Autistic Book Party, Episode 31: Marginalia to Stone Bird

Today’s Book: “Marginalia to Stone Bird”, a poetry collection by Rose Lemberg

Autistic Character(s): The author.

I am going to try to write this review in a way that isn’t just jumping up and down and squeeing, because quite apart from the issue of being autistic, Lemberg is one of my favourite speculative poets ever and “Marginalia to Stone Bird” is their debut collection. And although I write poetry I do not think I am very good at reviewing it in detail, but I will try.

“Marginalia to Stone Bird” is a collection of speculative poems (almost entirely fantasy, with a single sci-fi scenario thrown in). The topics of the poems progress from magic realism firmly set in the real world, to folktales and love stories in fairytale-like settings, to the mythic, epic Journeymaker Cycle that dominates the last third. All of them are written in the lush, ornate language that is Lemberg’s trademark:

Give me of these fine threads that sing with indigo and weld,
I’ll make them into a carpet of my hurts,
knot them into a desert alive with Bird’s burning,
I’ll weave—with undyed wool and spidersilk—
the bones out of their hiding places.

This kind of language will not be to everyone’s taste. But I love it, and the ornateness is never at the expense of making sense. The poems also play off each other well enough that reading some will provide useful context for others; many, for instance, are set in the same world, Birdverse (also the setting of “Grandmother Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds“, “The Book of How to Live“, “The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar“, and “Geometries of Belonging“).

Lemberg’s poetry is very socially aware. The first third of the book, mainly magic realism, is centered firmly in the experience of oppression in the real world: immigration, faith and doubt, war, a failing marriage. The middle section translates these oppressions to the fantasy realm: its heroes are exploited peasants, abandoned women, unwanted people whose surroundings and cultures never treat them particularly well. (At least one is trans.) The Journeymaker Cycle, in the final third, makes this awareness both larger and more inward. It’s a winding story that unfolds across multiple lifetimes, in which its reincarnated heroes struggle with the use and abuse of their power, taking refuge in powerlessness and then eventually needing to reclaim power; in which they try to use their power to help, and help many, but also run up dramatically short against the limits of that ability. (Readers who liked the healing-and-consent themes in “Geometries of Belonging” will be fascinated by the additional complexity that they take on in the poem “Long Shadow”.) The shorter, more magical realist poems of the final third also play off of these themes, presenting a narrator who is afraid of their own power, afraid to speak or create, and yet who feels inevitably drawn to creation.

There is a theme of doubling that recurs throughout the work, most obviously in one of its early poems, “The Three Immigrations”. While a real-world character moves from country to country in fraught and desparate circumstances, other characters in a surreal and mythic world do the same. Characters in “Marginalia to Stone Bird” are mirrored by their counterparts in other worlds, by ghosts, by other identities with other genders sharing their body, by the people they were in past lives. The fantastical is always present, even in what would seem to be a very unvarnished real-world scene – and the difficult, complex social and emotional webs that constrain people’s actions in the real world are never quite absent, either, even at the collection’s wildest and most mythic.

If anyone tells you that autistic people cannot imagine whole worlds with attendant mythology, or create beautiful phrases, or imagine other people’s lives, or write about complex social situations movingly and with empathy – point them at this poetry collection, please.

The Verdict: Recommended-2

Ethics statement: Rose Lemberg is someone I consider a fairly close friend. I asked for an electronic review copy of this collection and was given one for free. All opinions expressed here are my own.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Autism News, 2017/03/25

For mental health reasons (I’m fine now, I just got overloaded by world events for a bit) I did not collect autism news during the months of January and February. I will not be making any attempt to retroactively collect news from this time: today’s Autism News post is for the news cycle starting March 1. Thanks for understanding.

Let’s start this cycle off with some political content: an ASAN toolkit on contacting your elected representatives.

Media and reviews:

About diagnosis:

About fun and play:


Sad things:

  • M. Yergeau on the rhetoric of filicide.  (Um, this post is GRAPHIC. Take the filicide TW SERIOUSLY, please. If you can stomach it, it says some important things.)
  • Lisa Daxer’s Autism Memorial has two new entries for autistic people who were killed this March: [1] [2] 


Ride the Star Wind

I’m pleased to announce that my short story “Minor Heresies” will appear in the Broken Eye Books anthology Ride the Star Wind: Cthulhu, Space Opera, and the Cosmic Weird in Summer 2017.

