Reading as Therapy
July 14, 2011 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Yes, but we must ask why. Maybe the failure is in our own minds.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:39 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

"What Aubry finds is that most readers do not expect novels simply to entertain or inform them. Rather, they treat fiction “as a practical dispenser of advice or a form of therapy."
posted by naight at 2:41 PM on July 14, 2011

The book What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960 does a good job showing what people read and why. Basically, there is a class of novel known as the "middle class novel", which I summarize in my review, "The middle class novel is typically instructing, realistic in style, and perhaps mirrors in some way the readers own life, or sets out to show a slice of life in America." After reading this book I was able to distinguish the middle class novel and now tend to avoid them as cultural background noise, like next seasons TV series lineup, inevitable and soon forgotten. It also helps distinguish the Great American novel, which is the anti-middle class novel, though not all anti-middle class novels are great. One thing anti-middle class novels are not is "therapy" or a way of dealing with problems, if anything they create problems and the need for therapy.
posted by stbalbach at 2:52 PM on July 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

That episode of Oprah where Toni Morrison talks to the audience about Paradise sounds amazing. I wish it existed online (I, at least, can't find it anywhere). I do want to critique Baskin on this:
The comments, as Aubry points out, pose a special problem for a writer like Morrison who (in the paradoxical manner of many “highbrow” writers) claims to value inclusivity and tolerance even as she fills her novels with textual mysteries likely to defeat the enthusiasm of the common reader. And it is symptomatic that the author, aided by Winfrey, responds to the complaint, and others like it, by stressing that the difficulty of the book has a therapeutic purpose—namely, to help the reader deal with disorientation, and confusion, in life. “You have to open yourself,” Winfrey tells the woman, “It’s like a life experience. It’s getting to know people, getting to know people in a town. It’s not everything laid out.”
I don't think it's paradoxical at all and I don't think Morrison is being disingenuous. Personally I've written some "difficult" chapters (just a few nights ago I was confronted by a reader about that very issue at 2:30 in the morning... oh small societies) but my principal aim was to reflect certain types of experience which are strange in and of themselves through text. It's not there to make reading hard, it's there to make fiction seem real.
posted by Kattullus at 2:55 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

One of the best pieces of practical advice I have ever received came from a novel: always shave after a hot shower, as it softens the hairs and makes them easier to cut.

Thanks, Bret Easton Ellis!

(Also, Palahniuk's Survivor is a better home-and-hearth guide than it is a novel.)
posted by griphus at 2:55 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think some of it is the old debate between mirror & window, but of course everything can be everything.

Kathleen Fitzpatrick deals with some of the same issues in this forthcoming article about David Foster Wallace and Infinite Summer. Clearly some people read Infinite Jest as a form of therapy (or got something quite like therapy from it).

>>And as in Oprah’s Book Club, one of the successes of Infinite Summer lies in its savvy connection of the right text with the right readers — readers seeking a game-like challenge in the novel’s narrative structure, readers critical of the direction of contemporary culture, readers turning to a book for solace in the wake of grief, readers hoping to understand something about their own experiences by seeing them refracted through the book’s perspective. Beyond connecting the right text with the right readers, however, Infinite Summer succeeded by connecting the right readers with one another.
posted by mattbucher at 3:04 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the best pieces of practical advice I have ever received came from a novel: always shave after a hot shower, as it softens the hairs and makes them easier to cut.

Thanks, Bret Easton Ellis!

There's all sorts of great advice in that book.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:05 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Writers are the last people one should go to for therapy.
posted by jscalzi at 3:12 PM on July 14, 2011 [14 favorites]

Does the bible count as fiction? Plenty of people read it for therapy.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:17 PM on July 14, 2011


James Pennebaker's research on the measurably theraputic effects of writing. I took a class from him in undergrad, he's a fantastic professor.

Also, here's what Fran Lebowitz has to say about the idea of reading for theraputic benefit: she doesn't approve. (this is a link to a youtube video in which she's discussing Jane Austen)

As for me, I don't know. I have noticed an overlap between psychology and literature on multiple occasions, and have always thought that psychologists and writers often seem very similar and are are compatible people, as compatibility goes.

Writers are the last people one should go to for therapy.

This reminds me of the old canard that all therapists go into the profession because they want to diagnose themselves. Probably has more than a grain of truth.
posted by Nixy at 3:20 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Some of the best social weaponry can be found in fiction. My latest fave is from Lucky Jim: "You think you're sensitive, but you're really just vain and touchy."
posted by No Robots at 3:26 PM on July 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

Pretty much everything I do is a form of therapy. Sometimes I think I read sci-fi and fantasy to briefly project myself into a world that has meaning.
When I get too existential and have trouble sleeping I use nonfiction, like my Springsteen Reader, to calm me down.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:55 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Reading my novel for therapy would be about like arrenging to have yourself raped to treat your PTSD.

