The Novelist as Psychologist?

The short, imprecise answer is that a novelist is also a psychologist, assuming that s/he is writing about human characters (or characters with human characteristics).

The definition of a psychologist, according to my dictionary is “a person who has (knowledge of) and is qualified in the study of the mind and behaviour.”  This seems like a pretty broad definition.  In fact, the American Psychological Association has 56 divisions in its membership.  The one respect in which most novelists would not be considered psychologists is in the word ‘qualified’.  Very few of us have a degree (particularly the required advanced degree) in psychology.  But that doesn’t prevent us (and most of our fellow human beings) from acting as psychologists.  Hands up! those of us who have never given advice to a friend or family member on how to handle a troublesome acquaintance/colleague/friend/lover/family member.

There are generally considered to be two categories of psychologists: applied and research.  Researchers use scientific methods to learn more about the functioning of the human mind.  Since a novel is, by definition, fictional, it is not suitable for the scientific method.  This would seem to disqualify novelists from being amateur research psychologists.  However, there may be some of my colleagues who believe that they have discovered, and have published, an interesting parameter of human behaviour.

If we consider the applied category, it seems that there are two sub-categories here: teachers (those who pass on to others their knowledge of psychology) and practitioners (those who ‘work with patients in a variety of therapeutic contexts’).  To me, it seems doubtful that many novelists write with the purpose of giving insight and relief to troubled individuals.  However, for example, a troubled reader may recognise himself as Josef K. in Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and he may draw some useful conclusions from that recognition.

So, for me, novelists if they are amateur psychologists at all, fall into the ‘applied’ category, not exactly as teachers but as practitioners who provide us with insights of the human mind and character.  Wikipedia points out that psychologists explore such concepts as personality, the workings of the mind, emotion, motivation, interpersonal relationships, cognition, perception and the unconscious.  Novelists also work with these concepts to create characters and situations which may enlighten us, but mostly they entertain us.

Women & Sex

The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday on remarks made by the author, Martin Amis, at the Hay Festival.  The Telegraph said, “With his penchant for pot-stirring statements about feminism, Martin Amis earned a reputation as a misogynist.  Now the author has declared that women make better writers – at least when it comes to sex.  Female writers are more ‘sincere’ about expressing emotion, Amis said.”

The Telegraph quoted Amis as saying: “Let me venture a distinction between men’s writing and women’s writing.  There is a difference between real sincerity and literary sincerity. . . I would say there’s a bit more song in women’s writing, there’s more real sincerity in women’s writing.  And before I tiptoe away from this, I’d say the reason why women write better about sex – which is almost impossible to write about and no one has done it very well, ever – is that as a novelist you are in a God-like relation to what you create.  You are omnipotent and the question of potency is embarrassing for men.  It is the great hidden weakness in men, that potency can fail, and it’s not something that troubles women.  They have a lot else to worry about, but not that.  So once a man is writing a sex scene he’s feeling omnipotent, and he’s forgotten about all those fiascos and no-shows.  But women don’t and they write better about it.”

I think that Amis has several fairly valid points here.  The first is the writer assumes an omnipotent relationship to the novel he is creating.  S/he alone creates it.  The second point is that the subject of potency is potentially embarrassing for men – but not for women.  It seems to me that this is true for biological and psychological reasons.  It follows that male writers in their omnipotent state do not like writing about failed sexual experiences.  As I reflect on the sexual scenes I have written, there are only two where the male performs unsatisfactorily.  In Sin & Contrition there is the honeymoon scene involving Bettina and her new husband.  And there is the wedding night scene involving a 15 year old Afghan boy and his 23 year old wife in my fourth novel which is not yet published.

I think I understand what Amis is trying to say about ‘real sincerity’ in women’s writing.  I think he means that, in general, women are more in touch with their feelings than men are.  But I don’t believe that this is universally true.  I think it is true that, in general, a woman’s emotional response to a given situation is likely to be more loving and forgiving than a man’s.  But again, it is not universally true.