“Minor Heresies” is the story of a shapeshifter from a far-future human theocracy who discovers that there is more than one reason why learning about certain alien religions is forbidden.

There has been additional good news this week, which I hope to be able to share with you soon.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 30 And A Half: Short Story Smorgasbord – Award Edition!

Today I’m going to do something a little bit special. I worried that, by separating my Recommended stories into Recommended-1 (for stories with autistic characters, regardless of author) and Recommended-2 (for stories by autistic authors with no autistic characters in them), I would be somehow ghettoizing the work of autistic authors. Instead, I feel freer and more excited about reviewing stories that would go in the Recommended-2 category. I’m no longer putting pressure on myself to justify why these works are as relevant to Autism Issues as the Recommended-1 stories; I can let them be their own, good, thing.

In this spirit, I want to review four short works by autistic authors that are up for awards this year. Let’s celebrate some autistic award nominees!


Rose Lemberg, “The Ash Manifesto” (Strange Horizons, October 10, 2016)

[Autistic author] A powerful poem about personal strength (and un-strength), written in gorgeous, mythic words. “The Ash Manifesto” was one of my favourite speculative poems of 2016, and is one of two poems of Lemberg’s to be nominated for the Rhysling award this year. [Recommended-2]


A. Merc Rustad, “This Is Not A Wardrobe Door” (Fireside, January 2016)

[Autistic author] A 2016 Nebula finalist, this is a subversive take on portal fantasies in which two friends in different worlds attempt to fix the malfunctioning portal that is keeping them apart. It’s a short, sweet tale with a firm emphasis on the value of community and connection, and some gorgeous, surreal descriptions. There is also some minor, but nice, queer content. [Recommended-2]


A.J. Odasso – “Nothing Goes Away” (The New England Review of Books, November 30, 2016)

[Autistic author] A poem that uses beautiful language to describe a moment of inaccuracy by a doctor, and the sheer density of thought that can occur in a moment in response. I don’t know if this poem is autobiographical, but it is certainly meant to be read as the experience of an autistic person who is similar to the author, and it succeeds at that. It is one of three poems of Odasso’s that are nominated for the Rhysling award this year. [Recommended-1]


Bogi Takacs, “Marginalia on Eiruvin 45b” (Bracken, issue ii)

[Autistic author] A poem about a character, like some of Takács’ fictional protagonists, who accumulates intense levels of magical power in their body and has to learn to let some of it go. (Eiruvin 45b is a verse from the Talmud, which, as far as Google can tell me, has to do with movement and water – but you don’t have to be a Talmudic scholar to understand the basic events in the poem and appreciate the way they are described.) “Marginalia” is a Rhysling nominee this year in the short category. [Recommended-2]


Of course I cannot review my own work, but just to round out the set, I will note here that my own short poem, “The Giantess’s Dream“, has also been nominated for this year’s Rhyslings.

Autistic Book Party, Episode 30: This Other World

Today’s Book: “This Other World” by A.C. Buchanan

Autistic Character(s): Vonika, a human woman living in an alien country.

I have decided that, while novelettes can go under Short Story Smorgasbord, novellas deserve a full Autistic Book Party episode. “This Other World” was first published in the anthology Winter Well, but has since then been self-published as a standalone. On many platforms (I used Kobo), the self-published version is available for free.

Vonika is the protagonist of “This Other World”. She’s a human living among the aliens of the city-state Temia. Like many real-life autistic humans who move to another country, Vonika finds that in some ways, she is more accepted among aliens: her strange behaviors are thought of as a foreigner’s quirks instead of being pathologized. Her autism isn’t her only reason for feeling at home on Temia. Vonika excels in a career (architectural engineering) that is needed on Temia, and has a warm, stable romantic relationship with a Temian woman.

