Fiction is Contagious

A cinema usher I once knew, a sly, observant type, told me he liked to watch audiences file out of James Bond movies. He said a transformation would have taken place in the men. They were now quite different from the chatty, expectant crowd that went in. Now they would walk several feet in front of the women with a quiet certainty and a renewed gravitas. Some would tug on their shirt sleeves, others would scan their immediate surrounds. There was a feeling of controlled power that simply wasn’t there several hours earlier. What’s more, their behaviour towards him as an usher had changed; a class difference had opened up, they were respectful towards him but those nuanced markers of status were nevertheless now there. In other words, something in the material of the film had transmitted itself to receptive members of the audience.

Contagious Fiction is a useful metaphor. It only takes us so far; probably fiction, of any variety, does not quite hit us like a disease, (although it can be infective!) but the phrase does incorporate the sense of transmission that is central to my study. In reality a contagion takes hold against your wishes; where as I am suggesting you can increase the rate of contagion through a greater engagement with the contaminator.

For the purposes of this essay I will investigate how literature can be contagious. Many of the approaches discussed can easily be applied to other art forms, in fact many are borrowed from other art forms. It is also true that the terms of this study can be applied to non-fiction equally as well, indeed they are applicable to any art form in which there has been attempt to weave truth. For reasons of scope I will confine myself to literature.

To begin there is a brief survey of how literature is currently studied beyond school level in the UK. This is certainly not exhaustive and much of it is entirely subjective, and I will touch on my personal difficulties with English Literature courses and, in particular, literary theory. I have absolutely no doubt that some of my difficulties were intellectual, and of this I am happily guilty – ideas have always hit me on an emotional rather than intellectual level, and although this long essay borrows the forms of the academic essay, it should not be confused with one. A few scattered footnotes do not an academic study make. However, the ideas discussed I do take seriously, and in fact much of it I wrestle with on a daily basis teaching and running workshops.

I will discuss the genesis of these ideas; from my misgivings having studied literature to working with Hiroshi Ishikawa in 2009. Completely without meaning to Hiroshi inspired an approach to literature I have adopted ever since, an engagement beyond literary analysis. Hiroshi simply couldn’t understand fiction on any level but his own, and was entirely aware of his failings, but supremely focused on overcoming them. We spent a very happy 3 months together, and I’ll always be grateful for the long lasting effect he has had on my work.

Equally, actors have been very influential in the progression of my thinking, perhaps because of their emotional investment in texts. They live it. The centrepiece of the section dealing with drama is an interview with an actor who wishes to remain anonymous, and I’m grateful to her, and many of the actors I have mixed with over the years for their insight. Simply put, if a company putting on a play in the West End has several weeks of rehearsal to get under the skin of a play; its characters, its themes; could not a greater engagement with literature be found by adopting many of the same methods?

After a brief attempt at a contagious fiction review of selected novels I will discuss the various methods so far devised to eke out the substance from works of fiction. I’ve called this the Toolbox (itself a phrase used at drama schools for the skills given to actors to take into the workplace) and this section will look at ways of harnessing the collaboration between writer and reader, the teaching potentials of a contagious approach to literature, and ideas for exploring using the same general terms. Prompt Arts and Bathsheba, two possible approaches have come directly from my interest in this area, and obviously there is more information on them in other parts of this website.

I hope to demonstrate that not only do we absorb fiction unconsciously, but often, entirely consciously, we work in tandem with an author to produce works that are as much part of our own imagination as belongs to the credited figure on the front cover. There is a complex layering process at work, a kind of creative reading, and we as an audience are giving and taking from the work simultaneously.

On a personal level friends will tell you that my contagious approach to fiction has not always been kind to them. I won’t disagree. I feel that literature is the transmission of certain states through writing, and often I have found that my memory of life’s events have been coloured by false thoughts; romanticized flourishes, brought on by strange concoctions of the senses; the sharp smell of polish on a lift door, or that certain way in which the breeze hits you, and, it has to be admitted, the strange, beguiling power of fiction, infiltrating the now, altering the ways in which we see.