Self as Narrative. Oxford: Clarendon P, Zacharias, Greg W. Henry James and the Morality of Fiction. New York: Peter Lang, Ethik und Moral als Problem der Literatur und Literatur- wissenschaft. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, Columbus: Ohio State UP, If fictional as well as factual narratives can change the beliefs of readers, then they are ethically meaningful to disseminate values, emotional dispositions, and cognitive prac- tices.
Building on recent research in psychology and literary studies, this article explores in three steps the ethical value of fictional narratives. First, the persua- sive power of narratives is discussed from a cognitive perspective, which in- cludes consideration of the ethical consequences of taking the perspectives of others. Second, these insights are connected to a delineation of narrative con- ventions, which can foster the kind of deeper understanding associated with altruistic behavior.
In the third part, pertinent narrative strategies are discussed from an ethical perspective. A brief conclusion summarizes the most important results and sketches some fields that merit exploration in future studies of ethical criticism. Keywords: cognitive narratology, narrative conventions, persuasion, ethics, per- spective taking Narratives are persuasive: they can induce listeners to change their values and opinions. But even though the persuasive power of narrative is taken for granted and exploited in fields such as marketing and politics, literary scholars have as yet been reluctant to acknowledge this potential of narrative.
If narratives can alter the beliefs of readers, then they are important tools for spreading values, emotional dispositions, and cognitive practices. This does not mean, however, that fictional narratives are necessarily moral; instead, they can be used for myriad sorts of im moral purposes. In the following, I will clarify the question concerning the ethical importance of narrative conventions by combining recent research in psychology with narrative theory.
I argue that it is worthwhile to take the persuasive power of fiction seriously by practicing an ethical criticism that acknowledges the impor- tance of form, and, at the same time, developing criteria for evaluating the ethics of fictional works. At first sight, these results seem surprising: who would have thought that a simple story can induce American students to believe that eating chocolate helps you lose weight or that brushing your teeth is bad for your gums?
Yet this is exactly what studies have found, and these initial findings have subsequently been replicated and broadened in scope since the end 1 Though scholars such as Jay Hillis Miller, Paul Hernadi or Wayne C.
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Booth assume that fiction does have an ethical importance, they do not explicitly deal with the persuasive power of fiction, define it, explore the reasons for this potential of fictional stories or relate it to formal conven- tions. Moreover, it is not just factual stories that can persuade readers: indeed, though it seems unlikely that narratives which readers knew to be fictional and therefore without a factual truth-status could persuade them to change their mental encyclopaedia and general world knowledge, many experi- ments, like the path-breaking one conducted by Prentice, Gerrig and Bailis, have shown that fiction is just as powerful, if not more so.
The morals and values embedded in literary works matter. In their overview of recent research in this area, Green and Donahue show that these morals should be taken seriously and questioned with regard to the kind of ethics that are spread via particular kinds of fiction. To date, no definitive study has explained why stories known to be figments of the imagination can have such a potential for persuasion.
The suspension of disbelief, thus, naturally accom- panies the process of reading good narratives. Contrary to the Romanticist belief that the reading of fiction involves the willing suspension of disbelief, it requires more cognitive effort to suspend belief and critically scrutinize the plausibility or correctness of what has been read see Gilbert; Schreier In the following, I will concentrate on the second function that reading, particularly of fictional stories, can fulfill, and I will propose a few hypotheses concerning the relationships between the two.
In order to explore which narrative conventions can evoke sensitive under- standing of others, it is necessary to first delineate the cognitive and affective processes involved in this kind of understanding. Related feelings, which are connected to pro-social behavior, have also been referred to as sympathy, pity, compassion, and sympathetic distress Batson, Ahmad, and Lishner ; they should be distinguished from the kind of empathic sharing involved in perspective taking.
Both processes are, in different combinations, practiced in interactive encounters and in the reading of fiction; in short, the understanding of people and the understanding of fictional characters bear many resemblances. Such an elaboration of implicit personality theories is a precondition for pro-social action, since one must under- stand the needs and feelings of others before one can put that knowledge into practice.
