Human-computer interaction, cyberpsychology and core disciplines

A heat map of the multidisciplinary field of HCI @ Alan Dix

I first taught human-computer interaction (HCI) in 2001. I taught it from a viewpoint of software engineering. Then, when I taught it again, I taught it from a design point of view, which was a bit trickier, as I didn’t want to trawl through a load of general design principles which didn’t absolutely boil down to a practical set of guidelines for graphical-user interface or web design. That said, I wrote a whole generic set of design principles here: Designing Design, borrowing Herb Simon’s great title: The Science of the Artificial. Then, I revised my HCI course again and taught it from a practical set of tasks so that my students went away with a specific skill set. I blogged about it in a revised applied-just-to-web-design version blog series here: Web Design: The Science of Communication.

Last year, I attended a HCI open day Bootstrap UX. The day in itself was great and I enjoyed hearing some new research ideas until we got to one of the speakers who gave a presentation on web design, I think he did, it’s hard to say really, as all his examples came from architecture.

I have blogged about this unsatisfactory approach before. By all means use any metaphor you like, but if you cannot relate it back to practicalities then ultimately all you are giving us is a pretty talk or a bad interview question.

You have to put concise constraints around a given design problem and relate it back to the job that people do and which they have come to learn about. Waffling on about Bucky Fuller (his words – not mine) with some random quotes on nice pictures are not teaching us anything. We have a billion memes online to choose from. All you are doing is giving HCI a bad name and making it sound like marketing. Indeed, cyberpsychologist Mary Aiken, in her book The Cyber Effect, seems to think that HCI is just insidious marketing. Anyone might have been forgiven for making the same mistake listening to the web designer’s empty talk on ersatz architecture.

Cyberpsychology is a growing and interesting field but if it is populated by people like Aiken who don’t understand what HCI is, nor how artificial intelligence (AI) works then it is no surprise that The Cyber Effect reads like the Daily Mail (I will blog about the book in more detail at a later date, as there’s some useful stuff in there but too many errors). Aiken quotes Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, which I have blogged about here, and it makes me a little bit dubious about cyberpsychology, I am waiting for the book written by the neuroscientist with lots of brainscan pictures to tell me exactly how our brains are being changed by the Internet.

Cyberpsychology is the study of the psychological ramifications of cyborgs, AI, and virtual reality, and I was like wow, this is great, and rushed straight down to the library to get the books on it to see what was new and what I might not know. However, I was disappointed because if the people who are leading the research anthropomorphise computers and theorise about metaphors about the Internet instead of the Internet itself, then it seems that the end result will be skewed.

We are all cyberpsychologists and social psychologists now, baby. It’s what we do

We are all cyberpsychologists and social psychologists, now baby. It’s what we do. We make up stories to explain how the world works. It doesn’t mean to say that the stories are accurate. We need hard facts not Daily Mail hysteria (Aiken was very proud to say she made it onto the front page of the Daily Mail with some of her comments). However, the research I have read about our behaviour online says it’s too early to say. It’s just too early to say how we are being affected and as someone who has been online since 1995 I only feel enhanced by the connections the WWW has to offer me. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been all marvellous, it’s been like the rest of life, some fabulous connections, some not so.

I used to lecture psychology students alongside the software engineering students when I taught HCI in 2004 at Westminster University, and they were excited when I covered cognitive science as it was familiar to them, and actually all the cognitive science tricks make it easy to involve everyone in the lectures, and make the lectures fun, but when I made them sit in front of a computer, design and code up software as part of their assessment, they didn’t want to do it. They didn’t see the point.

This is the point: If you do not know how something works how can you possibly talk about it without resorting to confabulation and metaphor? How do you know what is and what is not possible? I may be able to drive a car but I am not a mechanic, nor would I give advice to anyone about their car nor write a book on how a car works, and if I did, I would not just think about a car as a black box, I would have to put my head under the bonnet, otherwise I would sound like I didn’t know what I was talking about. At least, I drive a car, and use a car, that is something.

Hey! We’re not all doctors, baby.

