The link below is to a book review of, ‘On Pastoring,’ by H. B. Charles.
The link below is to a book review of ‘Practicing the Power – Welcoming the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Your Life,’ by Sam Storms.
The link below is to an article that looks at what is driving the audiobook explosion.
Colin Dexter’s death at the age of 86 has revived the debate about “serious” versus “genre” novelists. Newspaper tributes rightly referred to the creator of Inspector Morse as a “crime writer” – and so he was. But the sophistication of his novels, like those of John le Carre or Patrick O’Brien, mounts a strong argument for the proposition that pigeonholing their work simply as “detective” or “spy” or “historical” fiction is to diminish their value.
Dexter’s writing draws frequently on literary and other arts – and it should be particularly valued for its complex and nuanced representations of the merits and pitfalls of education and high culture.
First published during the Thatcher years, Dexter’s novels speak with renewed force to my concerns about recent negative representations of intellect, education and the academy in media and society. In the past year alone, academics in the UK and US, for example, have been painted as threateningly left-wing, liberal (in the US), silly, idiotic, and irrational.
Dexter’s Oxford, which is the backdrop for Morse’s adventures, is the most enduring fictional representation of a UK university – perhaps any UK educational institution. It includes depictions of town as well as gown, and balances an idyllic surface by plumbing the murky depths of elitism and corruption.
In his own words, Dexter created Morse because of his perception that in 1970s British readers and viewers were “fed up” of American hard-boiled crime fiction – “people running up and down corridors” – and endless “car chases”, saying: “What we want is a bit more brains and a bit less brawn.” The actor Kevin Whately, who played Morse’s sergeant Robbie Lewis, has spoken of Dexter’s obsession with “alpha-brains” – the superior intellect with which he imbued his detective protagonist.
Morse never graduated from his Oxford undergraduate degree, but is ferociously agile at crosswords and passionate about opera. His uncertified intelligence in the novels is pivotal to his success as a detective – Morse has the knowledge and ability to match the Oxford dons and high-flying students he encounters (often finishing off quotations for them, to their surprise and chagrin). Meanwhile his outsider status allows him to investigate unhampered by the old boys’ network.
Although Dexter’s writing celebrates lively intellects and culture vultures, with or without the trappings of academic qualifications or wholly rarefied lifestyles, it also paints Morse as a bit of an intellectual snob himself, despite facing prejudice from the Oxford establishment that he failed to join when he dropped out of university. Dexter also slyly celebrates Lewis’s vast, up-to-date knowledge of popular culture, which invaluably complements his boss’s academic and cultural sophistication when it comes to solving puzzles.
Dexter’s ability to convincingly represent different perspectives on intellect and education arguably stems not just from his life experiences but, more importantly, his own attitudes towards them. Dexter grew up in the East Midlands and declared that his family owned only three books. He and his brother trained to be Classics and English teachers. As a result – and unlike Shakespeare, whom he conventionally termed “the greatest writer in English” – Dexter could certainly not be accused of having “small Latin and less Greek”. Meanwhile Dexter once described his brother as becoming a talented pianist and violist, with a penchant for Wagner – a trait instantly recognisable in Morse.
In a late 2015 interview with Susan Smith, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Birmingham, he paid tribute to his school English teacher – the aptly-named Mr Sharp – who made it his mission to guide the teenage Dexter through his “ignorance of English literature” and the entire canon of Thomas Hardy.
Dexter was particularly fond of the teaching tradition of learning passages of poetry and phrases from drama by heart. He used them consciously and unconsciously in writing and apparently penned them from memory, rather than searching for his allusions in books.
He also emphasised the difficulty readers today face in getting Shakespeare’s historical references and believed that the sounds of Shakespearean lines could be more accessibly pleasurable and valuable than what they actually meant. If this was a veiled attack on test-driven education, it is an interesting one given Dexter’s work for the University of Oxford’s local exam board, a body which designed and awarded vocational qualifications. Meanwhile, the emphasis on the sound of words is poignant given that the onset of deafness was the impetus for this first career move away from teaching.
Killing off experts
The “death of the expert” has often been announced in recent months, and alongside it a more widespread anti-intellectualism bemoaned. Dexter’s whodunnits and their descendants are saturated not just with erudite characters with wide-ranging specialisms, high cultural works and events (opera, classical music, literary festivals). They also exhibit an everyday joy in mental exercise given Morse’s fondness for crosswords, anagrams, and arithmetic.
