Sunday, September 4, 2011

What Do We "See" When We Read a Novel? by Bronson L. "Bo" Parker

As to biographical information, i. e., who I am; well I'm still trying to figure that one out. For more than half a century, I've hidden behind words, first as a news and sports reporter with a BS in Journalism from UT-Knoxville, my hometown.

Following that career, a quarter century was spent writing historical non-fiction.  So, it was with a lot of naiveté and way too much self confidence that I decided some five years ago to write a novel, a mystery. I managed to get a well-known mystery writer with some forty books published to review my first manuscript.  He sent me an eleven-page, single spaced letter. The first page and a half told me what I had done correctly.  The other nine and a half pages listed the things I needed to learn. I am still learning.

THE PROVIDENCE OF DEATH can be ordered as a POD trade paperback through Amazon, B&N or your local book stores, as well as an ebook for your Kindle.


by Bronson L. "Bo" Parker

Once again Kaye has shown her kindness to let a dandelion sprout up within her rose garden. When looking at the names that have preceded me, and those yet to come, the question becomes, “What the hell am I doing here?” The best answer is that it’s a chance to talk about what has happened since last year, and what has been learned.

It’s been an interesting year for an old codger who was born some two months after Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to his third term as President. Word cobbling has been a part of life for half a century, first as a journalist and then a writer of historical non-fiction. 
One would think, with that background, a writer would know what he had written. That was the belief about THE PROVIDENCE OF DEATH until the feedback began after its publication.

The book was written as a mystery. And it is, technically. But the reading pubic has said it’s something more.  The plan was never to write a book on grief, how it affects every-day life, or how one manages to continue living after it becomes a part of one’s existence.

There are no complaints about this. There is a good feeling associated with knowing that people have gotten something more than a few hours of enjoyment from reading a book. And the truth be told, this unexpected perception has led to increased book sales, according to those who tend to such matters. But the reader feedback is another example that proves creative writing is an unpredictable process. How this happens is something that was learned in a rather serendipitous manner.


Among the unexpected but favorable feedback to PROVIDENCE came the comment, “I didn’t get it.” No serious thought was given to the why behind this specific reaction until after a conversation with the surgeon who performed surgery on both my eyes this past spring.

That conversation whetted my curiosity to the point that it led to the discovery of what strikes me as fascinating, but at the same time, an interesting challenge to writers of novels. The process we call vision, “the perceptual experience of seeing,” involves more than merely data the brain receives from the eyes at any given moment (as when reading a novel). It involves a process that starts at birth, or maybe before.

There seems to be no disagreement among experts that every experience from the moment of birth, including the emotional reaction associated with it, is filed away in the brain’s memory cells. Some experts even suggest that prenatal memories can exist. [Many mothers-to-be support this theory. There are a bazillion websites extolling the benefits using light and various sounds, including music, to stimulate the baby in the womb.]
This database of experiences and emotions in the memory cells, continuously growing with age, becomes the key to “vision.” All new incoming data is processed through this file of prior experience, looking for matches.  Some experts call this process of matching “prior probability.”

The term “qualia” is also used to describe the process. The Dictionary of Philosophical Terms gives this definition. “The intrinsic phenomenal features of sense data. What it is like to see green grass, to taste salt, to hear birds sing, to have a headache, to feel pain, etc.”

It works like this. A person is walking down a city street when a large bomb explodes several blocks ahead.  All the senses detecting the explosion instantaneously transmit data to the brain in the form of a question. “What was that?” The brain processes this incoming data, matches it with stored memories of prior experiences, and answers, “That was a very large explosion.”

Or the reverse can happen. A person is walking through dark woods.  Suddenly there is something afoot nearby, large enough to snap tree limbs as it moves. A sound of heavy breathing and a strange odor fills the air. “What is that?” is the sensory question. A match for the incoming data is not found in the memory cells. “I don’t know,” is the answer. The experts tell us that this answer is what triggers the feeling of fear, called an “evolutionarily adaptive mechanism.”  That’s when goose bumps form and hairs stand on end.

This process also explains the old adage, “Different people simply see things differently.” A number of people witness a crime or accident. But their recollection as to what happened and the description of the people involved can vary greatly. The same data being received from different angles, through individual sensory receptors of varying quality, can be an influence. But a major factor for the difference is the data being processed through personal memories.

And so it is when reading a novel, except it is a more gradual and collective process. As the reader moves through the novel, the writing style, the settings, the plot, and the characters all become data transmitted to the reader’s memory cells for possible matches with past experiences and emotions relating to them.

To illustrate what can be the possible result, the following conversation has been created among three people who read the same book, a crime novel about murders committed in a barn.

“Mary, I want to thank you for that book you gave me. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“Well, Charles, I’m glad you did. The writing style was okay. But I didn’t much care for the rest of it. Especially that cop, the main character.”

“Why didn’t you like him?”

“The way he kept treating people, the way he talked to them. And that whole part about the barn was icky.”

 “The cop was just doing his job. And I enjoyed the part about the old barn. What about you, Anne? You read it, didn’t you?”

“Yes. I guess the writing was okay, but I really couldn’t get into it. I never did understand what the cop was trying accomplish. And I’ve never been inside a barn. Never even seen one except in pictures.”

Charles, a newspaper reporter whose interest in writing does not go beyond the basic journalistic style, is a veteran police beat reporter. His experience told him the book was an accurate, favorable portrayal of a cop.  And, having been raised on a farm, he also has many fond memories of playing in and around the family barn.

Mary, now a copywriter for an ad agency with an eye for the written word, was a wild child in her younger years. She experienced several run-ins with the law, which left her thinking all cops are bullies with no understanding about a young person’s need to experiment with life’s offerings. Her only experience relating to a barn came on a single visit as a child to an aunt’s farm where she discovered the unpleasant combination of chicken poop and bare feet.

Anne, an orphan, was raised in a Catholic orphanage, and is now a nun. She has no experience as to how cops operate, not even from watching TV shows. Always a city girl, she has never visited a farm, or a barn.

Three people read the same book. The same words are processed through three different databases of memories, resulting in three different reactions, one positive, one negative, and one indifferent. Obviously the goal of authors of novels is to achieve the largest possible number of reactions like that of Charles. But therein lies the conundrum.

Learning how the favorable reactions among readers takes place is only half of the equation. Learning how, as an author, to MAKE favorable reactions to take place is the second half of the equation.

[NOTE: Since this was written, I’ve had the opportunity to read David Rosenfelt’s ON BORROWED TIME. It’s a spine-tingling story of what happens to a news reporter when his memory process is disrupted. He struggles to figure out what is happening to him as the gap between what he thinks he knows and what he knows to be reality grows. This book would be a rewarding reading experience for those who find the memory process an intriguing subject.] 


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Bo - Welcome!! As usual, you've given me something to think about AND brought yet another book to my attention. I'll have to look for "On Borrowed Time" - Thank you!!

bo parker said...

And thanks to you for letting an old goat squeeze in among some outstanding individuals. I feel honored.

Ken Lewis said...

I love that cover art, Bo! Who did it? That's definitely a "makes me want to pick it up" book cover.