If you don’t use social media, and you just study people using it, what is that then? Theory and practice are two different things, I am not saying that theory is not important, it is, but you need to support your theory, you need some experience to evaluate the theory. Practice is where it’s at. No one has ever said: Theory makes perfect. Yep, I’ve never seen that on a meme. You get a different perspective, like Jack Nicholson to his doctor Keanu Reeves says in Something’s Gotta Give: Hey! We’re not all doctors, baby. Reeves has seen things Nicholson hasn’t and Nicholson is savvy enough to know it.

So, if you don’t know the theory and you don’t engage in the practice, and you haven’t any empirical data yourself, you are giving us conjecture, fiction, a story. Reading the Wikipedia page on cyberpsychology, I see that it is full of suggested theories like the one about how Facebook causes depression. There are no constraints around the research. Were these people depressed before going on Facebook? I need more rigour. Aiken’s book is the same, which is weird since she has a lot of references, they just don’t add up to a whole theory. I have blogged before about how I was fascinated that some sociologists perceived software as masculine.

In the same series I blogged about women as objects online with the main point being, that social media reflects our society and we have a chance with technology to impact society in good ways. Aiken takes the opposite tack and says that technology encourages and propagates deviant sexual practices (her words) – some I hadn’t heard of, but for me, begs the question: If I don’t know about a specific sexual practice, deviant or otherwise, until I learn about on the Internet (Aiken’s theory), then how do I know which words to google? It is all a bit chicken and egg and doesn’t make sense. Nor does Aiken’s advice to parents which is: Do not let your girls become objects online. Women and girls have been objectified for centuries, technology does not do anything by itself, it supports people doing stuff they already do. And, like the HCI person I am, I have designed and developed technology to support people doing stuff they already do. I may sometimes inadvertently change the way people do a task when supported by technology for good or for bad, but to claim that technology is causing people to do things they do not want to do is myth making and fear mongering at its best.

The definition of HCI that I used to use in lectures at the very beginning of any course was:

HCI is a discipline concerned with the design, evaluation and implementation of interactive computing systems for human use and with the study of major phenomena surrounding them (ACM, 1992).

For me, human-computer interaction was and still remains Gestaltian: The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, by this I mean, that the collaboration of a human and a computer is more than a human typing numbers into a computer and then waiting for the solution, or indeed typing in sexually deviant search terms into a web crawler to find a tutorial. And, with the advent of social media, HCI is more than one person connecting to another, or broadcasting online, which is why the field of cyberpsychology is so intriguing.

But the very reason why I left the field of AI and went into HCI is: AI reasons in a closed world and the limits of the computational power you have available. There are limits. With HCI, that world opens up and the human gets to direct the computer to do something useful. Human to human communication supported by technology does something else altogether which is why you might want the opinion of a sociologist or a psychologist. But, you don’t want the opinion of the sociologist on AI when they don’t understand how it works and has watched a lot of sci-fi and thinks that robots are taking over the world. Robots can do many things but it takes a lot of lines of code. And, you don’t want the opinion of a cyberpsychologist who thinks that technology teaches people deviant sexual practices and encourages us all to literally pleasure ourselves to death (Aiken’s words – see what I mean about the Daily Mail?) ‘cos she read one dodgy story and linked it to a study of rats in the 1950s.

Nowadays, everyone might consider themselves to be a bit of a HCI expert and can judge the original focus of HCI which is the concept of usability: easy to learn, easy to use. Apps are a great example of this, because they are easy to learn and easy to use, mainly though because they have limited functionality, that is they focus on one small task, like getting a date, ordering a taxi, sharing a photo, or a few words.

However, as HCI professor Alan Dix says in his reflective Thirty years of HCI and also here about the future: HCI is a vast and multifaceted community, bound by the evolving concept of usability, and the integrating commitment to value human activity and experience as the primary driver in technology.

He adds that sometimes the community can get lost and says that Apple’s good usability has been sacrificed for aesthetics and users are not supported as well as they should be. Online we can look at platforms like Facebook and Twitter and see that they do not look after their users as well as they could (I have blogged about that here). But again it is not technology, it is people who have let the users down. Somewhere along the line someone made a trade-off: economics over innovation, speed over safety, or aesthetics over usability.

