The Difference Between Pulp Fiction and Lasting Literature

What makes a great book... well... great? Author Salman Rushdie gives us his idea on what separates the classics from the rest of the class.

Salman Rushdie: First of all I would say that it’s always been the case that there has been two kinds of process, there’s been that instant process where people are trying to make work that has a huge impact at the moment and they don’t give any consideration really to its enduring quality. I think in the world of books there clearly is a sort of a best seller writing, which exists for that quick hit, you know, it exists in order to sell a million copies very quickly and for everybody to read it on the beach that year and then throw it away. I mean that’s a perfectly reasonable way to approach things. But if you do the other thing, which is to hope that people will read your books long after the moment in which they were written then you have to bear in mind certain things that do endure.

One of the things... the thing that endures most of all is human nature. Human nature is a great constant; it’s always the same in every country in every time. The reason why we sitting here in the 21st century in America we can watch a play written by the a 16th century English playwright - William Shakespeare - and it still says something to us... is because what those plays understand and have in common with us is an understanding of how human beings work, what it is that motivates us for good or evil. So I think at the center of the business of creating something enduring is to never lose sight of the human figure at the heart of it, never lose sight of the human scale. The moment you become too grand, too kind of wide angle in your portrayal of the world you lose the sense of that individual in the middle of the crowd. So in a way you always have to know where Waldo is and the crowd has to be about him in the end and it’s his presence that orchestrates and gives meaning to the crowd. So that’s one thing I would say that you really need to have as deep an understanding of human nature as your gift permits.

Beyond that there are things that have caused work to endure. One of the things is if you are able to capture a moment because one of the things that we do as readers is we read the past through its literature. So if we want to know something deep about Napoleon’s Russian campaign, for example, we read War and Peace, which takes us into the reality of that moment in Russia perhaps as no history book can because it takes us into the human experience of it, the lived experience of it. But I think more recently a book like The Kite Runner would be a book that would do that for the lived reality of Kazakhstan, which is something that people see on the news quite often as a place where explosions happen. But what literature can do is take you into the lived experience of that place that makes it valuable for a long time.

In the way that now if we look back at these so-called jazz age it’s very difficult to do that without seeing it at least partially through the eyes of Scott Fitzgerald because he was so skilled at capturing the nuances of that moment, everything from how people dressed and what slang people used to what were the things going on in their heads, so what were the ideas and feelings that were swimming around inside them. Every age has that, every age has a group of things that at any moment that are bugging people and that orchestrating the way in which they think. And if you could capture that moment then that can do two things, it can at the time that you do it can give the reader the pleasure of recognition that the reader reads the book and says oh yeah this is what it’s like. And then say 30, 40, 50 years later people can read the same book and think oh yes this is what it was like. So on the one hand it has an immediate pleasure, the pleasure of recognition, and then later on it has that pleasure of finding that moment captured like captured an aspect available to people in the future.

So I think those are some of the things that if you’re looking for work that lasts that are very important. There is also just the question of language skill. There’s a lot of writing that we still look at because it developed our idea of what the English language could be. That’s also something, of course, that at the time of Shakespeare English was in a very fluid state. Shakespeare himself spelt his name many different ways. There wasn’t even a fixed orthography at that time. But out of that moment of enormously fluid language Shakespeare created, in a way, created English. He created a way of using this language that we all still use. I mean we all use hundreds of expressions out of Shakespeare and most of us don’t even know they come from Shakespeare they’ve just become a part of the English language. So there is that that ability to reimagine the language and by doing that to enrich the language. And that goes along with formal innovation, another thing that makes work last, and this is not just in literature it’s true also in painting, in music and so on is that there are works which make you see the form itself in a new way. In the way, for example, in painting what the impressionists did, which is to try and represent the way in which the human eye actually sees rather than everything being in sharp focus all the time. That’s not how we see. The way we see is we see something in sharp focus and around it there are other things not so much.

So that idea of depicting in oil something closer to the way in which vision happens initially was rejected. In fact when the first impressionist exhibition happened the term impressionism was used as an insult that these painters weren’t really very good at painting they could just give an impression of something. And so to go from that to have those painters as being the bedrock of any great modern art collection shows you how work that was considered to be in a way outrageous at the time in which it was made changes the language, changed the language of art and therefore, of course, has enormous in enduring quality because everything that came after it could not have been like that if it had not been for that moment. So both in terms of language and form the question of radical innovation often is a guide to whether work will endure or not.

And in literature there is the other thing, which is the well told story. I think these days especially perhaps that element of literature is a little under valued, people don’t talk about story as being the thing that drives the work of art. But I’ve always thought that it is that that’s the engine, especially if you’re going to try and write something kind of big and ambitious and if you’re going to build a big car you better put a big engine in it. If you’ve got a big car that’s underpowered it’s not very pleasant to drive and the story it seems to me is the big engine that makes a big book work. And as human beings we have a real narrative program, we like to understand ourselves through stories. So a book that puts story, narrative very much at the heart of what it’s doing is more likely to stick in our heads because we remember a character and what happened to him or her, we care about it. The work makes you care and I think that’s the last thing I would say is the question of affect that you have to - it’s very difficult I think to create long lasting work in which people don’t care about the people in the work. There is a kind of cold writing that sometimes does work that has a kind of power because of it’s unemotionality, but mostly people want an emotional connection with what they’re reading and if they don’t have that it’s less likely that they’re going to remember it.

Writing is a strange beast. Everyone can do it, but very few can do it well. And those that can do it well often have very little cognizance as to what it is about their process that makes it click — F. Scott Fitzgerald died thinking he was a failure despite writing arguably the greatest book of the 20th century (The Great Gatsby). But author, intellect, and all-around bon vivant Salman Rushdie has a good take on what makes great books work: they capture the moment around the character and incorporate it into the story, which helps drive the story forward. It might not seem to many like a massive change, but Rushdie accurately points out that this is what made Gatsby work so well: the novel's ability to capture the moment of the Jazz Age. It's that ability to write layers into the story that separates the wheat from the chaff. If you'd like to read more of Rushdie's work, his latest work is The Golden House.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.

Lapses

Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.