If you are feeling blue, pessimistic or cowardly, take yourself along to a bibliotherapist. Instead of uppers or downers, your therapist will prescribe a list of novels: perhaps a Bronte for the broken-hearted, a Balzac for the bored, a drop of Winton for risk-takers. It’s a radical therapy, but British author Susan Elderkin told her Festival audience on Thursday that fiction has a lot more value and meaning than mere entertainment and can help with “life’s ailments”
Ms Elderkin is also a critic and creative writing teacher, as well as pioneer of the radical new technique of bibliotherapy. She works with her long-time friend and colleague, the painter Ella Berthoud.
It was after reading the book, archy and mehitabel, written by Don Marquis in 1916, left outside her university door by Ms Berthoud, that Ms Elderkin first realised the therapeutic qualities of good fiction, she said. “Ella knew I wanted to be a novelist but she also knew that I worried a lot about whether I had what it took to become one.”
The book is not so much a novel as a series of interconnected poems, she said. It is a story about a cockroach called Archie, who types all of the poems by propelling his head on the keys, and it was full of insights into the creative struggles of writing. Ms Elderkin’s two subsequent novels are the critically acclaimed Sunset over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices.
After some years of exchanging many books in “brown paper bags” with Ms Berthoud, and much reading and writing, together they founded the bibliotherapy service at London’s School of Life, which was founded in 2008 by writers, artists and educators including Alain de Botton.
Essentially, this involved an appointment with a bibliotherapist, where people would explain what was troubling them and a prescription (as it had come to be called) would then be written out listing six or seven books, which aimed to help these people feel better about themselves, she said.
In 2013 the two co-authored The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. The book details an alphabetical list of so-called ailments ranging from “being a Daddy’s girl” to “a stubbed toe” and each ailment has a literary novel that can offer a cure. For example, The Breath by Tim Winton provides a cure for someone who takes too many risks.
During the process of starting the bibliotherapy service and writing the book, Ms Elderkin recalled her days as a university student and felt, somewhat shamefully, this was not the way she was taught to see books. However, she was inspired by the memory of noble Atticus Finch standing up for what was right in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and started to think seriously about what happens to people when we read: “It’s almost like whatever extraordinary qualities the characters showed, they get to rub off on us, we get to borrow them”.
This prompted her to consider what happens to our brains when we read. After some discussion with her husband – who is a neuroscientist – she started researching and found that there was scientific evidence to suggest that fiction can have an effect on human behaviour. She said the journey has led her to the belief that novels can provide us with an experience.
“Somehow books have knowledge, practical advice, techniques to help us overcome things”.
Ceridwen Dovey (Only the Animals) joined Ms Elderkin on stage. They discussed e-reading versus traditional books. “It is definitely helping people stay reading and it is inescapable that we now read in a digital age,” said Ms Elderkin. Although, she said that she does try to persuade people to read actual printed books rather than e-books. “It’s not just the moment of reading but remembering afterwards,” she said. She told the audience that there was no way she would have a clue about any of the books she had written if she had read them all on e-readers and there was definitely benefit in “having the physical book there to refer to”.
On a final note, Ms Elderkin said she has had some good success recommending Elizabeth Von Arnim’s 1922 romance This Enchanted April, for people experiencing problems in their marriage or relationship.
Ms Elderkin and Ms Berthoud are working on a children’s book called The Story Cure to be released later this year.