HCI experts are agents of change. We are hopefully designing technology to enhance human activity and experience, which is why the field of HCI keeps getting bigger and bigger and has no apparent core discipline.

It has a culture of designer-maker which is why at any given HCI conference you might see designers, hackers, techies and artists gathering together to make things. HCI has to exist between academic rigour and exciting new tech, no wonder it seems to not be easy to define. But as we create new things, we change society and have to keep debating areas such as intimacy, privacy, ownership, visibility as well as what seems pretty basic like how to keep things usable. Dix even talks about having human–data interaction, as we put more and more things online, we need to make sense of the data being generated and interact with it. There is new research being funded into trust (which I blogged about here). And Dix suggest that we could look into designing for solitude and supporting users to not respond immediately to every text, tweet, digital flag. As an aside, I have switched off all notifications, my husband just ignores his, and it just boggles my mind a bit that people can’t bring themselves to be in charge of the technology they own. Back to the car analogy, they wouldn’t have the car telling them where they should be going.

Psychology is well represented in HCI, AI is well represented in HCI too. Hopefully we can subsume cyberpsychology too, so that the next time I pick up a book on the topic, it actually makes sense, and the writer knows what goes on under the bonnet.

Technology should be serving us, not scaring us, so if writers could stop behaving like 1950s preachers who think society is going to the dogs because they view how people embrace technology in the same way they once did rocknroll and the television, we could be more objective about how we want our technological progress to unfold.

Women: Society, Storytelling, Technology (1)

The Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid

We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. – Hildegard of Bingen

[Women Part 1 of 9: 1) Introduction, 2) Bodies, 3) Health, 4) Work, 5) Superwomen, 6) Religion, 7) In Tech, 8) Online 9) Conclusions]

At Easter, I was in the Prado Museum in Madrid when I wandered past this version of the Mona Lisa. Until that moment I hadn’t known it existed so it truly felt that I had discovered it, and I was able to look at it, through my own eyes and think my own thoughts without any expectation or expert opinion. It was overwhelming. It is a beautiful version and I am astounded anew every time I look at the postcard I have tacked up above my desk.

It reminds me of Philippa Gregory’s novels about the Tudors. They take the viewpoint of the women who played major roles during Tudor times but who were, because of the way society was organised, denied a voice, particularly the forgotten women like The Other Boleyn Girl, Mary; and Jane Grey’s sisters, Mary and Katherine in The Last Tudor. To coincide with the release of The Last Tudor last week, Philippa Gregory gave an interview in the New York Times saying that she was reading around the topic of medieval women with particular attention to how and why women get squeezed out of the marketplace, out of the law, and out of public service, and out of sight. I can’t wait to see what she has to say.

Just looking at the Mona Lisa, I already have an idea, for the original in the Louvre was labelled as Leonardo da Vinci’s handy woman. For the longest time, no one knew who the sitter was and no one really cared. It was all about da Vinci. The woman – it was decided around 2007 was probably Lisa del Giocondo – has been, for several centuries, an object on which people (let’s face it, mainly men) could project their own fantasies, which was why it was so refreshing to see a different version even though it remains symbolic of the position women have had in society for the longest time. They are silent, the muse of men, there to cater to the needs of men, treated like property, without autonomy, without legal rights. Women were powerless and helpless, and though things are much better nowadays, there is still a hangover from those days.

Life coach Martha Beck says: The most helpless feeling anyone can have in society is that of a little girl, when little boys cry they get called little girls. Little girls are at the bottom of the pile!

Things are changing slowly, with a lot of resistance. We only have to look at the fuss made over the next Dr Who and how a woman couldn’t play a time travelling alien with two hearts. Seriously? And the hatred expressed when Ghostbusters was remade in 2016: Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts. I won’t even begin here my rants about the way women are portrayed in the media and in everyday conversation.

As a mum to girls, I feel that it is important for my girls to see a female Prime Minister, female leads in movies, female scientists, female sports women, female astronauts, female anything that my girls may want to be one day, because seeing a woman doing a job helps immensely. Even Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says that she didn’t think she could teach Buddhism until she saw another woman teach it:

Before, I had felt there was no way could I ever do that, but now I felt like I could.

However, overall in technology and in academia in technology, where supposedly things change more quickly, there are still very few women. I have always felt about technology the way I feel about the Prado Mona Lisa, that there is no expectation and there is no expert opinion telling me, a woman, what I should and shouldn’t be doing or thinking as I spend my days absorbed in IT. However, not everyone shares my opinion. Recently, I was out socially and met several 20-something-years-old women who thought me doing IT was very cool but really hadn’t even imagined it could be a career possibility for them. And, the last two courses I taught this year (1st year undergraduate: Web Authoring and Databases) had only one woman in each course. It is sad to think that this relatively new and constantly changing field doesn’t have anything remotely approaching an equal men to women ratio.

On this blog I have written indirectly about women in storytelling and films but not in technology and just once in society which was really more about what I felt when I suffered through yet another bout of #mansplaining. I have put off writing up the research I have done, as one female academic friend summed it up perfectly by saying: It’s too depressing to think about.

So today, I am starting a blog series to look at women in society and in particular, technology to see if I can understand more about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as women, so I can better explain to my girls how to navigate their way through this world to become anything they want to be. Wish me luck!

[2) Bodies]

Creating space (3): Authenticity

I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing
– William James

In Creating Space (2) I talked about how nine times out of 10 when people say things, it is not intentionally designed to hurt me. The other evening, I got text which fell into the 10th time category. My immediate response was to type a raging text back to vent my hurt and my anger.

I was about to press send and then I remembered these creating space blogs, swore a little under my breath, paused, and then I edited my response so that the texter and I could exchange the information we needed without everything escalating.

I am glad I did. Today as I type this, I have almost forgotten how hurt and angry I was, there is no emotional charge on that memory, whereas if I had gone ahead with my original text response I would have been still talking about who got last word and whose words hurt the most. Whoever said: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me, has clearly never met my family.

Sometimes we need to imagine ourselves a little bit different to how we are in that moment – because there are so many versions of us, but we are aiming for our best – so that we can guide the outcome of a situation. It is almost like creating a space to give ourselves the chance to stay in that different state afterwards. We deserve that nice state.

Getting into a state

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), first invented by John Grinder and Richard Bandler, and extensively promoted by Tony Robbins and Paul McKenna has long promoted the belief that we can make changes in our lives to become more successful/thinner/richer by changing our states which changes our behaviour and thoughts, and then we can go on and also influence other people too.

Like most self-help books, I have always found NLP tiring, all that need to change myself suggests that I am not enough the way that I am and that I have to be something else.

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.  

So it has been such a relief to read Danielle La Porte’s  The Desire Map Book, because she says that we want to be more successful/thinner/richer because we want the feeling of whatever comes with that goal: the feeling of power, sexiness or security. Whatever it is, it is not the goal, it’s the way we believe we will feel when we have that goal. We don’t have to be different to achieve a goal, we just have to recognise what we want to feel, and then achieve that feeling.

Rather like my text exchange, I had to identify what I wanted to feel after it was over and then act in that way.  Too often, we immediately respond to the world around us rather than pausing to see how we feel, and more importantly how we want to feel during a moment. This is so much easier for me than having to rewire my brain to be a different person.

Confidence, comfort, passion, enthusiasm

davidji says that we must absolutely get clear on what we want because we make too many decisions out of fear and desperation, or in my text case anger and hurt. He quotes the Bhagavad Gita: Yogastha kuru karmani and tells us that we must establish ourselves in the present moment, i.e., create space to pause in and decide on an outcome, before we act, if we want a better outcome in a given situation.

And, this advice is demonstrated by Amy Cuddy in her book Presence. She says that the people who were most likely to be awarded venture capitalist money were the ones who presented their ideas with confidence, comfort, passion and enthusiasm. These people did not spend their time in the spotlight looking fearful or desperate. Their belief in what they wanted sponsorship for came through in their voices, gestures and facial expressions. They were completely present in the moment and demonstrated authenticity. Cuddy says we can all do this. We can learn to tap into that state where we feel confident and passionate, when we need to, to rise to the occasion.

The authentic self

Semiotics teaches us that our only measurement of truth is if it feels right, that is to say: Does it ring true and fit with what we already feel? We live our own stories everyday and have our own knowledge and experience of storytelling so that when we listen to someone else’s story, if it doesn’t ring true then we don’t believe that person. This might be because that person is a bit off, a bit inauthentic, which could be that they or we don’t quite trust ourselves in a given situation.

We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values.

Cuddy’s book and TED talk tell us that we can learn to trust ourselves by believing in our own stories. We do this by learning that our authentic self is a state or space we can get into whilst honestly expressing our values. So, Cuddy recommends faking it until we make it, or become it. Because, we are not really faking it, we are remembering ourselves in our self-affirming story.

The more powerless people feel, the more anxiety they experience, and the smaller they become. We need to create a space in order to become present, you have presence and you take up the space you deserve and require in any situation to give and receive the very things that the meeting, the text, the conversation came about for, in the first place.

Sometimes we get so lost in a moment, and we feel so desperate and afraid, we forget, why we decided to have that conversation, presentation, text.

Intimacy not intimidation

Taking up space and expanding in the animal kingdom is a way of demonstrating power and Cuddy says that this is not intimidation, for, if someone is too big we will avoid them, instead expanding and being expressive in a given space is a form of intimacy.

For me, the NLP approach which Robbins and McKenna use seems to have a very masculine flavour which needs us emulate the alpha male. Simon Sinek, takes a similar stance, he advises leaders to speak last, eat last – basically have the last word – a total demonstration of intimidation not intimacy. Again, it is an old-fashioned alpha male approach of domination, which makes me cringe, though Sinek says he wants to change the way industries function in order to take better care of their employees. You can’t do that if your leaders pull all the tricks to have the last word.

It is not about winning

It is not about winning! 

So, it is refreshing to have Amy Cuddy explain similar advice but in a different way. The reason we may want to slow down, speak slowly, and take a pause is, that it helps us expand and occupy the space we need in order to choose the correct and appropriate response without anxiety and without anger. We want to know that when we act and speak we have done so as our most authentic selves, the nicest selves we can muster, and that we take the time to think so we don’t do or say anything that we would later on regret. 

Whatever we say or do in any of these spaces, we want to leave them warmer and brighter than they were before we entered them. As we all learnt at school: 

It is not about winning! It really is about the taking part.

Is this progress? Humans, computers and stories

As a computer scientist, I have to say my job has changed very little in the last  last twenty-odd years. The tech has, admittedly, but I am still doing what I did back then, sitting in front of a computer, thinking about how computers can make peoples’ lives easier, what makes people tick, and how can we put the two together to make something cool?  Sometimes I even program something up to demonstrate what I am talking about.

It seems to me though that everyone else’s jobs (non-computer scientists) have changed and not necessarily for the better. People do their jobs and then they do a load of extras like social media, blogging, content creation, logging stuff in systems- the list is endless – on top of their workload.

It makes me wonder: Is this progress?

Humans and stories

As a teenager, on hearing about great literature and the classics, I figured that it must be something hifalutin’. In school we did a lot of those kitchen sink, gritty dramas (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Kes, etc.,). So, when I found the section in the library: Classics, Literature, or whatever, it was a pleasant surprise to see that they were just stories about people, and sometimes gods, often behaving badly, and I was hooked. Little did I know that reading would be the best training I could receive to become a computer scientist.

Human and computer united together

In my first job as systems analyst and IT support, I found that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories in and amongst their descriptions about their interactions with computers. My job was to talk to people. What could be better? I then had to capture all the information about how computers were complex and getting in the way and try to make them more useful. Sometimes I had to whip out my screwdriver and fix it there and then. Yay!! Badass tech support.

The thing that struck me the most was that people anthropomorphised their computers, talking about them needing time to warm up, being temperamental, and being affected by circumstances, as if they were in some way human and not just a bunch of electronic circuits. And, that the computer was always the way of progress, even if they hated it and didn’t think so.

I think this is partly because it was one person with one computer working solely, so the computer was like a companion, the office worker you love or hate, who helps or hinders. There was little in the way of email or anything else unless you were on the mainframe and then it was used sparingly, especially in a huge companies. Memos were still circulated around. The computer was there to do a task – crunch numbers, produce reports, run the Caustic Soda Plant (I did not even touch the door handles when I went in there) –  the results of which got transferred from one computer to another by me, and sometimes by that advanced user who knew how to handle a floppy disk.

Most often information was transferred orally by presentation in a meeting or on paper with that most important of tools, the executive summary whilst the rest of it was a very dry long winded explanation, hardly a story at all.

Human and computer and human and computer united

Then the Internet arrived and humans (well mainly academics) began sharing information more easily, without needing to print things out and post them.  This was definitely progress. I began researching how people with different backgrounds like architects and engineers could work together with collaborative tools even though they use different terminology and different software. How could we make their lives easier when working together?

I spent a lot of time talking to architects and standing on bridges with engineers in order to see what they did. Other times I talked to draftsmen to see if a bit of artificial intelligence could model what they did. It could up to a point, but modelling all that information in a computer is limiting in comparison to what a human can know instinctively, which is when I realised that people need help automating the boring bits, not the instinctive bits.

I was fascinated by physiological computing, that is, interacting using our bodies rather than typing – so using our voices or our fingerprints. However, when it was me, my Northern accent, and my French colleagues, all speaking our fabulous variations of the English language into some interesting software written by some Bulgarians I believe, on a slow running computer, well, the results were interesting, to say the least.

Everyone online

The UK government’s push to get everything electronic seemed like a great idea, so everyone could access all the information they needed. It impacted Post Offices, but seemed to free up the time spent waiting in a queue and to provide more opportunities to do all those things like pay a TV licence, get a road tax disc, and passport, etc. This felt like progress.

I spent a lot time working on websites for the government with lovely scripts to guide people through forms like self-assessment so that life was easier. We all know how daunting a government form can be, so what could be better than being told by a website which bit to fill in? Mmm progress.

Lots of businesses came online and everyone thought that Amazon was great way back when. I know I did living in Switzerland and being able to order any book I wanted was such a relief as opposed to waiting or reading it in French. (Harry Potter in French although very good is just not the same.) Progress.

Then businesses joined in and wanted to be seen, causing the creation of banners, ads, popups, buying links to promote themselves, and lots of research into website design so they were all polished and sexy, even though the point of the Internet is that it is a work in progress constantly changing and will never be finished.

I started spending my time in labs, rather than in-situ, watching people use websites and asking them how they felt. I was still capturing stories but in a different way, in a more clinical, less of a natural habitat, way which of course alters what people say and which I found a bit boring. It didn’t feel like progress. It felt businessy – means to an end like – and not much fun.

Human -computer -human

Then phones became more powerful and social media was born, and people started using computers just to chat, which felt lovely and like progress. I had always been in that privileged position of being able to chat to people the world over, online, whatever the time, with the access I had to technology, now it was just easier and available to everyone – definitely progress.   Until of course, companies wanted to be in on that too. So, now we have a constant stream of ads on Facebook and Twitter and people behaving like they are down the market jostling for attention, shouting out their wares 24/7, with people rushing up asking:  Need me to shout for you?

And, then there are people just shouting about whatever is bothering them. It’s fantastic and fascinating, but is it progress?

The fear of being left behind

The downside is that people all feel obliged to jump on the bandwagon and be on multiple channels without much to say which is why they have to do extras like creating content as part of their ever expanding jobs. The downside is that your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times. The upside is that people can say whatever they like which is why your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times.

Me, I am still here wondering about the experience everyone is having when this is all happening on top of doing a job.  It feels exhausting and it feels like we are being dictated to by technology instead of the other way around. I am not sure what the answer is. I am not sure if I am even asking the right question. I do know how we got here. But is this where we need to be? Do we need to fix it? Does it needs fixing?  And, where we should go next? I think we may need a course correct, because when I ask a lot of people, I find that they agree. If you don’t, answer me this, how do you feel when I ask: Is this progress?

Designing story (5): Possession, the relations between minds

Sexy, funny, lovely: Still from Possession (2002)

He felt that he was prying, and as though he was being uselessly urged on by some violent emotion of curiosity  – not greed, curiosity, more fundamental even than sex, the desire for knowledge.  – Possession,  A S Byatt (1990)

[ Part 5 of 5:  1) The intimacy of the written word, 2) Structure, 3) Archetypes and aesthetics, 4) Women 5) Possession, the relations between minds]

I have read many a How to write a bestselling... novel/book/etc. I love them inexplicably, though, I have never written (or published) a novel/book/etc., bestselling or otherwise. 

In all of the how to books I have read, they identify the bestselling pattern, after the fact, after the book has been hailed as bestselling, which I think is cheating a little, especially as the author who identifies the bestselling pattern is never the one who has written the bestselling book under analysis. Personally, I would love to have someone write a how to, then wait a while, and then afterwards, publish a best seller. How cool would that be?

We all want to be seen, heard, and matter

As usual, I was wondering why the need to write (or publish) a best selling novel is so compelling and, why how to write a bestselling… books are so successful. Finally, the reason I came to is the one I always use for everything, probably now and forever, on this blog, in conversation, on social media, and it’s what I murmur during my sleep which is: We all want to be seen and heard, we all want to matter. So, if we write (or publish) a bestselling novel, then of course, people will take notice of us, we will be seen and heard, and we feel like we matter.

The closest thing that I have read to a how to by a best selling novelist is A S Byatt’s Possession and all the wonderful things she said about writing it during interview. Byatt said that she set out to write a bestselling novel. And, I believe her. It is very different from her other work. (Just an aside, if you are thinking of Stephen King On Writing, as good as it is, a) it is part memoir, b) he wrote it long after he had written many a bestselling book and, c) I’m psychic.)

I first read Possession in the midst of completing my PhD in Engineering and it was the only novel I have ever read before or since, that made me wish I’d stuck with my original plan of doing a degree in English Lit (I have A levels in History, French and English Literature and I have degrees in Computing, Artificial Intelligence,and Structural Engineering – I know!). Even today, as I am rereading Possession, whilst wrapping up this blog series, it still fills me with that yearning for things lost, you know the one.

A yearning that I’ve always known and always had

For me, it is brought about by the first spring evening when the clocks have gone forward, especially on a day like today (Mother’s Day) – a flash bulb memory causing you to remember all the other days you have lived through when you experienced that yearning, which somehow includes the promise of light, of life, of creation. Or, the other one which undoes me, sometimes in the middle of a pub, or a conversation, when I forget what I am saying because I hear a key change in a song, it might be a bridge, or include a certain phrase in a chorus, it’s that change which causes an uplifting and undoing all at once. It reflects a yearning that I’ve always known and always had, even before I had reason to yearn.

Possession makes me yearn too, for it is a fantastic novel of love lost, of lives not lived out loud, and it demonstrates all the things I have spent ages fathoming out whilst writing about what makes a good story, which begs the question: Did I write this blog series with Byatt in mind? I don’t think so. However, her desire to write Possession, began with the very nature of the question: If you spend time considering other people’s words then who possesses whom?  In Byatt’s words: Possession is about the relations between […] minds.

Truth is what feels right to us, the only truth we know

Possession starts with a familiar genre: the detective story. Byatt said she had been asked to review Umberto Eco’s Reflections on the Name of the Rose, and she liked the detectives, and how in order to destroy a library with fire, Eco had to design it so it could easily go up in flames.  To detectives she adds a quest for the truth after a serendipitous discovery of an unsent-beginning-of-a-love-story-letter in the London Library. And, then very cleverly she includes 1,700 lines of short story, poems and letters, so that we the reader find our own truth in these writings, knowing what we now know between the two authors, because truth is defined in semiotics, by what feels right to us. It is the only truth we know.

Mr and Mrs Smith in a B&B

Then, she describes the time and place so perfectly, we feel that we are researching too, in the British Museum, or that we are in Victorian times doing, as my mum would have called, a Mr and Mrs Smith in Whitby (alright: a euphemism for booking into a hotel to spend time together). Indeed, the still above is the two of them travelling up north in a train carriage, and it portrays that sense of intimacy which two people who have never been alone before, but who have corresponded for a while, experience on meeting for the first time, and which we sometimes feel online nowadays, before even meeting.

Archetypes and the twists in the tale

And, we have our archetypes: the academics, the feminists, the down trodden scholars, the women who endure, each which bring their own energy. Byatt provides twists on them, because although we like what is familiar, we want a twist in the tale. We want surprise and we want our archetypes to be just that – archetypes not stereotypes. The found letter is a catalyst, a herald of change archetype, for everyone involved in the story. And, to that mix, Byatt explores lesbians, spiritualism, and gothic grave digging in the present day and Victorian times to juxtapose living between the ages, with our liminal women who live enclosed lives, and our different ways of managing life, birth and death, influenced as she said by Henry James The Bostonians.

We feel the intimacy of the trip, the intimacy of a séance even written in the omnipresent third person. We feel happy escaping there, even when Byatt presents us with those polarities of life and death, of love and pain, of agony and ecstasy. She describes them exquisitely.

Creativity: sex, life, and rock and roll

I once saw Byatt at the Oxford Union and remember her saying that she reads The Lord of the Rings when she is ill because it is comforting, because it is asexual. I remember giggling a bit at the time. But, now I get it. I often watch The Two Towers when I feel too ill to do anything. So much of life is about creativity which of course is inextricably linked to sex, the ultimate act of creation, to life, birth, death, and all the big questions such as: Why are we here? So, no wonder, grappling with all that, everyone needs the day off feeling sexy sometimes. Byatt writes about sex beautifully too, yep I know you were thinking about it.

So, how is this answering the question I started with in Part 1: How do we design a classic story? The answer is, we write about the emotional truth of a situation. We write about what touches us most and we do so with an open heart, with vulnerability, we lean in and we love, and we capture it, along with our regrets and the things we mourn, with a sense of significance. Stories matter, so we must do it in a way that uplifts us so that regardless of what happens, we can still look on life with a shiver of awe.

Sexy, funny, lovely detective work

And, this is the thing about Possession, a lot of the reviewers said that the book had a big heart, as if it was a surprise, that someone so erudite could be so sexy, funny, and lovely, but Byatt leaves us clues all along, even fusty, dusty James Blackadder thinks about learning things by heart, as if poems are stored in the bloodstream, and then quoting Wordsworth: Felt along the heart. Byatt knows that we all want the same things. We all feel the same way. We are all experiencing the human existence, even the seemingly fusty, dusty characters (and that is just one point of view of a person) want to feel sexy, funny, and lovely sometimes.

And, we the reader spend the whole book reading the poems and short stories, and then finally, letters (which Byatt achingly holds out on us for the longest time) trying to see the sexy, funny, lovely parts of the interaction between the two people who wrote them, mentally intertwined but physically far apart, after their passionate time doing a Mr and Mrs Smith in a Whitby B&B.

And, don’t we do that with any book we read? Whether it is part of the English Literary Canon, the one that Byatt knows so well, and wears so lightly in this book that it dazzles us. Or, any other story from anywhere else literary or not? We are looking for a resonance, an intimacy, a connection, we are looking to fulfil our Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (‘cos I never miss a chance to mention that either in any blog I write). And once we close the book, armed with that new knowledge gained by violent curiosity, we too feel sexy, funny, and lovely, and can dazzle and feel dazzled in return, in and amongst the intimacy and connection which makes our world a brighter, better place.