As a menopausal woman, Vonika will soon undergo a Temian rite of passage called Ha-Ran, in which older adults become telepathically connected to each other and enter a more communal life. But Vonika’s transition may not be going according to plan. She’s beginning to experience bursts of telepathic perception, even though she hasn’t yet ingested the drugs that cause Ha-Ran to occur. And war is breaking out between Temia and one of its neighboring countries – a war Temia is likely to lose.

“This Other World” is not “about” autism, but Vonika’s autism is well-drawn, consistently coloring her reactions to people, events, and her surroundings without becoming a replacement for agency. Vonika has an aversion to crowds, bright colors, and shallow social pleasantries; a factual, detail-oriented thinking style; and a phenomenal memory for architectural detail. Her way of thinking is described matter-of-factly through most of the story, with a light touch and an occasional hint of dry humor:

She tells half-truths of loyalty and determination. Says she needs to show faith in her new home. That she doesn’t give up when things get tough. There are, of course, elements of truth in all of these, but telling the whole story would make her sound ridiculous, unbalanced even. I don’t like change is not generally considered a strong reason for staying in a war zone.

In the hands of a clumsy NT author, the temptation to make Vonika’s autism the major conflict in a story like this would be irresistible. The story would end up being all about the supposed contrast between autism and telepathy, and the inner conflict that this causes for the character. Happily, Buchanan avoids this trope. Ha-Ran, even if it works for humans, won’t fundamentally alter who Vonika is. While she does feel some minor reluctance, it’s only because does not like change, and is relatively easily dealt with. Meanwhile, she gets a plot full of other interesting things to do, a war to survive, and a mystery to solve – because she is not the only one experiencing early Ha-Ran, and as the war progresses, the number of cases is increasing.

Spoiling the solution to this mystery would be unfair, but I found the solution one of the most satisfying parts of the novella. It’s something that sheds an interesting light on human ideas about empathy and belonging, and about empathy as the primary cause of morality – ideas which are often used to paint autistic people as inherently inferior – and about what those ideas can, and can’t, actually solve.

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Good Stories From January/February

I’ve noticed that I often wait to signal boost this year’s stories – at least, in blog post form – until the very end of the year when everybody else is doing it and, consequently, everyone gets story-link fatigue. I think I’d like to change that in 2017. So here are some stories first published in 2017, totally unrelated to Autistic Book Party, that I really enjoyed these past two months.

Kat Howard, “Seven Salt Tears” (Lightspeed). A story about a girl and her mother and selkies and mermaids. I love the ocean imagery in this one and the poignant mood.

Iori Jusano, “Next Station, Shibuya” (Apex). A gorgeous story of a sentient city, full of detail. Also I apparently have a thing for stories about magical subways / trains.

Marissa Lingen, “Out of the Woods” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies). A Robin-Hood-like band of outlaws discover that the true king they are waiting for will never come home. A story about resistance and what can happen, for both good and ill, when rebellions are internally divided.

Charles Payseur, “A Lumberjack’s Guide to Dryad Spotting” (Flash Fiction Online). A gay couple have plans to better their lot through a forestry-related scheme. Eerie and morally ambiguous in a very relatable way.

Some changes to Autistic Book Party ratings

I’m pleased to announce a few minor changes to how Autistic Book Party rates books (and short fiction, and poetry).

In the beginning, everything on Autistic Book Party was either Recommended, YMMV, or Not Recommended. These are still the main categories. Later, I added the Marginal category, for cases where an autistic character is written well but is only a very minor part of the story.

I have been amassing a lot of Recommended work, especially in the Short Form category, and I worry that the sheer number of works will become overwhelming. So I’m introducing a new rating, Highly Recommended, for stories that are the very, very best (like no one ever was). If you don’t have time to read everything that is Recommended, you can start with just these.

This category is intended to be a very short list, so I am deliberately making it difficult for a work to get this rating. To be Highly Recommended, a work needs to do all of the following:

  • Autism is foregrounded in the story. At least one major character must be autistic and it must be clear in the text of story – not merely from author’s notes, etc, or through fan diagnosis – that this is what they are. In a story with a contemporary or near-future setting, this means actually using the word “autism”. In other settings, the character(s)’ neurodivergence should be made clear in some way appropriate to the setting.
  • The story, like any Recommended story, portrays autism well and authentically.
  • The story has something important to say about autism or a closely related issue. The story would be significantly altered if the autistic characters were not autistic.
  • The story is written at a professional level in terms of plot, characterization, setting, atmosphere, and style.
  • Many stories do very good and important things overall, but also do other things that I have qualms about. I have absolutely no compunctions about giving a story like this a Recommended rating even if I am uncomfortable with certain aspects, and just talking out the points of discomfort in the text of the review. A Highly Recommended story, however, does not give me any of these qualms. It is purely good. It doesn’t stumble.
  • The story gives me feels. On a purely personal, subjective level, I love this story.

