Monday, October 24, 2011

"the illusion of validity" and the Primacy of Story

What does a Nobel Laureate in Economics have to say that every author needs to hear?
A lot.
I've just returned from a week of working with a group of writers struggling with their stories. Each of them is a strong writer, each has a compelling story to tell, and each is pushing to a new level in his or her writing. My wife, the novelist Carolyn Coman, and I did our best to support them in their efforts. When I got home I discovered this op-ed piece, "Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence" (October 19, 2011), in The New York Times by Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. His new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is coming out this month and will be read, I am sure, by many money managers on Wall Street. However, I'm inclined to think that it would be worthwhile for writers to dip into it, if the excerpt I read is representative of what he has to say. Here are a few quotes worth pondering.
 … We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives.
… Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable.
… people come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing.
Kahneman’s point is that money-managers make up stories and make financial decisions based on them, not on data. Moreover, when the data is shown to them, they ignore it in the face of the “stories” they have concocted. In effect, story trumps reality, even when the stakes are high, i.e. money. This is bad news for people who put their savings in the hands of money managers, but it is wonderful news for authors.
Kahneman insists that we are hard-wired to believe coherent stories, “even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable.” This should make every author writing fiction rejoice!

Another great thinker, who was ineligible for the Nobel Prize, spoke about coherent stories. Aristotle, in his Poetics (ca. 350 B.C.E), wrote,  “There is [an] art which imitates by means of language alone [that] has hitherto been without a name.” Aristotle’s nameless art—one of many reasons I named my company namelos—is what we call fiction and Aristotle’s discussion is a primer for everyone who attempts to write a coherent story
This will be the first of several pieces examining the earliest document of literary criticism in the western world and its immediate and direct relevance to writers today. This may sound painfully academic, but it has been the basis of my editorial approach for decades and has helped a great many writers find their way through the labyrinth of plotting a novel. 
To be continued.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post! Excellent news!

    Can't wait for more.



I look forward to your comments and I reserve the option not to make them public.