Enabling Emotion

  • Maria Truchan-Tataryn
    (In)Visible Images: Seeing Disability in Canadian Literature, 1823-1974. Lambert Academic Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Keith Oatley
    The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. Oxford University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

In 1967, Roland Barthes declared the death of the author; in 2012, Keith Oatley presents the author as still alive, incorporating response and intention into his new book The Passionate Muse. Oatley synthesizes fiction and non-fiction to guide readers toward a practical, emotional, and aesthetic examination of how stories play with human emotion.

The Passionate Muse is an interactive text composed of seven short story parts interspersed with Oatley’s commentary on how narrative provokes reader emotion. One Another is the title of the story that serves as his fictional example of the theories he explores. Set in Eastern Europe, it tells the story of Alex, the protagonist who intends to smuggle a Russian manuscript out of the country to a foreign publisher. In the opening chapter, Alex notes his pattern with women—a weakness that complicates the successful completion of his plan. On the train, he meets Toril, a sexy siren who seduces him into a one-night stand at a Helsinki hotel. There’s something suspicious about Toril and in fact, she departs with the manuscript while Alex sleeps. Oatley crafts a plot that allows him to discuss how fiction can invoke a variety of emotions in the reader, from anticipation to enjoyment to love to loss to anger. As readers, we want Alex to succeed and Oatley observes through his analytical chapters how our emotional connection to the principal character guides our reactions throughout the text.

Oatley is a cognitive psychologist and award-winning author. The Passionate Muse demonstrates the results of research in a new field he calls the psychology of fiction. To substantiate his claim that narration acts on our emotions, he presents empirical studies that validate how stories invoke empathy and sympathy. He offers the scripts that not only shape stories, but that influence our daily lives: heroic, amorous, and vengeful, for example. By linking his fictional theory to the day-to-day, Oatley reminds us how our lives are framed by narratives that create connections, build associations, form relationships, and organize our experiences in recognizable patterns.

Oatley invokes Aristotle, Freud, Shakespeare, Chekov, and Forster, without transforming the text into a theoretical treatise for literary scholars only. Indeed, stylistically speaking, the book appeals to a wide general audience; however, this should not undermine its value or take away from its strengths. Oatley successfully conveys theoretical and creative insights into narrative and emotion, making his text accessible to a non-theoretically savvy audience while at the same time ensuring his observations remain compelling to academics.

Hence Oatley’s book would appeal to the curious reader, prove useful in creative writing courses, and please audiences involved in the therapeutic potential of stories, such as scholars of intellectual disciplines focused on the innate narrative structure of human knowledge and experience. Oatley himself best encapsulates the rhyme and reason behind the worth of his book when he writes: People who read a lot of fiction tend to have better understandings of others than people who read more nonfiction. This is because fiction is primarily about people’s doings in the social world. Fiction offers a way of knowing more than we otherwise would about others and ourselves. Still, in a time where we are experiencing—from memoirs to blogs—a rise in the confessional mode as a sincere window into the soul, it’s refreshing to be reminded that ultimately a certain level of construction remains when it comes to enabling emotion in text.

Maria Truchan-Tataryn’s study, (In)Visible Images: Seeing Disability in Canadian Literature, 1823-1974, seems a far cry from Oatley’s book, yet like Oatley it illustrates how fiction can help us better understand our social world. Based on her doctoral research, Truchan-Tataryn’s book is a version of her dissertation. Her thesis and analysis, however, emphasize the significance of her project and the motivation for the prompt publication of her work: the general lack of published criticism on representations of disabilities in Canadian literature. Indeed, despite the development of disability studies as an established theoretical area across disciplines, the significance of images of disability in Canadian literature demands further attention. In fact, the inaugural issue of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies, launched in 2012, exemplifies the importance of the field of research to Canadian studies.

According to the OED, a disability is a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Along the same lines, the World Health Organization defines disability as a restriction or lack … of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being. Both definitions highlight disability as restricting, and the WHO definition goes so far as to use the term normal as a measure for comparison. In her study, Truchan-Tataryn chooses to use the term disability to refer to any condition perceived as anomalous, whether it is an intellectual or physical impairment. Her study argues that the body/mind dichotomy is outdated. Her decision to use the term universally underscores a shift from a medical to a social model propagated by disability studies.

Truchan-Tataryn opens with an overview of disability studies theories and notes how an analysis through the lens of disability inevitably engages in the ongoing process of the construction of national identity. She asserts that any Canadian literary work could be read through the lens of disability studies; however, for the purposes of her book, she focuses on eight English-Canadian texts written between the years 1823-1974. Thomas McCulloch’s Stepsure Letters open her analysis, followed by Ralph Connor’s Sky Pilot, Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Emily trilogy, Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved, Malcolm Ross’s As For Me and My House, Ethel Wilson’s Love and Salt Water, Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and finally, Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot. As such, her analysis provides a solid, linear survey of representations of disability in Canadian literature, particularly in relation to the growing historical sentiments regarding national identity. The strength of her study resides in her overarching argument that portrayals of disability reflect the struggle between ableism and a desire for inclusive pluralism.

Overall, Truchan-Tataryn presents a convincing account of how disabled bodies can provide new insights into what shapes Canadian national imagination. She highlights the socio-cultural construction of disability and perceptively observes how disabled characters dominate the canon in ways that problematize Canada’s embracing of difference. Indeed, she prompts us to reread canonical texts such as Ross’s As For Me and My House, revealing an astute awareness of the presence of disabled figures in Canadian writing. By the end of her book, one wonders how literary critics ever missed these disabled figures.

What proves most striking in her study, however, is the personal anecdote regarding the disabilities of her daughters: the first and third with disability labels, the second struggling with a feeling of ‘difference’ for not having a disability. She elaborates, personally and theoretically, on the complexity of these labels and how society expects families to act as if they fit the status quo, concealing all proof of disabilities to avoid the stigma of being classified as dysfunctional. Truchan-Tataryn’s personal experience invokes emotion in the reader, to refer back to Oatley’s terminology, and illustrates how fictional representations can inform real experiences. She observes how her family felt forced to perform the role of the functional family in order to avoid revealing the failure of social systems to support different bodies. Her story highlights how literature engages with the social ideologies that impose limiting labels on the body and how disability studies provides a unique discourse on social, political, cultural, and literary complexities.

Perhaps the only regrettable aspect of Truchan-Tataryn’s book is her selection of a publisher. As the first detailed analysis of disability in Canadian literature, a more prestigious publisher could easily have underscored the significance of this study within the greater framework of Canadian literary studies. In this form, the book slightly undersells its invaluable contribution.

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