The author’s identity is not formally a criterion for a Highly Recommended rating. It’s possible for a neurotypical author to write a Highly Recommended story, but I doubt it will happen.

Stories that are good, and portray autism well, but which are not quite amazing enough to be Highly Recommended, will continue to get a Recommended rating. This will be the majority of stories that I recommend.

There are currently two stories I’ve already reviewed which I feel deserve a Highly Recommended rating. These two stories are “Difference of Opinion” by Meda Kahn and “Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg. They have been moved to the appropriate part of the Reviews Index.

As of the time I am writing this, no book-length work has yet met the criteria for being Highly Recommended.

I’ve also been dissatisfied for a long time with how I handle good stories written by autistic authors that don’t have autistic characters in them. I absolutely think that such stories deserve recommendation and promotion. I do feel, though, that the motivation for seeking out these stories is a little different from the motivation for seeking out stories about autism, and both types of story are doing different things. It never felt quite right to me to lump both types into the same category, even though I earnestly wanted to recommend them both.

Therefore, in addition to creating the Highly Recommended category, I am separating the rest of the Recommended category into Recommended-1 and Recommended-2. Recommended-1 is for stories that portray autistic characters well, regardless of the neurotype of the author. Recommended-2 is for good stories by autistic authors that don’t explicitly have autism in them. As it happens, most Recommended-2 stories still have strong diversity and disability themes, and/or themes like forced normalization, social pressure, etc which will be very meaningful to a majority of autistic readers. I still strongly support people seeking out and reading Recommended-2 stories, and I may even be expanding the range of short stories and poems that I consider for this category.

For the moment, the YMMV and Not Recommended categories will not be separated in this way, simply because the number of stories affected would be vanishingly small.

(Speaking of which, I am still – always – taking recommendations for short fiction and poetry to review, especially by authors I haven’t reviewed yet. Book recs will be noted, too, but they take a lot longer to get to.)

Autistic Book Party, Episode 29: Experimental Film

Today’s Book: “Experimental Film” by Gemma Files

The Plot: Lois Cairns, a Canadian film critic, stumbles upon an antique film that could make her career – but the film’s supernatural connections prove to be more than she bargained for.

Autistic Character(s): Several, as described below.

“Experimental Film” is a complicated book. It’s a horror novel, to get that out of the way; it’s a book in which people are messed up and bad things happen to them. The most obvious autistic character, mentioned in the back cover copy, is Lois’s son Clark. Clark is a whirlwind of energy who speaks mostly in echolalia, but before we talk much about him, I want to talk about Lois.

Lois begins the novel in a fairly traditional posture, for an autism parent – exasperated and worried by her child, pessimistic about his prognosis, and generally stressed and exhausted. The first scenes in which Clark appears are difficult to get through, because of some of Lois’s negative mental comments about him. But the scenes also introduce a complication that the back cover didn’t mention:

But my version of fucked up was never going to be enough like his to help us meet in the middle; I come from the other end of the spectrum. And I remember sitting next to my mom, going down the list of Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis points one by one, showing her how much they reminded me of how I’d been as a child, an adolescent, before socialization kicked the worst of it out of me. “Little Professor Syndrome,” check. Rabid enthusiasms, check. Inability to converse without monologizing, check. Vocabulary far exceeding normal age standards, check. Frustration, check. Inability to form friendships, check. Violent tantrums, check. Self-harm, check. Check, check, check.
“Don’t you see?” I asked her. “This is why this happened. Because I’m just like him, except it’s all on the inside.”
She looked at me then with what might have been sympathy, but what I read (at the time) as contempt, the way I’m prone to do. Because – another check – I’ve never really been able to tell what other people are thinking just by looking at their faces, unless their faces are up on a movie screen.
“Come on, Lois,” she said. “It’s bad enough as it is. Don’t try to make this all about you.

