I chose to read this book for two reasons. Primarily, I wanted to assist a friend of mine, an instructor for English as a second language in a university in New Jersey, who wanted to explore the realm of emotion with his students who were reading an abridged version in translation of "Anna Karenina" by Tolstoy. He had a list of very good emotional questions he wanted to bring to his students to open a discussion of Tolstoy's novel.
My friend had questions like: "Has someone ever cheated on you? Have you ever tried to separate them from the object of their desire? Have you ever felt that your life had no meaning or purpose and that all you were meant for was entertaining and your family and friends really didn't need you in any real way, so you meander into danger? Have you ever considered making a choice to throw something valuable away (like your opportunity for an education) for the sake of something that seemed important at the moment? (Vronsky's choice to decline his promotion so that he could be with Anna with her nagging and growing jealousy.) "
Wow! I thought. Could Keith Oatley's book improve upon these questions in any way, say by offering even more in-depth emotional questions? No, absolutely not.
On the back cover of the book a Suzanne Keen, author of "Empathy and the Novels," touts Oatley's work by stating that "Keith Oatley goes beyond . . . to open the Pandora's box of the emotions that fiction readers experience." Pandora's box? Now, that is fiction! There are only three emotions Oatley ever discusses with any "depth": sadness, anxiety, and anger, and the questions he himself formulates to open up a discussion of emotion in literature go more or less like this:
When the hero discovers the woman he's loved so much has cheated on him, did the revelation of his discovery make you, as a reader, feel sad? Have there been other times in your life when you've felt sad? Are there others who felt angry? How many people felt sad and how many people felt angry while reading this passage?
These are questions you ask mere children when they are reading something like "The Velveteen Rabbit," not serious students of literature or even in a literature course for high-school business students! My friend who is an ESL instructor has a superior sense of what it means to engage his students emotionally with questions about the fiction they are reading and he does not have a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology like Keith Oatley does -- nor does he need one!
The big revelation that the author offers the reader overall is that, yes, the reader can and does experience emotion when reading fiction and if you don't believe it, he's got social science case-studies after social science case-studies after social science case-studies PROVING scientifically that people actually feel emotion when reading fiction. And guess what else Keith Oatley uncovers for the unsuspecting reader of his tiny tome? People who watch movies feel the same things people feel when they read -- real, live emotions!! OMG! Really? What won't these scientists uncover nowadays?
Oatley conceives himself as a kind of innovator in form in that this particular book contains a short story and a treatise on emotion within stories at the same time. You read a non-fiction chapter and then you read an episode or part from his short story entitled "One Another," alternating back and forth between non-fiction and fiction chapters such that parts of the treatise actually do discuss the short-story in the context of the ideas he's tabled for discussion. What's fascinating about this approach is that it does nothing whatsoever to make the book be any better or more interesting than if he hadn't included the short story in the book at all. The story is a middle-of-the-road espionage story that has some tension, but bland characterization, and no ending to speak of. It's as insipid as the insights the author imparts or tries to impart. It's written at the level of a Daniel Steele novel.
The author brings nothing to this book by way of cognitive insight that is in the least new or instructive -- unless you are fifteen years of age and haven't read much by way of theories of fiction, theories of mind, literature and basic psychology. I really think the author is making a sincere effort to be clear (with the little he has to offer) --but only to the very young and uneducated teenager.
In discussing the structure of suspense to elicit anxiety at different levels in a fictional story, the author makes the point that, in life, it is the event causing the anxiety that is important whereas in a story it is the emotion of anxiety itself that is important --- for the reader. Does an assessment such as this -- one of his main and signal arguments -- knock your socks off?
There is no big whoop in the book at all, which brings me to my second reason for choosing to read this book. I wanted to learn something for myself. But if you have read Auerbach's "Mimesis" or are familiar with the ideas in the book, if you have read Aristotle's views on plot and poetics, if you've read E. M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel," as I have and as about a million other people have, and if you have ever taken a creative writing class or joined a writer's fiction workshop, there's absolutely nothing new under the sun Keith Oatley provides by way of insight into these works or authors or in summary of them to provide you with that special something to make the book a memorable one. It's all regurgitated recapitulation done in the nicest, kindest Canadian fashion. In other words, it's all very politically correct and very dumbed-down, surprising for an Oxford University Press book.
Lastly, on page 54, the author makes this false and too general generalization: "We know how to choose pieces of fiction that will take us out of ourselves so that we want to turn the pages and wonder what will happen next." We do know how to choose? If so, why are so many fictional works so damn disappointing?
A novel written by one's favorite author has disappointed no one else but me? No one has been disappointed in more than one volume in the entire Janet Evanovich series of humorous capers?
What the author is hinting at (above) are that people who read for "mood-management," meaning people who read fiction in a specific genre -- westerns, romances, thrillers, and etcetera. But how can I -- or anyone -- just choose the piece of fiction that makes me feel the way Ayn Rand's fiction make me feels when Ayn Rand's dead and has written no more novels since her demise? How can I -- or anyone -- choose the fiction that will take one out of onself, say, when, for example, a fiction writer like John Barthes will NOT take you out of yourself because he wants to break the hypnotic spell of fiction with meta-fictions or non-narratives? You just can't go to your bookstore and say, "I'm going to find the novel that's going to change my life." Novels are chancy. The publishers lie, and they make lousy works feel promising. Who is this author kidding? You have to be on auto-pilot or a sleepwalker not to notice the decline in fiction and in genre fiction.
So, in final, this book does not have a high aim and overall makes a mediocre contribution to the subject, except if you are a nearly complete blank slate. The author is writing for someone who knows little and reads only genre fiction. The best part of this book is the discovery that there was not one typographical error, so Oxford University Press proves sterling in that it hires proofreaders who definitely earned their keep to keep Oxford Press be a publisher of some distinction.
I hate to be so harsh with my criticism because Keith Oatley comes off as a really nice (Canadian) guy, but ... his efforts were so innocuous here! I am really being kind by giving it three stars. (The proofreaders deserve it!)