Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
Infocom, makers of a revolutionary brand of text adventure games for PCs, had a great ad once: "WE STICK OUR GRAPHICS WHERE THE SUN DON'T SHINE." They were proud of how being text-only gave them the freedom to build a sophisticated textual interaction engine, and to free up then-precious disk space for more of the game. Irony: the company later did add graphics to many of its games — Shōgun comes to mind, although even there they tried to make it interesting by designing the images in the manner of ukiyo-e painting. (Heck, I thought even that much imagery was still a sellout for them.)
One thing suggested by the article is how something that is evoked in fiction must have at least a marginal precedent in the experience of the reader. If I say "soap that smells of lavender", that means nothing to someone who's never smelled lavender. But it might also provoke their curiosity: what does lavender smell like? Out they go to the drugstore, and back they come with a slightly richer palette for the senses. That's the hope, anyway.
I've been long convinced that writing is both the most reified and most abstract of all arts at the same time. Out of nothing more than black squiggles on paper or black dots on a screen, whole worlds and genealogies appear; people that never lived (or at least you never met) appear and evoke pride, tears or anger. The outer world is shut off for a little bit and an inner world comes to life. Few other art forms come close to working this kind of spellbinding — maybe radio, where the story is taking place more in your head than it is coming out of the speakers. (We don't need to see Fibber's Closet to know it's any more of a mess.)
When you put everything on a screen, or draw it on a page, there's a different set of interactions that takes place with the audience. You give them that much less heavy lifting of one kind to do, but you have to replace that with another to really make things work. This is why movies about stuff blowing up tend to have such short shelf lives and are hustled off the racks in favor of the next wave of the same thing — but I can watch The Harder They Come, Fanny and Alexander, Naked, Le samouraï, Violent Cop, and never get bored because an entirely different set of things in me is being activated by those films. Something is not just being shown to us, but is being evoked within us as well.
Jim Emerson recently posted about how the Thomas Kinkades of filmmaking have won, but at what cost? Meaning that beautiful imagery in movies is now as common as hydrogen, but the end result, oddly enough, is filmmaking that's bland and interchangeable. I'm reminded of the difference between the people who respect well-constructed prose and the members of the "sentence cult". I am myself not a sworn enemy of the lovers of interesting sentences; I've written what I hope are a few catchy ones myself. But for me the real value of a work's prose is one step under the surface: what it's put there for.
A page-long description of a painting isn't more beautiful, let alone more effective, than a few well-chosen words about it, especially when those few well-chosen words cut right to what that painting is doing there. That requires some thought about the function of the scene and the things in it, something more than the urge to just pour description over things like enamel covering metal. Some sense of how to build trust in the reader's intelligence and curiosity is needed, in the same way that a film which shows us everything turns out to be the most boring of all because there's nothing to revisit and nothing for us to grapple with. Those few words come alive inside us, and demand our participation in a way that thousands of more ill-fitting, imprecise, shotgun-spray words don't. When someone who has learned how to do more with just enough (not always "less") cuts loose and gives us those thousands of words, then we are well and truly immersed.
We enter fiction with our heads, just as fiction enters ours. We also enter it with our hearts — we read things we're drawn to our of our natural curiosity — and it, in turn, enters ours. A great book, or even just one we love (greatness is often personal), becomes a part of our mental furniture. We see the world that much more through it, and it gives us a way to interpret and reflect on what we see. Dostoevsky's Underground Man and Raskolnikov gave us a way to see irrational, tormented, self-contradicting men without simply brushing them off as mad. Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway let us see someone we would call "ordinary" in terms that were anything but.
I should note that I'm not making an argument for this being a matter of high vs. low art. Even "popcorn" entertainment can be this stimulating, and often is. Back to the movies: word circulating right now is that The Hunger Games (the movie) has some smidgen of this. Before, we had Inception; any of the better Star Treks; the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings cycles, which did justice (if sometimes rough) to their paper counterparts; the first Matrix film; the list goes on. All were willing to do a little more than give us something to look at — they gave us something to come back to, and were smart enough to slip it under the door en passant while not forgetting to be broadly entertaining. To do all that and to keep the studio sticky-fingers at bay takes some serious vinegar; after all the horror stories I hear about film production I'm amazed anything coherent comes out of the Big Brain Candy Factory.
But in the end, the movies are mainly out there, as images and movement and sound. Books — even those read to us through earphones — are in here. Despite all the stuff splashed across all those screens, it's the black marks on paper (or dots on displays, etc.) that still have the kind of power you can't find anywhere else. There is no effects budget needed to say "the sky was tiled with spaceships", but with those six words I can cover heaven, at the cost of nothing more than plugging into our shared human capital.
Yes, it really is all in your head, but that's why it works so damn well.