What the book shows about Lois confirms that she is, in fact, autistic. She is fixed and fanatical in her interests. She comes of to other characters as strange, prickly, difficult to deal with. She is easily overwhelmed, shutting down and dissociating under stress. She is confused about human motivation, or sometimes fails to take it into account at all. Lois’s narrative voice is not the stereotyped “autism voice”, but it is a voice full of intense detail, dense information, frequent asides to passionately explain something – a voice that rings very true to me, as an autistic person.

So – this is important. “Experimental Film” is marketed as a book about an Autism Parent, but it’s actually a book about more than one autistic person. Lois – low-support, depressed, passing for abled, and additionally disabled with more than one form of chronic pain – experiences her autism in one way. Clark, who at this point in his life cannot possibly pass, experiences it in another, and Lois doesn’t always know how to deal with him appropriately, any more than an NT mother would.

Lois does several things right. She never denies her child’s humanity or devalues his life. There’s no mention of ABA or any other abusive therapy. Lois consistently pushes back against people, including her own mother, who suggest that Clark should simply be trained to parrot the correct response. She knows very well that Clark needs to be accepted for who he is, and is extremely critical of her own failures to do that.

Because Lois does fail in many ways. She barely pays attention to Clark for the first hundred pages of the book. She says negative things in front of him that she assumes he will not understand. (And is called on it – rightly – by her husband Simon, a very sweet and patient man who seems to do most of the childcare.) Clark is shown being clearly affectionate to both parents, but Lois insists that she cannot know he loves her, that his echolalic statements about it somehow don’t count the way they do when they’re directed at Simon. Her general pattern with Clark is one of distance:

But I have to protect myself, first and foremost: not from him, but from my own… disappointment in him, over things he can’t even help… I have to keep myself just far enough apart from him to be able to love him at all, knowing it’ll never be as much as he deserves to be loved. And that’s not because he’s broken, no. Not at all.
That’s because I am.

Did I mention Lois is depressed? Lois is really depressed. She is consistently even more critical of herself as a person than she deserves. She is also so consumed with interest in her work – which is, of course, an autistic trait – that she barely has patience for anything else. She consistently pushes herself hard enough that it actively worsens her pain, her sleep patterns, and her relationships with her family. And that’s before the supernatural horror aspect of the novel kicks into high gear.

When we try to think of good representation, we are so often thinking of role models. Lois is not that. She’s also not a stereotype, not a plot device, not a supercrip or Evil Disabled Person. She’s a flawed, complex, breathing human whose flaws and complexity are fully portrayed. She is not sugarcoated, and once I got used to her level of internalized ableism – “A defective person, raising a defective child“, as she calls herself at one point – I appreciated that.

(I’m reminded of a Short Story Smorgasbord I did a while back, when I said that I didn’t object to having unlikeable autistic protagonists, I just didn’t think the one in that particular story was done well. I guess it’s time to put my money where my mouth was: Lois is an unlikeable autistic protagonist, done right.)

I mentioned supernatural horror. The vintage film Lois discovered was made a century earlier, by a woman named Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, whose life strongly parallels Lois’s. Both are subtly autistic, depressed women, possessed by an intense vocation, and struggling to care for an autistic son. Iris’s son Hyatt is described in obviously autistic terms, but the references to Iris’s autism go by so quick you could almost miss them:

“People understood,” Moraine said. “They knew she had more than enough on her plate to deal with already. She was eccentric, sad – special, just like her boy.”

So that makes four autistic characters. (Lois suggests at one point that Simon is also on or close to the spectrum. I’m not sure about that one.) But Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb’s life is also haunted by a spectre known as Lady Midday – a murderous god demanding worship from anyone unfortunate enough to look at her.

We are first introduced to Lady Midday in a fairy tale: she approaches people out working in the fields at noon, and questions them. The way to survive an encounter with Lady Midday, according to the tale, is to be humble and courteous, to insist that you are happy working, to refuse all offers of rest or water – and, above all, to avoid looking at her. As in many fairy tales, characters who behave properly are rewarded. Characters who fail get their heads cut off.