Nonetheless, there is at least one kind of perspective-taking that can be practiced in reading fiction and that has been shown to correlate with altruistic behavior.
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In contrast, imagining oneself in the position of another is not necessa- rily related to altruistic behavior. Several conditions must be met in order to adopt such a perspective, and I argue that fictional narratives are particularly apt to fulfil these. The combination of these factors allows the reader to regulate his or her own perspective and to imagine what the characters feel and think, all while remaining aware of his or her differences from the characters. Reading fiction thus affords a perfect opportunity for practicing perspective taking that is, due to its manifold inherent difficulties, precarious in interactive situations see Decety and Sommerville; and Rameson and Lieberman.
This is also linked to the persuasive power of fiction: the reader must imaginatively, emotionally, and cognitively engage with the tale in order to care about the characters and to adopt the beliefs and values that are being presented. Apparently, stories written by canonical or bestselling authors have had more impact than those produced by psychologists for the purposes of testing Green — However, I would argue that, from the perspective of literary studies, one can point to a number of narrative conventions that encourage perspective taking. It is worth emphasizing that these conventions cannot deter- mine how individual readers respond to a text.
Characters like Harry Potter or the hobbit Frodo would thus meet the criterion of perceived realism. Within their respective fic- tional worlds, the characters act in a way that is plausible to the extent that they correspond to current folk psychology. This fits in well with the requirements for the imagine-other perspective: characters must be lifelike in the sense that they conform to beliefs about psychological processes, for this allows the reader to understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
This does not mean, of course, that in order for characters to be perceived as lifelike they must be models of reason and internal consistency: on the contrary, small deviations or even obvious defects can prove fascinating because they remain within the bounds of the thinkable, despite also being beyond the pale of the normal.
Indeed, it could even be argued that the most lifelike characters are those that are complex and carry internal contradictions. Moreover, genre conventions, individual preferences, and the cognitive abilities of readers for instance, chil- dren as opposed to adults each play a large role in defining what is plausible within the frame of the fictional world. This allows the reader to follow and empathically share the mental processes and emotions of fictional characters, and thereby reduces the distance between reader and characters.
The second provides knowledge about the characters and offers insight into their respective personalities and current mental states, thereby allowing the reader to understand characters and adopt their perspectives without actually following their thought processes. The second provides knowledge about the characters and can, in turn, induce readers to feel for them. Both aspects are intri- cately related as far as the taking of perspectives is concerned, but they proceed via different means. The third, and equally time-honored, mode of heightening the interest and empathy of readers is that of setting a character into a precarious position.
In order to feel with and for characters, they must be in a situation that potentially allows for positive as well as negative endings. In such situations, the reader is prone to evaluate the future development of events in light of his or her own wishes as well as those of the characters.
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It must be emphasized, however, that each of the three conventions discussed above can, by the same token, be employed in order to increase the distance between character and reader. In particular, contemporary and multi-perspective works fre- quently present abhorrent, disgusting, or, at least, undesirable feelings that the reader understands though they evoke negative emotions instead of empathic sharing.
In this respect, the character of a serial killer may serve as focalizer in precarious situations, with the reader hoping that the character will be apprehended in time. The process of sharing thoughts and emotions can therefore be reduced to a merely rational process, one which evokes disgust and antipathy rather than empathy. I wish to argue that increasing the reader-character distance is of crucial importance for the process of perspective taking. This is rare, however, even as far as the empathic sharing of thoughts and feelings is concerned.
This second process is intricately connected to an overall assess- ment of the situation and to the moral positioning of readers; it is closely related to questions of ethics. The Ethics of Form: Narrative Strategies from an Ethical Point of View So far, I have stressed that the adoption of the imagine-other perspective is ethically desirable. This corresponds to the Western tradition of appreciating empathy, sympathy, and the power of literature to evoke these feelings. As the pro-social associations of the imagine-other perspective evidence, there is good reason to follow this tradition, to which authors such as George Eliot have contributed.
