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Posts from the ‘Reader psychology’ Category

Why Do People Read Novels? by Ben Marshall

It seems like a pointless question with an obvious answer – people read novels to learn and to be entertained.  However, the relationship between reader and book is a little more complicated and interesting than that.

When we read novels, we read about characters.  As readers we have a perspective not found in real life that allows us instant access to what characters are thinking and feeling.

We watch our protagonists snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and our antagonists grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.  Through their interactions with other characters we understand their internal journeys and empathise with them.

This behaviour of ours is possible because of what we call Theory of Mind, and is the ability of humans, from a young age, to deduce or infer the mind-states of others.  As soon as we learn to do this as children we don’t stop doing it until we die.

We determine the mind states of others constantly because we need to.  We’re social animals and our relationships are crucial to our survival – as much today as in the distant past.  But people are different, so our deductions are often wrong.  For example, though we learn to lie around age four, and perfect our abilities in our teenage years, studies show we’re actually rather bad at telling when other people are lying.

Getting it wrong about other’s intentions can have terrible consequences on us as individuals, on our relationships and our place in our wider social group.  Social death is almost as much to be avoided as physical death.  This is why we constantly study the behaviour of others, modify our own and, especially, we talk about it.

Social intercourse, or gossip, bonds humans in the same way as grooming does among the other higher primates, mitigating misunderstandings and group tensions.  We gather and talk, and, whatever the topic, it’s inevitably about people.  Whether we’re talking about our hairdresser, the coach of our team, our politicians or the people next door, we tell stories and share insights about others in a way that bonds us and eases tensions with laughter.

However, socialising isn’t risk-free.  Mistakes and misunderstandings are public and have consequences.  On the other hand, novels allow us to engage with other minds all by ourselves, and safely.  Since the advent of feature films and television programs, we also do a lot of our people-watching via these distilled forms of human connection and narrative sharing.

Are novels on a par with period drama films or reality shows about people losing weight?  They certainly share the tropes of storytelling and we derive similar pleasures from them.  Anna Karenina and The Biggest Loser are both narratives, full of characters and stories we find fascinating.

So, as with Celebrity Splash, we dive into the worlds of our novels, inhabit the heads of our protagonists and speculate about what might happen next, knowing that, unlike in real life, all will be revealed if we simply keep turning the pages.

Crucially, our involvement with our characters extends not only to their relationships, but groups of relationships, and the relationships of both to time and place, nature and culture, life and death.

Anna Karenina’s roots are buried deep in the literary and historical soil of its time.  Yes, we could do a remake set in the modern era, but that too would be as rooted in the world of now.

As each generation arises, the same existential questions occur.  What is life and what is death?  What are good and evil, and does it matter if we’re both?  Why is my culture/tribe/religious belief system/political ideology the best one, and why is every other suspect?

We read to deal with these issues, to enable us as better socialisers, to luxuriate in hearing other voices echo our thoughts, to be challenged to exercise our minds and grow new understandings, to playfully run through simulations of behaviours we need to understand or that we aspire to.

We read because we need to constantly engage with the worlds and mental states of others, and we do it as naturally, and as functionally, as when we meet with family and friends.

Novels are worlds that allow us to float above it all, watching, learning, holding existential dread at bay, and sharing a narrative.

We are alive in the world and yet, in the arms of a skilled novelist, we are magically safe from death, disease and faux pas – as safe as when we were tucked up in bed and our parents first read to us.


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


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Writing a Novel Set in a ‘Post-Collapse’ Circus Freak Show, by Ben Marshall

I chose a circus freak show as the world for my novel for two principal reasons – Ray Bradbury’s 1960’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Tod Browning’s 1932 ground-breaking film, Freaks. Something Wicked This Way Comes elicits mystery and horror.  Freaks elicits horror and pity.  The book sends chills because we struggle to imagine the horrors.  The film gives us nightmares because we see the horrors are real.  If you’ve seen it, you’ll remember your reactions to it long after you forgot the plot was a thwarted-love story. The freaks in the film were borrowed from various travelling circuses and sideshows of the time.  Browning had worked as a carney and his good nature allowed us to see people whose physical appearance and mental attributes shock us. It’s only a mild spoiler-alert to mention the real freaks of the movie aren’t the ones with disabilities.

I broke my leg one time, and because I was living in the tropics, the second cast was replaced with a moulded plastic brace I could take on and off.  The climate was hot so I wore shorts, leaving the brace exposed.  What reaction would you expect I’d get from people in the street?  You’d probably expect, say, mild concern or sympathy plus a few what-the looks, right?  I got them alright, but what surprised me – what shocked me – were the occasional looks of disgust and horror from people.  Micro-expressions mostly, but they were there.  Never from kids, rarely from men, mostly from young to middle-aged women – my age at the time.
If I copped disgust for a mere damaged leg, what do people with a pronounced physical disability get?
My point here is that we react in a visceral way when we see freaks.
A deformed human makes our minds flip between repugnance and compassion.  On a deeper level it can also inspire ontological questions.  And that’s why freak shows did so well before the advent of film and television.   As we react to see a man with no limbs roll, light and smoke a cigarette, we’re relieved we aren’t like him, but we fear and resent him because he challenges the idea of a fair and compassionate god.
And where there is fear, there is hate.  It’s one of the reasons Freaks was banned for decades and the maker forced to change the ending. My freaks exist in the tough world of the post-collapse future.  More like the Great Depression than The Road, it’s a world that uses what resources it can from the technological past while returning to a semi-medievalised world-view.  It’s less a dystopian vision than it is humans returning to a kind of default state.
All of which brings me to my theory.
My last novel manuscript was set in the seventeenth century.  I wanted to explore a world where the medieval met the Age of Reason because, technology aside, I think that’s where humans stopped evolving intellectually. We’re still fearful, superstitious and quick to lash out at difference.  We haven’t really advanced beyond the thought that if we can’t understand something, God did it, and we don’t need to strain our brains a second longer thinking about it or asking intelligent questions.
So this new novel, The Pricking of Thumbs, is my chance to explore what emerges from the rubble, and what our default world-view is.  I don’t know the answers to those questions yet – I’m only a hundred and thirty pages in, and there’s a lot of looking around to do before I suss it.  Still, I have good companions – freaks take nothing for granted and are tougher than I’ll ever be.


Ben Marshall bio page

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