When I came across Dr Kelda Green’s book, Rethinking Therapeutic Literature, I was fascinated — Dr Green had recently completed her PhD on the therapeutic aspects of literature and was sharing insights from her research. Her book was essentially a trim-down version of her PhD thesis and I wanted to know more. Particularly as her work aligns closely with Book Therapy’s mission: accessing the therapeutic benefits of literature.
Dr Green was born and grew up in South London. She read English and French at The University of Liverpool, graduating in 2009. She went on to complete a Master’s degree in ‘Reading in Practice’ before completing a PhD at The University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society in 2018. Rethinking Therapeutic Reading, her first book was published in June 2020 by Anthem Press.
Here I share my conversation and author Q&A with Dr Green, herself.
Q: Tell us a little about your experience at the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Reading, Research and Society?
A: It was a unique experience. It was also challenging at times. What was really special about it, was that I got to work with people from very different fields to my previous experience when I was studying for my undergraduate and master’s degree at the University of Liverpool, based in the School of Arts, studying English and French.
By the time I started my PhD, the professors I was working with had moved over to the psychology department and it was very much about taking literature out of the traditional confines of the English department and instead looking at how it impacts people, how it can be used and how it affects people. It enabled a genuine kind of interdisciplinary research. I had the opportunity to work with experimental and clinical psychologists. It was great to have those different perspectives in the room, while still retaining our skills as literary experts — of close reading and analysis. It was really an integration of all the different skills the people involved were bringing to the table, from the experimental psychologists and clinical psychologists, to the literary experts. It was unique in that way. This exposed me to different ways of thinking as well as working.
Q: Did you write your book over those four years?
A: Once I completed my PhD, I spent the next year editing it down, refining it and turning it into the book format. It was about one hundred and ten thousand words in the end. Now, it’s about sixty thousand words.
Q: In the book, you quote a paragraph from the book “The Limits of Critique” by Rita Felski “Texts cannot influence the world by themselves, but only via the intercession of those who read them, digest them and reflect on them, rail against them, use them as points of orientation and pass them on.” I found this very insightful and absolutely agree. Did you find anything specific or surprising from your research?
A: Through a series of experiments, I tested how literature could be received or used by modern readers, some of whom may have very little exposure to the kind of classic literature that I required them to read and respond to. The way people took to it was quite surprising; as well as how much they absorbed and then gave back. For example, for one of the experiments I conducted, I asked people to spend two weeks reading a long poem by William Wordsworth and keeping a daily diary, writing down their thoughts and feelings about what they’d read or how it related to their lives.
They all reacted in very different ways. Delving deeply into their lives, they explored quite unique elements of their lives. They all used the poem for their own specific needs.
I purposely chose a difficult text. The responses from the group confirm their struggle in reading the poem — it demands significant attention. I recommended that they read it slowly and carefully, splitting the poem into sections that were gradually tackled on a daily basis. When the readers were able to give it their attention, it was quite powerful. As each day passed, they developed a relationship to the text, to the poet and the characters. It was quite interesting to see that happening on the page.
Q: I was fascinated to learn that much of the basis of Montaigne, Wordsworth and by extension George Eliot and Freud’s work draw inspiration from stoicism, were there any other authors that you considered but did not include in the book in this respect?
A: Stoicism permeates so much of Western thought and Western literature.
Stoicism and Seneca influenced so many different writers in different ways. There’s also this direct link between Seneca and Stoicism and modern psychological therapies, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for example, is also based largely on stoicism. I wanted to connect these two branches together.
Seneca’s letters are very famous and there’s significant literature about the impact of his letters and his philosophical works on the world of psychology. However, he also has this other body of work, his tragedies and they very much feed into the history of the tradition of literature. Some other authors I considered writing about were Shakespeare, St Augustine and Byron. But for me, Wordsworth and George Eliot were crucial. The relationship between them and their importance to me are at the heart of this book. I worked backwards from them, trying to get to the origins of what we now might call 'therapeutic' within their work and that is what led me to Stoicism and Seneca.
I think that in the end, it was helpful to the structure of my argument that each of the four writers that I selected were working in a different literary form: Seneca was writing letters and tragedies, Montaigne was writing essays, Wordsworth was writing poetry and George Eliot was writing novels.
Q: Is there a particular Stoic text that you would recommend to someone who is just starting out in this field?