Indeed, his works constitute opportunities for readers’ and viewers’ mental puzzling, including spotting Dexter in his Hitchcock-style cameos as well as his mischievous deliberate errors and made up quotations. Their popularity, still airing in prime-time slots on various, commercial, free-to-air channels, after over half a century, goes someway towards counterbalancing moral panic about alleged social apathy – even hostility – to intellect, education and the academy.
Ever since Plato equated poetry with falsehood in the fourth century BC, the value of fiction has been in doubt. No convincing case for its value has since been made, beyond the obvious pleasures experienced by readers and audiences.
Today, fiction in the form of narratives – or, more simply, stories – permeates almost every aspect of our culture, from entertainment to law, medicine, and identity. We are also in the age of post-truth politics, where telling a demonstrably false story can be more compelling than telling the truth. Could overexposure to fiction account for the devaluation of truth that dominated the recent presidential elections, where both candidates lied and the most extravagant liar won?
Philosophers, critics, and artists have long attempted to offset the potential dangers of fiction by proposing various links between the experience of fiction and competing conceptions of truth. The tradition of defending fiction was founded by Aristotle and includes Horace, Sir Philip Sidney, Dr Johnson, and Matthew Arnold.
Since the contribution of Friedrich Schiller at the end of 18th century, the theory has been known as aesthetic education. Such theorists argue that art provides an indirect but integral education in ethics, a moral education by aesthetic means. Contemporary advocates include Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Martha Nussbaum. Of course, claims about the psychological and behavioural benefits of engaging with sophisticated and popular fictions vary wildly in strength.
The question of whether the ubiquity of narratives has devalued truth or enhanced morality prompts a further question: what exactly happens to us when we read books or watch films? There is a paucity of empirical evidence in this field.
The most frequently-quoted study on the topic was published by psychologists Evan Kidd and Emanuele Castano in 2013. They conducted five different experiments on samples of between 72 and 356 participants, each of which was divided into two groups. One read short passages of literary fiction (understood as being complex or challenging) and the other short passages of nonfiction or popular fiction.
The results indicated that participants who had read the literary fiction performed significantly better on a theory of mind test – which measures the ability to understand the mental states of others, a precondition of empathy – than those who had read either nonfiction or popular fiction.
Sounds like it backs up the aesthetic education theory, right? But the limitations of the study have been widely acknowledged, and its validity in this case is also doubtful. Literary narratives are, like their theatrical and cinematic counterparts, designed to be experienced as a whole. We cannot assume that the benefits of the literary experience will simply be the sum of the experiences of its parts. The same objection applies to the failed attempts to replicate Kidd and Castano’s findings in 2016.
If the evidence for the effects of engaging with fiction is so limited in quantity and quality, it seems prudent to seek an answer from a comparable field in which there has been more research. The obvious example is the relation between video-game violence and aggression. Video-games are designed to entertain and may or may not cause aggression in players; fictions are designed for the same purpose and may devalue truth, enhance morality, or have no secondary effect at all.
In a multiple analysis published in 1998, Karen Dill and Jody Dill claimed that there was a link between exposure to video-game violence and aggression, but advised caution on the basis of the limited quantity and quality of studies published.
Then, in a multiple analysis published 25 years later, Malte Elson and Christopher Ferguson lamented both the continued lack of standardisation and the frequency with which academics and others made controversial claims that were not supported by the data. They found that the evidence for a causal link between video-games and aggression was at best inconclusive.
Given that the research in the video-game field has been extensive, and unearthed no answers, it is hardly surprising that so little is known about the effects of experiencing fiction.
Fiction is nonetheless valuable in at least one way: its falsehood. In representing undisguised untruth, fictions present what psychologists call counterfactual thinking and philosophers call possible worlds.
In watching Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, we experience a representation of what a world in which Germany had created the atomic bomb before America would look and sound like. Aside from its entertainment value in engaging audiences on sensory, imaginative, and emotional levels, the series provides a detailed example of how an America run by right-wing extremists might have looked and might look like in the future. In doing so, it highlights the significance of avoiding that possible future.
The truth value of fiction is in the various ways in which it enlightens by deviating from the truth. Undisguised fictions will continue to be of value, no matter how many fictions presidential candidates disguise as facts.