There is no clear career structure to being a fiction writer. Some would-be novelists sign up for creative writing MAs; others work in call-centres while they are honing their craft. The American novelist Jonathan Franzen served time as a research assistant in a Harvard seismology lab while he worked on his first novel. When you need a day job to support your art, science is as good as any other.
In my experience, though, the fiction–science combination raises some suspicions. A scientist who makes stuff up? A storyteller left in charge of a research grant? It can be implicit rather than explicit, but on both sides of the science–arts divide there is an assumption that it’s not possible to do both well. Those who really want to do both have to show that both are more than a hobby. In my case, I chose to work part-time as an academic and dedicate the rest of my time to writing. In academia, that gives you an unusual profile, and not everyone quite gets it.
I’m not complaining. Most of us have to fulfil multiple, apparently incompatible roles, and find ways of keeping the different bits of our lives separate. If we’re lucky, those distinct enterprises can sometimes fertilise each other. As a research psychologist, I have to think about human experience from the inside—as subjective experience—and from the outside, in terms of observable behaviour and neural processes. Fiction writers spend their time doing something similar. They need to attend to the facts of the story, and they also need to show what those facts mean to their characters. The subjective and the objective go hand in hand.
There are drawbacks to not taking the traditional route into fiction writing. At school, I had an inspiring biology teacher named Martin Brown who advised us that a scientist could appreciate art, but it was less easy to travel in the opposite direction. I accepted this bit of wisdom, and never regretted it. While school friends immersed themselves in Flaubert, I plumped for the Krebs cycle. One result has been that there are big gaps in my reading, which in middle age become harder and harder to fill. I don’t know one end of Clarissa from the other, and the sheer range of novels taught in university literature courses will always have me playing catch-up. If it is taught well, studying literature teaches you how to read, and I had to work out how to do that for myself. But I have gained much from taking the path I did. College friends who had to read certain books were turned off them for life. I read Ulysses for fun; others had to cram it in a week because they had an essay due on it. Years later I’m still obsessed with fiction, and I think it’s at least in part because I trained in something else.
Recently the two halves of my life came together in an interesting way. We may just be on the verge of a profound shift in the way we understand ourselves, and the engine of any such change will be neuroscience. There has been much discussion recently of how the media distort neuroscientific findings, and some have blamed neuroscientists themselves for overplaying their findings. Philosophers like Roger Scruton tell us that neuroscience cannot come anywhere close to a full explanation of human experience, while others, such as Raymond Tallis, detect a dangerous scientism at work.
And yet, for many of us, neuroscientific findings retain a powerful appeal. As an academic I’m fascinated by the science itself, but as a writer I have additional interests. I want to know what this new information means to us as people, how the man and woman on the street are going to consume these brave new kinds of knowledge. How does knowing about the brain change how you understand your own feelings, thoughts, behaviour and experience? If the self is an illusion, how do we find out who we are? My way of exploring these questions was to write a novel involving a character who was steeped in these kinds of explanation. I wanted to take her materialist philosophy about the mind—her belief that we are essentially nothing more than bundles of neurones—and find out what became of it when stuff started to happen.
Testing out neuroscientific understandings in fiction can, I believe, tell us something about the limits of those explanations. For Yvonne, my fictional brain scientist, thinking about your experience in neuroscientific terms only takes you so far. My hunch is that we will always be drawn back to old-fashioned ideas of self and personal identity; I’m pretty sure that we will never see ourselves exclusively in terms of brain processes. So how much will neuroscience actually change things? There are some big questions in play here, but of one thing I have been very careful. The novel, which is being crowdfunded through Unbound, is much more about Yvonne’s experience than it is about neuroscientific facts. However you choose to combine fiction and science, the characters, and their stories, always have to be your first concern.
Charles Fernyhough will be discussing neuroscience and the novel with science writer Jonah Lehrer on Radio 4’s All in the Mind on Tues 22 May at 9pm. You can support his novel, A Box Of Birds, at Unbound.co.uk.Tagged in: fiction writers, Neuroscience, sci fi, science, science fiction, Unbound
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