Maybe this guy is on to something.
posted by localroger at 4:09 PM on July 14, 2011

Rather than searching for the “true cause” behind the embrace of certain books in America, Aubry takes readers at their word.

While seeking their answer is useful and interesting, accepting it at face value seem to me to be a mistake. I think the readers' answers are attempts to make sense of their reading experiences but they are really seeking safe intimacy. Therapy intersects with that but is something different, but I imagine readers prefer to couch their goals as self improvement and calling their reading experience entertainment would seem to trivialize and distance it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:11 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm reading A Dance With Dragons right now, and I'm trying to think of any advice from the novel I could actually put to practical use.

Winter is coming. Yep, got that one.

You know nothing, Jon Snow. Not much use unless I actually run across someone with that name. Seems a long shot, really.

Valar Dohaeris (all men serve). Not really sure I want to take that up. Sounds like, you know, doing some actual work.

I'm thinking "Trust no one," is strongly implied throughout all the books, but that seems kinda cynical for a personal mantra.

I guess I'm just not a self-help kind of person.
posted by misha at 4:19 PM on July 14, 2011

The Litany Against Fear from Dune got me through a blood test and a spelunking expedition. Even though I'm claustrophobic and hate needles just reciting the first few lines from that calmed me down.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:24 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Hey, a lot of stories also have philosophical content as well. Can I get a book deal stating the obvious?
posted by Eideteker at 4:29 PM on July 14, 2011

tl;dr - I saw another article like this on another site. I don't have time to look it up though.
posted by joelf at 4:31 PM on July 14, 2011

Well, this would explain why so much fiction these days is just misery porn.

I've recently become suspicious about applying lessons from fiction to reality. In fiction, there's a sentient being directing the environment, the characters, and the events towards some comprehensible end. This is simply not the case in reality.

I can't help thinking that treating reality like it's fiction is the cause of a lot of the world's problems. (Most notably, religion.)
posted by MrVisible at 4:33 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

My immediate response to that write-up was "well, of course they are." Reading fiction (and/or drama and poetry) has always been justified by its practical, philosophical, and moral applications; heck, a version of the argument for drama-as-therapy goes all the way back to Aristotle (the workings of catharsis). In the nineteenth century, where I hang out, reading fiction--which, depending on when you are and who you're reading, wasn't necessarily a respectable activity--might have such positive effects as teaching you to interpret historical events for providential meaning; exposing you to the practice of moral reasoning; offering you religious precepts in a pleasing form; relaying useful historical information; and, on a more pragmatic note, showing you how to properly negotiate everyday situations (dealing with servants, courting, etc.). Now, post-Freud & co., we tend to think about reading in therapeutic terms, something which probably seeps over into communities that aren't necessarily pro-Freudian (e.g., evangelical readers).

Unfortunately, I kept getting distracted by Mr. Baskin's summaries of current critical practice. Far from being "different," this book seems totally mainstream--standard operating procedure is to ask what the books are doing, and not necessarily to critique their complicity with global capitalism or whatever. It's not that nobody is doing the critique their complicity bit, but that a lot of recent scholarship, especially on popular fiction or otherwise non-canonical texts--especially religious texts--emphasizes recovering how they worked. (In fact, pretty much everything I've read recently, in wildly different fields, has had this as its stated goal.) And critics have been arguing for the power of sentimentality since the 80s, at least, pointing to its role in reform movements, abolitionism, etc. (Jane Tompkins was one of the pioneers).
posted by thomas j wise at 5:08 PM on July 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

I read that in literate circles it’s become fashionable for seventy something year-old novelists to announce that they’ve given up reading fiction. Phillip Roth just has.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 5:14 PM on July 14, 2011

Iris Murdoch had a few interesting ideas on this subject:

Literature could be said to be a sort of disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions.

The most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.

Art and morality are, with certain provisos…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.

As well as a couple that seem relevant to the genre of sentimental literature and the "supremacy of the subjective theater" supposedly considered by the discussed books' audiences to be "the site of greatest importance, complexity, depth and fulfillment in the world":

Anything that consoles is fake.

