First Impressions and Irrational Readers

[Umberto Eco] shares moments when loyal readers have tried to dissolve the lines between his fictional world and the real world, whilst others have discovered minute holes in his veil of realism.

(Yosola Olorunshola)
Yosola writes this in commenting on a previous post of mine, and I find it also sparks off further thoughts, for me, about the ‘truth’ of fiction and the ‘truth’ of the writer. Sometimes, as readers, we’re willing to forgive the writing misdemeanours of our favourite authors because they are our favourites, or because we’ve been with them for longer than we can remember: misdemeanours such as holes in the inner world of the book, in plot, in characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.

Sometimes, however, we come across the writing of an author we’ve never read before. This is a dangerous moment for that author, even if they don’t know it. On the face of it, what does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold, or if that one copy sold and read doesn’t amount to further work being touched? Perhaps it does matter.

In his excellent book, Irrationality (1992), Professor Stuart Sutherland highlights what’s known in psychology circles as the ‘primacy error’ and the ‘halo effect’. The primacy error occurs, he writes, ‘because when connected material (such as a newspaper article or lecture) is presented, the interpretation of the later material is coloured by the earlier.’ It’s a form of first impressions count. Sutherland goes on to say something we’ve often been told regarding job interviews: namely, that interviewers are known to make up their minds about an interviewee quite quickly; Sutherland says that the interviewer then conducts the rest of the interview trying to confirm their first impressions.

The halo effect, Sutherland writes, happens ‘if a person has one salient [that is ‘available’ or obvious] good trait, his other characteristics are likely to be judged by others as better than they really are.’ I shall come back to this.

I think here about writers who I’ve only recently ‘met’. That is, I think about writers whose pages I’ve only just got round to reading. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of these writers. I’ve heard of The Remains of the Day, but I’ve never read it. I don’t know if I will. It’s not that Ishiguro’s writing is bad in his story collection, Nocturnes (I read the whole book and it didn’t make me stumble with issues of fiction/reality, plot, characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.) — I was just expecting better. That’s all.

I’m well aware that the primacy error could well kick in and any future work I might read of his could become coloured by my reading of Nocturnes. The opposite effect to the halo effect is what Sutherland calls the ‘devil effect’. Ishiguro, for me, is now pictured in a certain way, with a certain writerly trait that projects itself, unfairly perhaps, beyond his other abilities. I consider myself an intelligent enough person and I’m aware of what’s going on under the surface of my thinking. I may give him another read some time; I may just forget my rational thinking, however, and let irrationality play itself out, steering clear of the ‘I’ section on bookshop shelves.

Lilian Faschinger falls into the same category. I have her novel, Magdalena the Sinner, sitting on my bookshelf at home. I’ve had it for several years and I may just have been attracted to the cover (I must have seen something in it). Maybe I was swayed, that day in the bookshop, by a line in her author bio: Lilian Faschinger holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Graz. I have tried, I really have, several times, to read this book; however, the author chooses to write as the narrator to her captive priest, and it’s clunky, awkward, jarring. I can never get more than a few pages in.

Perhaps, for me, Faschinger occupies a slightly different territory to that of Ishiguro: I want her to be good; Ishiguro I expected to be so. I tuck her back up on the shelf again.

How co-incidental that she sits there exactly next to Italo Calvino. Calvino can do no wrong. I read his Invisible Cities whilst immersed in architecture over twenty years ago now. There’s a halo hanging over that slim volume because of my immersion in such study, I suspect. Even now his writing has a knock-on effect: other writers who also write about Venice seem to benefit from Calvino’s halo.

Authors flirt with dangerous moments when their writing is picked up by a potential reader. What does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold? It matters because, as Professor Sutherland points out, humans are irrational creatures. First impressions have lasting effects.