Seneca’s letters are great to start with. I would recommend his letter titled On the Shortness of Life, but I'd definitely recommend reading them in conjunction with some of his tragedies, which are often neglected. I’d also suggest Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
One other book that I cite right at the beginning of the book is Jules Evans Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
That was a really helpful book for me right when I was starting out, not just about stoicism, but about different ancient philosophies and how they are connected to the modern world — how they can be used, how they are being used and how they connect to different psychological kind of therapies.
Q: I loved your chapter on George Eliot and the novel — particularly because it brought back my own memories of reading “The Mill on the Floss” and I remember how each and every sentence always pushed an emotional button! You mention in your book that it was almost as though she was a psychologist ahead of her time and her novels often depict the patient-therapist dynamic. Could you expand on this?
A: At the time, George Eliot was writing, she was also deeply interested in psychology — psychology was just starting to develop as a concept, as a discipline, and it was attempting to fill a space where religion might have previously taken hold. At the time certain people were turning away from traditional religious beliefs, becoming more secular in ways that had never been seen before in Britain. Psychology in some respects emerged out of the need to fill that gap.
George Elliot was interesting because she was connected with some of those really early pioneers of psychology that were not necessarily known as psychologists at the time but who were developing these kinds of ideas. Her contribution to that seemed to be captured in her writing within her novels.
For me, what makes George Eliot feel like a proto-psychologist is the way she treats humans, without reducing or simplifying their complexity.
Similar to what a good psychologist would say, that is, you have to stay in the complexity of your situation; she gives us a language and a syntax with which to think about that complexity. Often we lack the language to truly understand how we are feeling and this can be really damaging. What is therapeutic about George Eliot’s novels, is that she offers us language and that syntax for really thinking about the complexity of our situation and our lives.
Q: Out of all the forms of therapeutic reading mediums you considered (i.e. tragic stories, essay, poem and novel), which one do you believe to be the most effective as literary therapy?
A: Each of them can be as effective or ineffective as one another. It depends on the person and the place and the moment in time. You could read a poem and it could have a huge impact on you. It could be massively therapeutic at one point in your life. And then six weeks later, you could read it again, and it could mean nothing to you. That doesn’t matter. It’s served its purpose. It’s had its impact on you at the place and time that it mattered.
Equally, you might recommend a novel to someone at a time in their life when it’s completely impossible for them to sit down and read it. Maybe the novel with find them again at another time, or maybe they will find what they need somewhere else.
What makes literature and more broadly what makes the arts therapeutic, is that it’s not actual therapy — it becomes therapy ‘by stealth’.
Also what works for one person might not work for the other — there is no one size fits all.
Q: I loved the idea of your third experiment — about writing letters to the author and the characters within the novel — did you find that the readers saw themselves in the characters whilst writing the letters? And was the process of writing a cathartic exercise in that respect?
A: I was asking readers to write from the perspective of the characters in the book. They chose a character from the book where they had the option to write a letter back to themselves as the reader. Or they could write a letter from that character to George Eliot and imagine what that character would want or need to say to George Eliot if they had the opportunity. About half of the participants chose to write to George Eliot as one of their letters.
Very often the readers wrote letters to characters that they felt a certain sense of kinship to or that they recognized elements of those characters in themselves.
I found it interesting when people began to take imaginative leaps, getting into the mind of the character and changing with that character over time as they read more of a novel. felt an affinity with the characters knowing that they were just as complicated as themselves. It was fascinating to watch them oscillate between the mind of the characters and their own minds. When readers began to make these leaps beyond just simple, one-way empathy, then yes, it felt cathartic.
There was a natural sense amongst the participants that this was something that could be therapeutic — people used the novel and the exercise of writing the letters as therapeutic without needing to be prompted.
Q: It was interesting to see that many of your participants choose to write the letter to George Eliot, almost as though she was ‘God’ — did you find this to be a reflection of the patient-therapist relationship playing out through the book, where the author is seen as therapist and the reader as patient?
Yes, particularly in the first letters they wrote, there was a sense of the character addressing George Eliot, as though she was a godlike figure, that she had control over their lives, that she knew everything about their lives.
She is their creator after all. So it’s a natural response. Also George Eliot has this huge mind, this really expansive mind presence that’s almost god-like, and I think it was that sense of George Eliot's mind that readers were tuning in to.
Q What are next steps for you? Any passion projects you are currently working on?
A: I’m working at a London-based children’s literacy charity at the moment. I'd love to be able to write more in the future and to continue to build upon some of the work that I have started with this book.
You can purchase a copy of Dr Green's book titled 'Rethinking Therapeutic Literature' here.
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