How to be Interesting: Dead Poets and Causal Inferences

El Greco and Picasso
            No one writes a novel without ever having read one. Though storytelling comes naturally to us as humans, our appreciation of the lengthy, intricately rendered narratives we find spanning the hundreds of pages between book covers is contingent on a long history of crucial developments, literacy for instance. In the case of an individual reader, the faithfulness with which ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny will largely determine the level of interest taken in any given work of fiction. In other words, to appreciate a work, it is necessary to have some knowledge of the literary tradition to which it belongs. T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” eulogizes great writers as breathing embodiments of the entire history of their art. “The poet must be very conscious of the main current,” Eliot writes,
which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

Though Eliot probably didn’t mean to suggest that to write a good poem or novel you have to have thoroughly mastered every word of world literature, a condition that would’ve excluded most efforts even at the time he wrote the essay, he did believe that to fully understand a work you have to be able to place it in its proper historical context. “No poet,” he wrote,

no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

If this formulation for what goes into the appreciation of art is valid, then as time passes and historical precedents accumulate the burden of knowledge that must be shouldered to sustain adequate interest in or appreciation for works in the tradition will be getting constantly bigger. Accordingly, the number of people who can manage it will be getting constantly smaller.

            But what if there is something like a threshold awareness of literary tradition—or even of current literary convention—beyond which the past ceases to be the most important factor influencing your appreciation for a particular work? Once your reading comprehension is up to snuff and you’ve learned how to deal with some basic strategies of perspective—first person, third person omniscient, etc.—then you’re free to interpret stories not merely as representative of some tradition but of potentially real people and events, reflective of some theme that has real meaning in most people’s lives. Far from seeing the task of the poet or novelist as serving as a vessel for artistic tradition, Henry James suggests in his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction” that

The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting. That general responsibility rests upon it, but it is the only one I can think of. The ways in which it is at liberty to accomplish this result (of interesting us) strike me as innumerable and such as can only suffer from being marked out, or fenced in, by prescription. They are as various as the temperament of man, and they are successful in proportion as they reveal a particular mind, different from others. A novel is in its broadest definition a personal impression of life; that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression.

Writing for dead poets the way Eliot suggests may lead to works that are historically interesting. But a novel whose primary purpose is to represent, say, Homer’s Odyssey in some abstract way, a novel which, in other words, takes a piece of literature as its subject matter rather than some aspect of life as it is lived by humans, will likely only ever be interesting to academics. This isn’t to say that writers of the past ought to be ignored; rather, their continuing relevance is likely attributable to their works’ success in being interesting. So when you read Homer you shouldn’t be wondering how you might artistically reconceptualize his epics—you should be attending to the techniques that make them interesting and wondering how you might apply them in your own work, which strives to artistically represent some aspect of live. You go to past art for technical or thematic inspiration, not for traditions with which to carry on some dynamic exchange.

Goya-Saturn Devouring His Son
Representation should, as a rule of thumb, take priority over tradition. And to insist, as Eliot does, as an obvious fact or otherwise, that artistic techniques never improve is to admit defeat before taking on the challenge. But this leaves us with the question of how, beyond a devotion to faithful representations of recognizably living details, one manages to be interesting. Things tend to interest us when they’re novel or surprising. That babies direct their attention to incidents which go against their expectations is what allows us to examine what those expectations are. Babies, like their older counterparts, stare longer at bizarre occurrences. If a story consisted of nothing but surprising incidents, however, we would probably lose interest in it pretty quickly because it would strike us as chaotic and incoherent. Citing research showing that while surprise is necessary in securing the interest of readers but not sufficient, Sung-Il Kim, a psychologist at Korea University, explains that whatever incongruity causes the surprise must somehow be resolved. In other words, the surprise has to make sense in the shifted context.

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster makes his famous distinction between flat and round characters with reference to the latter’s ability to surprise readers. He notes however that surprise is only half the formula, since a character who only surprises would seem merely erratic—or would seem like something other than a real person. He writes,

The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book. And by using it sometimes alone, more often in combination with the other kind, the novelist achieves his task of acclimatization and harmonizes the human race with the other aspects of his work. (78)

Hillary White
Kim discovered that this same dynamic is at play even in the basic of unit of a single described event, suggesting that the convincing surprise is important for all aspects of the story, not just character. He went on to test the theory that what lies at the heart of our interest in these seeming incongruities that are in time resolved is our tendency to anticipate the resolution. When a brief description involves some element that must be inferred, it is considered more interesting, and it proves more memorable, than when the same incident is described in full detail without any demand for inference. However, when researchers rudely distract readers in experiments, keeping them from being able to infer, the differences in recall and reported interest vanish.

