I've been reading "Formative Fictions: Imaginative Literature and the Training of the Capacities", Joshua Landy, Poetics Today 32:4, Winter 2011.
In the abstract it says "While it is often assumed that fictions must be informative or morally improving in order to be of any real benefit to us, certain texts defy this assumption by functioning as training grounds for the capacities", p.175. He begins by suggesting that literary texts have 3 main functions
- exemplary - (provides characters as role-models) - e.g. Racine
- affective - (moving, or at least entertaining) - e.g. Shelley
- cognitive - (provides - or helps reveal - knowledge about the world, a sub-culture, the writer or the reader)
He then suggests that some texts improve our skills - particularly, but not exclusively, our reading skills. Formative texts "present themselves as spiritual exercises (whether sacred or profane), spaces for prolonged and active encounters which serve, over time, to hone our abilities and thus, in the help, to help us become who we are" (p.184). Examples are Stephane Mallarme's poetry, some Beckett, Madame Bovary, Brecht and parables. He quotes Mark 4:11-12 to suggest that the Bible's parables are formative texts, and aren't supposed to be easy - "for those outside [i.e. non-disciples] everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand".
He writes that "Training ... takes place in only a relative handful of texts" (p.204). "Even if they are relatively rare, then, and even if their readers do not always take advantage of them, formative fictions may nonetheless be the most important fictions there are" (p.205). They "are texts that tend to be reread, texts indeed that reward rereading" (p.200).
He adds that there are many hybrids, and that the improved reading skills may aid life-skills (see Zunshine's work) -
- Austen, James, Woolf, etc "could be seen as granting us the opportunity to become better at handling social information, whether by keeping track of sources or by reconstructing nested beliefs", (p.195)
- "Proust's convoluted sentences stretch the mind's capacity for keeping multiple hypotheses in play while imposing provisional order on a rich set of material", (p.195)
His "Formative texts" are texts that make readers work - they're difficult texts (though superficially they may seem easy), drawing attention to their artifice, or containing unresolvable paradoxes. For each type of objective (particularly cognitive objective) that a text may have, there are ways for the text to hinder the reader's attainment of that objective. I suspect that not all these ways to add difficulty result in "formative texts", but many do. Especially for literary texts, I'd have thought that hybrid texts are the norm. And what happens to heavily formative texts once the reader's learnt the lesson? If a future book teaches the lesson better, is the first book diminished?