Iris sees her compulsive art-making as work assigned to her by Lady Midday, work she cannot stop. We find out later in the book that Lady Midday was actually worshipped, pre-WWI, by certain European villages. They, like Iris, see her as gifting certain individuals with work assignments that they can never stop, no matter how long they live. These villagers would also perform human sacrifices in Lady Midday’s honor, burying alive their elderly parents and “changeling” children. Sacrificing, in other words, the disabled to her.

(I have to break in at this point. I was VERY WORRIED that this novel was going to go the child-murder route. It does not. Murdering disabled children is mentioned, briefly, as a thing that people did in the historical past. But that’s all. At no point in the book is any named character tempted to be violent to their child.)

Lady Midday is an elusive figure, one who defies precise definition – after all, that would be looking at her. But inasmuch as it’s possible to assign meaning to her, I can’t help but view Lady Midday as an avatar of ableism. She predates capitalism, but she personifies the capitalist view in which a person is only a vector for work. One only has worth if one is working, without end, hiding and denying whatever toll it might take. In which the people who cannot do this work might as well be dead.

Lois, a driven Aspie longing for professional recognition, hating herself for human weakness, pushing incessantly past her health problems, and terrified of how her colleagues will treat her if she falters, is perfectly positioned to fall under this spell. She is also perfectly positioned to thwart Lady Midday, in the end – not by abandoning her work, but by radically reconsidering what is important to her as she does it.

As for Clark, he’s not given the detailed treatment that he would have if he were the protagonist. There’s a limit to what can be shown of him given that the entire novel is written in the POV of his mother, whose statements about Clark are often unreliable. Within those limits, though, Files shows us strong hints of who he is as a person. Clark is enthusiastic, affectionate, and quite loud; his speech is almost entirely echolalic, but a meaning can frequently be discerned. His role in the plot is not particularly active: he’s first a distraction from Lois’s work, then a source of eerie foreshadowing, then a child actively endangered by supernatural phenomena, before he finally returns to a Lois who has learned to appreciate him a little more. I might have liked to see more agency from Clark, but given that he is a child, and given the kind of story he is in, I really don’t know if anything could realistically be changed.

Reading this book and talking about it with a few of my friends, I’m struck by how little we have in the way of language for people like Lois. The abusively ableist “Warrior Mother” schema is not appropriate for her. But we have very little language for her in the autism self-advocacy movement, either. We pay lip service to the idea that autistic people can be autism parents. But in practice, we tend to assume that a given parent is either for us or against us. We don’t make a lot of space to discuss autistic parents’ internalized ableism, overload, social pressure, conflicting support needs, or the many other factors that can make parenting a challenge – even for someone who intimately understands the spectrum and is not at all interested in excuses for abusing their child.

“Experimental Film” begins to create such a space, not by making Lois a role model or by talking about what she ought to do, but by letting her struggle. By showing the struggle in unapologetically intimate detail – and by showing Lois, by the end of the story, begin to make small steps forward.

“Experimental Film” is a book about multiple flawed and struggling autistic people whose lives catastrophically intersect. It is a book in which ableism is literally the villain. It shows the very ugly ways in which internalized ableism poisons our working lives, (paradoxically) our health, our ability to treat other disabled people properly, our relationships with the people who matter most to us, and our relationships with ourselves. It sugarcoats nothing. But it shows, in the end – without any quick or magic fixes – characters beginning to learn that there is another way.

The very ugliness of the internalized ableism, especially in early chapters, will make this a book that not every autistic reader can stomach. But for others, “Experimental Film” may be the book that they didn’t even know how desparately they needed.

The Verdict: Recommended

(Thanks are due to Rose Lemberg in particular, and also to Elizabeth Bartmess, A.C. Buchanan, and Bogi Takács, for a conversation that helped me solidify my thoughts about this book. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.)

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Why Art Matters, According To Science

I posted, after the election, about art mattering, and voices mattering. I believe this based on first principles alone – people matter, and what they have to say matters. But since then, I know a lot of my writer friends have struggled to believe that their writing makes any difference. Sure, we say (it’s me as well), maybe we need art right now, but mine isn’t political enough, isn’t persuasive enough, isn’t this enough, isn’t that enough. Mine isn’t going to help anyone in today’s world.