Happiness is a matter of one's most ordinary everyday mode of consciousness being busy and lively and unconcerned with self. To be damned is for one's ordinary everyday mode of consciousness to be unremitting agonizing preoccupation with self.

posted by BigSky at 5:33 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

From a very young age, I used fiction to understand what the hell was going on with people, both kids and adults. I didn't see it as therapy, just a way to fill in information I wasn't getting from my self-absorbed, incommunicative parents. And to get out of my own perspective on the world. Surely other kids did that, too? Didn't you?
posted by pomegranate at 6:22 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read fiction because I like to get lost in things.

This only works with good fiction.
posted by Afroblanco at 6:28 PM on July 14, 2011

Fiction provides characters to project stuff onto, whether you're projecting yourself or someone else or a political entity or a philosophical concept. It provides allegories, usually with some assembly required, so that you can easily find one that you can project your own history on, or the history of your family, or your nation.

Having adequately projected your internal universe onto something external, you will have named everything you'd care to name, and described (well, found a description of) a context to talk about those things in. Having done this, you'll find it easier to talk and think about your internal universe.

It resembles therapy in some ways. It helps get your issues on the table. But the table in question isn't necessarily in your dining room. Therapy tries to make that table feel like your own place; fiction, being written for a wider audience, can't do that very well. But extracting your issues into a foreign environment might work better for you, in your situation.

It's possible for an author to convey specific ideas in a novel. People have done it, sometimes to great effect. But it isn't a special strength of the art form. If you mainly want to convey ideas, essays work better.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:42 PM on July 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was suffering through one of those break-ups where you tell waiters and doormen about your heartbreak and cry on the bus. I bought Walley Lamb's She's Come Undone at a grocery store (pre-Oprah) at 3 am and finished it later that day.

As I wrote Mr Lamb, I don't know if it was that the Prozac has finally kicked in, or whether the sheer hell his protagonist went through shamed me into getting my shit together, but by the time I put that book down I knew that It Was All Going to Be OK.

(Mr Lamb wrote me back immediately with a heartfelt typewritten letter. What a sweetheart.) The therapeutic worth of fiction? I believe in it.
posted by thebrokedown at 7:32 PM on July 14, 2011 [6 favorites]

"6 = Half-dozen?" I agree, H.P.
posted by eggtooth at 7:43 PM on July 14, 2011

I'm agnostic on the whole fiction-as-therapy thing, but I'm definitely against the "writers and critics police how others - figured as ignorant, bad, self-indulgent readers - read a text". Oh, the terrible, awful middle class novel, middle-classily depicting a region or a subculture! Oh, the readers who read books and naively identify with the characters! (I always wonder why Henry James and Toni Morrison don't count as middle-class-novel writers.) Nope, that's not important regional fiction, or a novel documenting proto-lesbian subcultures in the western US - it's an insufficiently rigorous exercise in sentimentality, you bourgeois swine! (And of course, it's incredibly easy to accurately depict a subculture or a landscape - anyone can do it!) Go read a nouveau roman, why don't you? Novel-reading should cause you discomfort, not interest or pleasure - especially not pleasure.

When the novel is out there in the world, how the reader reads is the reader's decision. The use the reader makes of the novel is up to the reader. And that's okay. I can use my water glass for a vase, too, if I want.

The whole "virtuous readers read high modern novels that discomfort them" routine is this very white, very male, very upper class model of story use - rich white guys need to make clear that reading isn't some effete thing, so it has to be figured as heroic, manly and uncomfortable. Rich white guys work in the "noble" professions and have relative security, so it's not, you know, a total bummer to come home after a day in a crappy job and break out Tales of a Long Night or something depressing in the Sartrean vein. Rich white guys are dudes, so it doesn't bug them to read all that misogynist Norman Mailer-esque crap. And of course, rich white guys don't want to be mistaken for the plebes and women who read novels about feelings or places.

I read a lot of snob novels - outside of the science fiction, that's about all the novels I read. But it really, really pisses me off when people get all pearl-clutchy about folks reading books they get some kick out of instead of a steady diet of novels by great men.
posted by Frowner at 8:50 PM on July 14, 2011 [7 favorites]

I once went to a lecture by a fairly prominent historian who began his remarks by saying that since he had fallen out of love with his wife, his perspective on the meaning of history had shifted.

"I wanted to know if I should divorce her," he said, "and I looked at all of my history books, and they couldn't give me the answers. Do you know where I found the answer? Henry James novels."

Thirty minutes later, he concluded by saying that he thought there was no longer a place for the historical profession, and that most of us in the audience should drop out, and the remainder should go ahead and become historical novelists, because "I'm convinced that no historian will ever help people understand what 9/11 meant as effectively as Don DeLillo did."