I think that the sincerity of women’s writing about sex has more to do with the whole spectrum of emotions of the relationship.  Men’s sincerity is more about excitement, illicitness, eroticism and conquest.

Perhaps we should learn from each other if we are able to write about it ‘very well’.


I’m not talking about romantic passion now.  I’m talking about the passion an author has to have for his novel.  It really is essential!

About a year and a half, I started writing a novel which struck me as a good idea.  When I got about 30% of the way through it, a friend who had been reading it said, “it’s boring!”  The wind went completely out of my sails and I set aside the work I had completed.  I wrote another novel in the meantime, and when I finished that one, I decided to have another look at the ‘boring’ one.  My friend was right; it was boring.  But, I felt that the ideas behind the book were good.  I had just executed them poorly: without passion.  So, I set to work again: reorganising, clarifying, deleting and adding material.  I think it will turn out well if I maintain my current level of passion.  Passion for what? you might ask.  I think that in a good novel, the author has passion for three elements: a character or characters, the story, and the message.  Passion for a character means that the author really knows him or her, and really wants him or her to come alive for the rest of the world to see.  Passion for the story means that the author loves the idea of his story, and wants to tell it in such a way that the reader will be captivated by it.  Passion for the message means that the author feels strongly about the meaning he’s trying to convey to the reader.

I think it’s fair to say that not all novels have all three elements.  Many novels lack a messages or an ultimate meaning, but all novels have character(s) and a story.

Let me give you some examples:

Here is Bettina, the  character most readers love to hate, being interviewed by me at the end of Sin & Contrition.  She’s self-centered and very narrow-minded:

William:  Tell me about Franciska and Fredek.  (her children)

Bettina:  Well, Franciska is a successful modern artist, as you know.  I don’t understand her paintings, but some people apparently do, and are willing to pay good money for them.  She’s moved to a larger, more comfortable apartment in the Village, but she still has her art studio.

William:  Is she still living with Florence Donovan?

Bettina: (sharply)  What do you mean?

William:  Well, Franciska’s gay, isn’t she? . . . There’s nothing wrong with it, of course.

Bettina:  What do you mean there’s nothing wrong with it?  There’s plenty wrong with it, and the Bible forbids it!  (This from a woman who renounced her Catholicism to join a ‘more fashionable church’)

William:  As I understand it, being gay isn’t a choice that people make.  It’s just their . . . nature.

Bettina:  That’s ridiculous!  Of course people make a choice about their sexuality!  And no daughter of mine would ever choose to have sex with another woman!  It would be disgusting!

William:  OK, Bettina.  So Franciska’s doing well?

Bettina:  Yes!

William:  And how about Fredek?

Bettina:  Haven’t you heard?  He’s a smash hit!  He’s now playing Billy Flynn in Chicago.

William:  That’s wonderful!  And does he have a girl friend?

Bettina:  Of course!  He’s been going with Mary Anne for several years now.

William:  When you say ‘going with’, you mean they’re living together?

Bettina: (hesitantly and softly)  I suppose so.

William:  As far as I know, the Bible doesn’t approve of sex outside of marriage.

Bettina: (leaning forward and glaring at me)  Are you implying that I apply a double standard to my children?

William:  I didn’t say so.

Bettina:  Yes, but that’s what you meant!  (sitting back and considering me)  Well, not all sins are equal.  Fredek will get married some day soon, and, in my opinion, sex between a man and a woman is OK.  It’s sex between two men or two women that’s the problem.

Here’s an example of story-telling from Fishing in Foreign Seas.  (John, Jamie’s brother, is celebrating his election to the US House of Representatives.  He is on crutches because his leg, which had bone cancer, has been amputated.  John’s girlfriend, Michele, a nurse, had left him because he would remind her too painfully of a one-legged uncle who had abused her.  Caterina, Jamie’s wife, had tried to convince Michele that John was not her uncle.)

Jamie saw her first, and he nudged Caterina.  From across the room, a solitary figure in a blue and white striped uniform and wearing white pointed cap was slowly approaching John.  Her demeanor was reserved yet determined.  It was Michele.  She stood slightly behind him and to his left, waiting patiently for him to notice her.  The two men to whom John was talking kept glancing at her until John turned to see who they were looking at. 