One of the nice things about being an academic who studies creativity is that I sometimes have new answers to these doubts.

As a case in point – and please remember, this case is only one specific way in which art can help people – I’m going to describe some research on fiction and personality change. This is mostly based on the work summarized in the paper “The Art in Fiction: From Indirect Communication to Changes of the Self” by Maja Djikic and Keith Oatley at the University of Toronto. But don’t worry! I am not going to write this like an academic paper! It’ll be fun!

Djikic and Oatley, along with other psychologists, have run experiments in which participants do personality tests, then read literary fiction, then do the tests again. These are compared with a control group in which the participants read something else – sometimes nonfiction, sometimes a dry, courtroom-style summary of the events in the  story.

Usually, personality traits are stable. They rarely change, and it’s very difficult to change them through direct persuasion. But psychologists running these experiments found something strange. After reading fiction, a person’s personality becomes temporarily destabilized. If you do a personality test immediately after reading something, your answers may be different to what you usually give.

Moreover, everyone’s personality will be destabilized in a different way. One person might become less conscientious and more open after reading a story. Another person, reading the exact same story, will change their answers in a completely different way. These changes are mediated – that is, they partly depend on – the emotions a reader experiences during the story, which are also specific to the reader. They aren’t necessarily based on what the author intended to reader to feel, but on the idiosyncratic way each person reacts to what they’re reading.

Does this personality change last? Well, yes and no. Normally, it’s temporary. But if someone’s personality is already going in a direction where it can change, the temporary destabilizations caused by things like fiction help to nudge it along.

And we do see lasting patterns over time that seem to result from fiction reading. In particular, habitual fiction readers end up showing greater empathy than non-readers – even when controlling for things like IQ and education, which would logically make fiction books more accessible to some people than others.

Cool, but if the logical content intended by the author isn’t what causes this change, then what does? Djikic and Oatley suggest that it’s specifically the “literary” aspects of a text that make the difference. Literary style – phrasing things in an unusual and compelling way – makes elements of a text stand out and seem special, and this facilitates readers having a personal emotional reaction that they didn’t expect. “Showing” a character’s emotions, through their actions or the implications of their words, rather than “telling” them, seems to increase empathy specifically, since the reader has to pay more attention to subtle cues to what the character is feeling. The increase in empathy is also strongest for people who become very mentally immersed in a story, visualizing the events of the narrative in their head.

It’s worth noting here that, if you read specific papers about the psychology of fiction, many make a sharp distinction between “literary” and “commercial” fiction. This can be a little hard for genre writers like us to take. It makes sense on its face that literary fiction contains more stylistic devices than commercial fiction. But a lot of researchers, insisting on this distinction between literary and commercial, don’t test it directly. That is to say, they don’t test literary fiction with a commercial fiction control group. Instead, as I mentioned, they test literary fiction against non-fiction, or against special versions of literary fiction with some or all of the literary devices taken out. We all know, though, that it’s possible to use literary devices in any genre.

And when researchers do measure specific genres against each other, the results are a little surprising. Science fiction without a literary style does rather poorly at generating empathy. Litfic does better – but the very best genre for generating empathy is romance. (Think of that next time you are tempted to turn up your nose at a romance author!)

Many of these effects have been documented for other art forms too, such as visual art, music, and film. Art in general seems to be uniquely positioned to expand our minds by generating emotions in a way that’s personal and individually relevant to us.

This isn’t even getting into the other things art can do. For example, so far I’ve only talked about increasing empathy in a general sense, not about generating empathy for specific groups (such as a marginalized group). And I haven’t mentioned some of the things that science fiction is especially good at, such as imagining new solutions to societal problems. This isn’t meant to be a statement of the only thing fiction can do, or even the most important thing. But it’s one thing.

Like the protagonist in “A Spell To Retrieve Your Lover From The Bottom Of The Sea”, a good story can’t force anyone to change. But what it can do is create a space for change. A space where, for those who are willing, change and understanding become a little bit more possible.

Maybe, for some of us, that can be enough.