction, Neuroscience, and [Un]Reality Hunger

  1. I wonder…would nonfiction be as hot if it weren’t for amazing marketing? “Wild” was, after all, an Oprah Book Club book. Enjoy reading your blog!

  2. “One of the most interesting takeaways, for me, is the fact that when we read about a character performing an action or enjoying a sensory experience, the same parts of our brains light up that would if we were actually performing this action or having this experience for ourselves.”

    Are you familiar with Lisa Zunshine’s WHY WE READ FICTION? She explains our love of stories, especially whodunits, as a function of our Theory of Mind.

    As for Murakami, I didn’t much like IQ84 — but I loved KAFKA ON THE SHORE.

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