“Oh, Michele . . . “ he said.  The two men moved away.

“Congratulations, John,” she said, nervously clasping and unclasping her hands.  “You did very well!”

He said eagerly: “It’s great to see you, Michele.”

At that, she dissolved and the tears started.  “Oh, John, I’ve been so stupid. . . . So very stupid.  . . . . Will you forgive me?”  She stood looking at him, her cap slightly awry, dark streaks of mascara on her cheeks, her hands at her sides and an expression of pure sorrow on her face.  John leaned forward on his crutches and embraced her.

“I’m so sorry, John, I’m so sorry!” she said softly.

“I love you, Michele!”

She began to weep in earnest: “I don’t know why. . . . I don’t deserve it.”

He led her to the far side of the room where they sat talking.  Elena, overcome with curiosity, wandered nearby, pretending not to listen.

“Elena!” Caterina called.  Reluctantly, she obeyed her mother and came to the table.

“What are they talking about, Mommy?”

“That’s none of our business, Sweetheart.”

After a time, Michele came to the table and put her hand on Caterina’s shoulder.  Caterina stood and looked at her with a gentle smile: “Your face is a mess, Michele.  Let me . . .”
Michele interrupted, embracing her: “I don’t care . . . “  She looked earnestly at Caterina: “We’re getting married. . . and . . I want to thank you . . . for making me think.”

And here is the principal message from Sin & Contrition:  (Ellen and Gene are two principal characters; they’re adult children are Elisa, studying for the ministry, and Joey, an engineer.)

“But, Mom,” Elisa wanted to follow up on her mother’s last statement, “Why not?  If you’ve been going to church so long, why aren’t you a ‘true believer’?”

Ellen considered this, her head on one side.  “I don’t know.  I guess something has never really clicked for me.  I think to myself: this is such a good story! but then I think: but what if this was all made up by some religious people centuries ago?

Joey said: “I think what it is, Mom, is that you and I tend to be sceptical about things, and we like hard facts.  That’s why I like engineering and you like designing clothes.  Whereas, Elisa, and Dad are not as rigorous with facts: Elisa likes religion, and Dad tells stories on TV!”

“Joey!” Ellen was shocked, “Your father does not ‘tell stories on TV’!  He gives people factual news!”

Joey cringed in mock apology.  “Just kidding, Mom!”

Gene said, “Well, I think Joey has a point.  I think it’s probably true that some people are more disposed to suspend disbelief and take things on faith.”

“It’s not just a matter of taking things on faith, Dad,” Elisa said, “Two religious scholars, Kreeft and Tacelli, recently compiled a list of twenty arguments for the existence of God.

Joey said: “Give me an example.”

“Well, many of them involve complicated concepts in logic,” Elisa replied, “There is the Argument from Efficient Causality, which basically says that everything is the result of some cause, and if we trace far enough back the chain of cause and effect we will come to an Uncaused Being which has to be God.  And there is the Argument from Degrees of Perfection, which says that something is always better than something else in some sense.  Again, if we trace the stages of ‘betterness’, we will come to the Perfection of All Perfections, which is God.”

“Sorry, Elisa,” Ellen interjected, “I can’t get my head around that stuff!  If God is real, why can’t He just tell us, ‘here I am guys!’?”

“Mom,” Elisa replied, “Do you believe in free will?  That is do you believe that we, as human beings are able to choose the path we want to take?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“OK.  Well, if God were to say ‘here I am guys!’ free will would be gone!”


“Because, if we knew, for sure that God is there watching us, and if we knew – as we would – what he was expecting of us, and if we knew pretty well – as we would – what would happen to us if we didn’t meet His expectations, do you think any sane person would not choose the right path?  There wouldn’t be any options.”

Ellen leaned forward.  “So, are you saying that God gave us free will, and we’re here as a kind of a test?”

“I don’t know.  But it is a possibility.”

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