So there's somebody who bit the therapeutic paradigm hard.
posted by besonders at 9:01 PM on July 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

He'll be sorry when the historical fiction writers run out of new research to mine and are reduced to fighting like savage dogs over the last scraps of a thesis about John Corvinus.
posted by No-sword at 9:18 PM on July 14, 2011

Common sense and evolutionary psychology (despite its legion of enemies) and EP's progeny, aesthetic evolutionists, come to pretty much the same conclusion. We vicariously live dangerous lives through those of our fictional counterparts, thus enabling us to be more successful people, without risking great harm. Of course, these days, "dangerous" does not mean lions and tigers and bears. It means navigating the confusing minefield of self, other, and most especially how our inner lives intersect with the increasingly complex world created by the corporatocracy, the government, our families, our jobs, and, yes, ourselves.

How do you fit the jigsaw piece of self into the emotional and coldheartedly commercial demands which take precedence over our selves, demanding complicity?

Just one issue, but at the center of our Western Problem, say some. At any rate, reading fiction, one learns different ways different people deal with this problem. Some, like Morrison's Pilate in Song of Solomon, may be stereotypical examples, but her existence deals with the modern dilemma (and others) very directly.

Those who see our defining problem differently, and those for whom pure delicious prose is enough might find different authors. Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, Pablo Neruda, and Haruki Murakami give me answers, although they were not answer men.
posted by kozad at 10:48 PM on July 14, 2011

Thanks for posting this; the author of the book being reviewed is a friend of mine and it's cool to see his book getting favorable notice.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:03 AM on July 15, 2011

Reading is a disease, not a therapy.
posted by Segundus at 12:57 AM on July 15, 2011

I read fiction because I like to get lost in things.

I don't know if it's quite the same thing as the article describes, but reading Lord Of The Rings was what I did for therapy right after 9/11. I lived in Lower Manhattan, in the restricted-access zone, and hung in there trying to keep a stiff upper lip and all that at first, but then after a couple days I locked myself in my room with the complete trilogy and did not emerge for the next 60 hours except when I had to pee or eat. Hiding in Middle Earth for a while was a great therapy for PTSD.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:52 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

> Didn't you?

All the time. Still do, in fact. Novels serve two major purposes for me, escapism and insight into human nature. These are often at odds, since following a character's woes isn't a great way to avoid contemplating my own, but it's about the only way to get inside another person's head and hear their innermost thoughts. If the author has done a good job, even a not-really-real character will be a good "model system" for real live people.

Which probably sounds bizarre to a lot of you, but I'll pull out the "maybe Aspie" card here and explain that I have a hard time grokking people. I can perceive facial expression, body language, and tone of voice OK, but I often don't understand why people act the way they do. I have a hard time getting inside their heads and supplying the missing clues. Even if I know all the relevant facts I sometimes don't connect the dots right away.

For me the magic of fiction is the Omniscient Narrator. By saying what the character thinks as well as what they do, the narrator makes the connection between outwardly-visible acts and innermost motives. Good authors create characters that help me understand real people without the awkwardness of being too nosey in real life.

Not therapy for me as much as infotainment, I guess.
posted by Quietgal at 8:54 AM on July 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I haven't read this book, so I am not sure how "therapy" is defined, but I do think there's a difference between what critics (and teachers of reading literature in college) typically believe is the purpose and practice of reading (it should be skilled, disciplined, interpretive, and not emotional, except that it's okay to get excited about the beauty of a passage, so long as you don't overdo it), and what most everyday readers would say if you asked them what they get out of reading.

Catherine Sheldrick Ross had her graduate student at Western Ontario University interview avid readers (around 300 of them) about reading. These are not necessarily school-trained readers, but they read a lot and reading is an important part of their lives. They read because reading affirms who they are and what they experience, they read to experience other lives, they read to learn something about the world, they read for comfort, they read to be challenged by things outside their life circumstances, they read in order to relax and to be stimulated.

Is that therapy? I don't know. It isn't the kind of reading that will earn you a good grade in college, though, because it's more about how the reader experiences the book than about how the book works. By the way, I don't think Oprah invented this kind of reading. She just recognized and celebrated it (and because of who she is, merchandized it, too).

First comment here; sorry it's so long-winded.
posted by bfister at 4:27 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Man, I dunno what kind of advice or therapy I'm getting from the Song of Ice and Fire books. Not sure I want to read too much into that.
posted by antifuse at 6:05 PM on July 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

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