Friday, 10 December 2010

Psychology Friday

Something a little different today. A question: who knows best what makes people tick - psychologists or novelists?

It was inspired by the article A Novel Idea for Psychologists, in which Marc Williams says an eminent psychologist once confided that, "Whenever any group of really good research psychologists gets together socially, after a few drinks they always – and I do mean always – talk about why novelists are so much better at it than we are." The 'it' in question being, of course, explaining the human condition.

I remember many years ago reading Peter Ustinov's autobiography in which he claimed he had no need of psychology having learned everything there was to know about the human condition from William Shakespeare. I could see his point. You don't have to believe the earth is a mere 4000 years old or even bow the knee to Christianity (or Judaism) to know that Genesis is 'true'. Similarily, King Lear is no less accurate a description of hubris, jealousy and senility because there never was a king called Lear. Truth comes in all shapes and sizes and the psychologist's truth - empirically tested - is no more or less valid than the novelist's or playwright's.

So what's the problem? As someone with a foot (no, more a toe) in each camp I think I might have an idea of the answer. And it's this: communication. You can say an awful lot in psychology and communicate very little. Few people have the time or will-power to wade through academic treatises and draw their own conclusions. And anyway, don't we like a bit of certainty? Not in science, we don't. We doubt. We constantly test and re-test and look for the flaws in our own arguments (unless you're a certain pseudo-scientist recently evicted from the jungle, that is).

But novelists have to write with certainty. Which doesn't mean they can't handle ambiguity; far from it. But a story can't ever be as equivocal as a piece of social scientific writing. Which is why, ultimately, the latter is - by comparison - so unsatisfying. And why writing and reading fiction is so interesting. As a fiction writer, you can be anything, go anywhere, be anyone. You've got to do your research, of course. But then you tell it as it is, without references, a bibliography, or those damned lies, the statistics. That's why fiction writing is so addictive. (And why I still do it, even though the money - such as it is - is in non-fiction.)

And talking of fiction, there's a goodly helping of it in this charity anthology. If you haven't got yours yet, there's still time to get an order in in time for Christmas. And if you fancy having a go at writing yourself, the entire creative writing e-course is contained within it's pages, making it the perfect gift for any would-be novelist.

But maybe not for a psychologist.

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