            Kim proposes a “causal bridging inference” theory to explain what makes a story interesting. If there aren’t enough inferences to be made, the story seems boring and banal. But if there are too many then the reader gets overwhelmed and spaces out. “Whether inferences are drawn or not,” Kim writes,

depends on two factors: the amount of background knowledge a reader possesses and the structure of a story… In a real life situation, for example, people are interested in new scientific theories, new fashion styles, or new leading-edge products only when they have an adequate amount of background knowledge on the domain to fill the gap between the old and the new… When a story contains such detailed information that there is no gap to fill in, a reader does not need to generate inferences. In this case, the story would not be interesting even if the reader possessed a great deal of background knowledge. (69)

One old-fashioned and intuitive way of thinking about causal bridge inference theory is to see the task of a writer as keeping one or two steps ahead of the reader. If the story runs ahead by more than a few steps it risks being too difficult to follow and the reader gets lost. If it falls behind, it drags, like the boor who relishes the limelight and so stretches out his anecdotes with excruciatingly superfluous detail.

            For a writer, the takeaway is that you want to shock and surprise your readers, which means making your story take unexpected, incongruous turns, but you should also seed the narrative with what in hindsight can be seen as hints to what’s to come so that the surprises never seem random or arbitrary—and so that the reader is trained to seek out further clues to make further inferences. This is what Forster meant when he said characters should change in ways that are both surprising and convincing. It’s perhaps a greater achievement to have character development, plot, and language integrated so that an inevitable surprise in one of these areas has implications for or bleeds into both the others. But we as readers can enjoy on its own an unlikely observation or surprising analogy that we discover upon reflection to be fitting. And of course we can enjoy a good plot twist in isolation too—witness Hollywood and genre fiction.

Naturally, some readers can be counted on to be better at making inferences than others. As Kim points out, this greater ability may be based on a broader knowledge base; if the author makes an allusion, for instance, it helps to know about the subject being alluded to. It can also be based on comprehension skills, awareness of genre conventions, understanding of the physical or psychological forces at play in the plot, and so on. The implication is that keeping those crucial two steps ahead, no more no less, means targeting readers who are just about as good at making inferences as you are and working hard through inspiration, planning, and revision to maintain your lead. If you’re erudite and agile of mind, you’re going to bore yourself trying to write for those significantly less so—and those significantly less so are going to find what is keenly stimulating for you to write all but impossible to comprehend.

Interestingness is also influenced by fundamental properties of stories like subject matter—Percy Fawcett explores the Amazon in search of the lost City of Z is more interesting than Margaret goes grocery shopping—and the personality traits of characters that influence the degree to which we sympathize with them. But technical virtuosity often supersedes things like topic and character. A great writer can write about a boring character in an interesting way. Interestingly, however, the benefit in interest won through mastery of technique will only be appreciated by those capable of inferring the meaning hinted at by the narration, those able to make the proper conceptual readjustments to accommodate surprising shifts in context and meaning. When mixed martial arts first became popular, for instance, audiences roared over knockouts and body slams, and yawned over everything else. But as Joe Rogan has remarked from ringside at events over the past few years fans have become so sophisticated that they cheer when one fighter passes the other’s guard.

What this means is that no matter how steadfast your devotion to representation, assuming your skills continually develop, there will be a point of diminishing returns, a point where improving as a writer will mean your work has greater interest but to a shrinking audience. My favorite illustration of this dilemma is Steven Millhauser’s parable “In the Reign of Harad IV,” in which “a maker of miniatures” carves and sculpts tiny representations of a king’s favorite possessions. Over time, though, the miniaturist ceases to care about any praise he receives from the king or anyone else at court and begins working to satisfy an inner “stirring of restlessness.” His creations become smaller and smaller, necessitating greater and greater magnification tools to appreciate. No matter how infinitesimal he manages to make his miniatures, upon completion of each work he seeks “a farther kingdom.” It’s one of the most interesting short stories I’ve read in a while.
Causal Bridging Inference Model: