In 1978 John Updike gave a lengthy interview in response to the questions of two professors of English while he was attending a writers conference in Croatia. He discussed his writing process (semi-fixed, every day but Sunday, a good deal of rewriting), favorite writers ((Thurber, Proust, Calvino, Nabokov) and the excessive focus of American fiction on infidelity and the breakdown of marriage (Madam Bovary and Anna Karenina are also novels of adultery and marital estrangement).
When asked about the many predictions that the era of the novel is over, Updike responded with the bold claim that the novel is the “ultimate vessel for truth telling and artistic expression.” Bold, yes, but also a view that was responsible for the turn I took from psychology to literature.
Psychologists seek to establish very general laws of human thought and action. However, I never understood how evidence derived by averaging the scores of a group of individuals could serve as the foundation for a science of individual behavior. Laws based on such aggregate data tell us very little about specific individuals and serve only to obscure crucial features of human variability and uniqueness. Literature points the spotlight on them.
Further, the many exceptions to those general laws severely limits their generality. Thus, it is impossible to say with much confidence that they hold for a particular individual at a particular time and place. I have come to believe that psychology will always have to be content with this sort of limitation. Laws based on aggregate data hold for some people, some of the time, but one never can be sure on any given occasion if they apply to a particular individual in the situation at hand.
This conclusion is not unlike one often voiced in judicial proceedings, where the legal standing of psychological research is also called into question. It took me a while to understand why courts were so hesitant to admit social science evidence, let alone take it seriously in adjudicating cases. Yet legal cases are decided on an individual basis and so, even when the weight of evidence clearly supports the relevant social science generalization, the courts still require "proof" that it applies in the case being decided.
When judges ask psychologists to link the general principle to the specific case, it is difficult, if not impossible for them to do so with certainty. But that is what the law requires. Psychologists can provide relevant case knowledge and guidance, but the information they present is rarely, if ever, decisive in judicial decision-making.
In his essay Medicine and Literature, Robert Coles puts the matter eloquently. "I am constantly impressed with mystery, and maybe even feel that there are certain things than cannot be understood or clarified through generalizations, that resolve themselves into matters of individuality, and again, are part of the mystery of the world that one celebrates as a writer, rather than tries to solve and undo as a social scientist…..As physicians we also know, or ought to know, that each person is different, each patient reacts in his or her special way to any illness, and indeed to life itself. A sense of complexity of human affairs, a respect for human particularity, ...these are the stuff of the humanities at their best …"
During all the time I was primarily engaged in psychology, I never stopped reading literature, mostly contemporary fiction. I did not have the time to read widely, but the literature I did read always told me things about myself and others that I never heard expressed in psychology. With rare exceptions, I rarely saw individuals in psychology as clearly or as deeply as I did in the novels and short stores I read.
Literary truths hold for particular individuals and situations. They make no claims beyond that. They do not require testing or verification or large sample statistical analysis. Their veracity cannot be doubted, they are without exception true for the individual or situation at that time and place, and as Coles suggests, they are bound to be different for each person and situation.
This is what I take Updike means when he speaks of the novel as the “ultimate vessel” for truth telling. Writers may not be overly concerned with expressing literary truths but it is a natural consequence of the work they do. Nor is the excellence of their work judged in terms of the literary truths on its pages.
Instead, what Updike does in his stories is “examine the details, the texture of time, the texture of a little experience in such a way as to make it yield all-new meaning, like turning a sock inside out or something.”