Psychological Insight in Fiction

* J.G. Ballard, Running Wild (1988)
* Philip Larkin, Jill (1946)

Another squiblet post arising from two more random things I read on holiday. I had this urge to read a J.G. Ballard novel I hadn’t read before, and found myself reading Running Wild, which is a forensic psychiatrist’s account of a massacre, in which a group of privileged children kill their over-attentive parents and every other adult on an exclusive housing estate. And I also bumped into the realization that I had never read Larkin’s Jill, which is his novel about student life at Oxford in the early 1940s. Neither was a life-changing experience, but they brought to mind a general question I have about what makes fiction seem to be psychologically insightful.
      I think that if I were to ask a lot of people which literature they find offers them interesting and convincing depictions of the ways our minds work, I’d probably find areas of interesting agreement and areas of interesting disagreement. I think that quite a lot of that lot of people would give some sort of assent to the idea that literature has a claim to psychological insight (though some might well acknowledge that it would be controversial to claim too much), but it’s not obvious what characteristics of literature lead to that assent.

Ballard’s novel is difficult to pin down. I want to call it confrontationally evasive, which seems a bit ridiculous, I must say; its narrative voice is very concrete in the way it offers conclusions, but it seems like there are layers of irony, as if expertise and detection are revealing nothing (except the inert truth). Anyway, because it’s from the perspective of a forensic psychiatrist you’d think it might offer a strong impression of psychological insight, and yet it doesn’t really, or not of the children, anyway. They’re theorized about, and they fit the textbook mould that’s prepared for them well enough, but they’re mainly absent.
      Larkin’s novel is also elusive. The way the character of Jill / Gillian comes into the story, and then takes over as the hero begins to write his own fictions, seems to be underprepared and underexplained — but in a good way. There’s a gap there where, I think, a sort of psychological interest starts. The story is told; its causation isn’t completely revealed; that causation might be psychological in part (though there’s a lot of socio-cultural interest too), and so a direction of thought is created in the reader. By not answering questions, by giving us something strange and not necessarily realistic in a simple way, it got across to me a lot more that felt like insight into the mind than Ballard’s novel, in spite of that being written, as I said, from the perspective of a forensic psychiatrist.
      All I have here is a simplistic suggestion that there is no necessary correlation between explicit investigation and the creation of the (impression of) psychological insight in fiction. Perhaps also there is some interest in the way that underspecified things absorb our attention and generate a kind of readerly work that creates a sense of getting into a fictional mind that’s active rather than passive, work rather than reward. But the question in general is large and open.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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