This exercise in perspective-taking is like a training course in understanding others. The Canadian cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley calls fiction “the mind’s flight simulator”. Just as pilots can practise flying without leaving the ground, people who read fiction may improve their social skills each time they open a novel. In his research, he has found that as we begin to identify with the characters, we start to consider their goals and desires instead of our own. When they are in danger, our hearts start to race. We might even gasp. But we read with luxury of knowing that none of this is happening to us. We don’t wet ourselves with terror or jump out of windows to escape.
Having said that, some of the neural mechanisms the brain uses to make sense of narratives in stories do share similarities with those used in real-life situations. If we read the word “kick”, for example, areas of the brain related to physically kicking are activated. If we read that a character pulled a light cord, activity increases in the region of the brain associated with grasping.
To follow a plot, we need to know who knows what, how they feel about it and what each character believes others might be thinking. This requires the skill known as “theory of mind”. When people read about a character’s thoughts, areas of the brain associated with theory of mind are activated.
That inclusion is the big difference between the traditional publishing industry and Kickstarter’s book projects: The latter has gatekeepers and the former doesn’t. The argument in favor of gatekeepers is that they serve to shift the good from the bad. The argument against them? Thanks to systemic bias and prejudices, they winnow out plenty of good as well as bad.
“Kickstarter allows writers to go directly to readers and let them choose which books get made, which has resulted in books being published that speak to experiences that often aren’t represented in mainstream publishing,” Atwell explains. ”The Destroy anthology series is one example of this: it’s a series of speculative fiction and fantasy anthologies dedicated to showcasing the work and stories of People of Color, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people. Mainstream publishers might have looked at these projects and declared them too niche or imagined that there wasn’t a market for them, but these Kickstarter projects have proved that there definitely is an audience for stories centering people who don’t often get to see themselves represented.”
Business is indeed booming for Kickstarter’s “Publishing” and “Journalism” categories, which together are up 6% in dollars pledged YTD over the same period last year, at $8.9 million over 2018’s $8.4 million. Across Kickstarter’s ten-year lifespan, a total of $178.6 million has been pledged to Publishing and Journalism projects by more than two million individual backers.
How Has the Internet Changed Book Culture?
If there was one major takeaway from the evening, it was that all of the panelists believed that the internet has served to expand literary culture and its reach. Straub described literary activity on the web as “a good cocktail party, where it’s always busy and you’re not the only one there,” and Lee noted that readers who might have had a hard time finding others with similar tastes before the age of social media no longer have that problem. “You can really find your tribe online,” she said, adding that this makes the internet an ideal tool for “having a one to one conversation with the people who love to talk about books” in a way that allows authors, publishers, and others to really “zero in on readers.”
Zimmerman agreed. “Historically, being a book lover off the internet was either very personal,” she said, “or very academic. And what the internet allows us to do in changing the way we interact with books is see what people connect with…[,]how people form identity communities, and how those communities affect what they read and how they read it.”
Any big forum has its downside, of course. For Straub, that’s the needless culture of one-star reviews on sites like GoodReads or Amazon. “Is that the best use of your time?” she asked. “To me, rating things is not the point. The point is finding the books that speak to you and finding the other people who those books speak to—if you want to. Or just enjoying the book.”