With regard to the ethical value of literature, it is advantageous to differenti- ate between two aspects: On the one hand, there is the reduction of the distance between readers and characters, and the adoption of the imagine-other perspec- tive.
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On the other hand, it is important to emphasize the ethical significance of distancing devices that contri- bute to an awareness of the differences between readers and characters. Especially in postmodern times, it is necessary to consider the experience of alterity, of the otherness of others. According to the French philosopher Alain Badiou 41 , the acceptance of alterity and the radical difference between oneself and everybody else including oneself is a cornerstone of a theory of ethics. This view is compa- tible with a Levinas-inspired ethics, which has moved away from the prescriptive dimension of traditional values and towards a more tentative and open postmo- dern ethics.
Because we live in a society marked by multiplicity, heterogeneity, and alterity, literary works have an ethical value that transcends the practice of the imagine-other perspective, for they not only enable us to appreciate this kind of heterogeneity and complexity, but also help us to accept otherness, to refrain from stereotyping and categorizing others, and to abandon the insistence on closure. This does not imply a devaluation of the kind of perspective taking described above; rather, it makes it possible to appreciate the ethical value of narrative strategies that induce both sensitive understanding of lifelike characters and the acknowledgement of instability, openness, heterogeneity, and complexity.
It therefore seems promising to briefly consider aesthetic devices that in- crease the distance between readers and characters. Practicing empathy is only part of a more complex cognitive process as far as altruistic behaviour is con- cerned: it is also necessary to differentiate between persons whom one should empathize with and those whom one should not.
Moreover, distancing strategies are closely linked to the aesthetic quality of literature. Defamiliarizing devices, which slow the reading process and enhance the dis- tance of what is being described to the reader who must puzzle out what is meant can also open the space necessary for questioning stereotypes and pre- judices and for affectively engaging with characters who may initially seem strange. However, defamiliarizing devices do not always lead to cognitive closure; from an ethical perspective, what seems to be even more important is the flex- ibility and openness such devices require of readers.
For example, it is frequently impossible to categorize characters; especially in modernist works, the first description of a figure often amounts to nothing more than hints about their opinions, attitudes, or dispositions. In contrast to our routines in everyday life, in reading fiction our first impressions are often questioned and need to be revised.
In many cases, it is possible in retrospect to recognize former misunderstandings and to reinterpret events in light of these new insights; in other cases, the uncertainty concerning the evaluation of a character remains. Some literary texts necessitate the acknowl- edgement of complexity and otherness as well as only partial comprehension; they deny cognitive closure and complete comprehension. Shifts in focalization, which call for rapid adjustment to different points of view, can enhance the effects of defamiliarization. This differen- tiation is also important for understanding the cognitive and the ethical value of reading fiction.
This implies that the reader must choose which characters to empathize with and which to main- tain distance from. Various other aesthetic devices can also guide the processes of perspective taking. It is infeasible to discuss them here, as an effective and detailed account would have to explore, among other things, conventions concerning the handling of time and the importance of ambiguities and gaps or blanks Iser 67, Multi-perspective works especially necessitate the interpretation, evaluation, and weighting of different perspectives.
Readers are encouraged to accept alterity and heterogeneity. They practice a process that, from an ethical perspective, is arguably as valuable as adopting the perspectives of others. In literary works, this process is guided by distancing and engaging devices. The complexity and denial of closure inspired by the use of narrative forms can thus induce readers to comprehend contradictory positions, thereby rendering alterity more acceptable and moving towards an ethics of alterity. Unreli- able narration is per se a problematic narrative device as far as the ethics of a novel are concerned.
After all, unreliable narrators usually tell their story from their own point of view; particularly those sincere, but in some way misguided, deviant or mentally ill character narrators that Booth and many others dealt with allow us insight into their thought processes and justify their behaviors in accordance with their own norms, trying to encourage the reader to empathize with them.