Vicarious Choice-Making

Two thoughts on suspense:

Raymond Carver -- “I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it's good for the circulation.”

Cynthia Ozick -- “One of the great conventions – and also one of the virtues – of the old novel was its suspensefulness. Suspense seems to make us ask 'What will happen to Tess next?' but really it emerges from the writer's conviction of social or cosmic principle. Suspense occurs when the reader is about to learn something, not simply about the relationship of fictional characters, but about the writer's relationship to a set of ideas, or to the universe. Suspense is the product of teaching, and teaching is the product of mastery, and mastery is the product of seriousness, and seriousness springs not from ego or ambition or the workings of the subjective self, but from the amazing permutations of the objective world.”

Carver suggests the excitingness of fiction is physiologically good for us, Ozick that it's beneficial on a higher level. In line with the art-is-useful hypothesis, we might guess that, by vicariously identifying with fictional characters who are making important moral choices, we get better at making important moral choices ourselves.

Is anyone investigating this possibility? I read in “The Economist” once of an experiment where undergraduates were given some money and the choice of keeping it or sharing it with the other participating subjects: most undergraduates opted to share the money, with the exception of those majoring in economics, who invariably kept all the money themselves. Idea for a possible experiment – do people who have just read “A Christmas Carol” behave in a less miserly fashion than students who have just read Atlas Shrugged?

Does perusal of Jane Austen change the way women behave on online dating sites?

4 thoughts on “Vicarious Choice-Making”

  1. I love your thoughts of investigating or maybe comparing the possibilities of perceptions and behaviour changes due to the different kinds of things we are exposed to. I love Jane Austen. Personally, she's the root of how love is defined even to date. Well, of course in a traditional way only. Because of the openness nowadays, tradition has quickly I must say, extinct. And I don't believe in online dating sites.

  2. There's reader-response critics and theorists, some of whom do psychological modeling. The problem is, of course, with the fact that each text presents a set of problems and any text that might attempt to offer a set of specific moral guidelines is always thwarted by the way different readers choose to interpret them, by the different ways readers negotiate their subjective positions within the text.
    In fact, some of Ayn Rand villains are much more interesting (and memorable) than her heroes. Ellsworth Toohey or Peter Keating, for example, provide a great deal more of suspense than Roark. Reading The Fountainhead, it is Peter who is capable of surprising you (and you end up rooting for him), not Roark. Dominique is also not quite the ideal (in terms of Rand's philosophy) character (she is in fact quite generous), and much easier to model oneself after than Roark.

  3. Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now got me thinking some more about moral suspense. Trollope puts the reader on tenterhooks over such questions as — what is a man's duty when writing to the woman he loves about his own rival? Must he volunteer information detrimental to his own suit, simply because he is the only reliable witness? Twentieth-century fictional characters are rarely so scrupulous, and a loss of scruple means a loss of suspense.

    Novelists ought to live in societies that have highly defined code of values that are being vigorously called into question.

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