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Should psychiatrists write fiction?

  • Henry Bladon (a1)
Summary

This paper looks at the relationship between fiction and psychiatry. Specifically, the idea of psychiatrists as fiction writers is explored, and reference is made to various fictional texts to illustrate the problems of stigma and negative imagery. These two main areas of focus are highlighted as ones that the practice of writing fiction might address, and some potential pitfalls are discussed. The paper suggests how psychiatrists might ameliorate the present problems by incorporating their unique clinical skills and knowledge into fictional narratives.

Declaration of interest

None.

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Copyright
This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Corresponding author
Correspondence to Henry Bladon (hxb455@bham.ac.uk)
References
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BJPsych Bulletin
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Should psychiatrists write fiction?

  • Henry Bladon (a1)
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eLetters

Patients' viewpoints matter most

Stephen Ginn, Consultant Psychiatrist, Camden and Islington Foundation NHS Trust
23 May 2018

Bladon writes (1) that psychiatrists should write fiction, but is silent on specifics. Should all psychiatrists write fiction, along with reflective practice? Should short story recitals periodically usurp academic meetings? Might the freshness of one’s metaphors ever become part of yearly appraisal? One can only hope!

Writing fiction is something that anyone can try however Bladon’s focus is not on the benefits any private writing might hold for an individual, and by extension their patients, but rather on the benefits to society of psychiatrists’ prose when widely read.

I note a pragmatic obstacle to this: writing publishable fiction is a challenging and time-consuming pursuit. Novels typically take years to complete and novelists require tolerance for solitude. When Beveridge writes that psychiatrists should read fiction (2) he posits an activity which can be squeezed into even the tightest of schedules. What Bladon is encouraging is essentially a second job.

This practicality aside I fear that Bladon unduly flatters psychiatrists when he writes of how well placed we are to write fiction. Yes, our practice does bestow a knack for deconstructing and describing behaviour and this will be of use. Yet storytelling demands so much more than this. A proficient novelist requires a distinctive voice, a mastery of plot, an ear for dialogue and a knack for constructing character. Little in our practice lends to automatic proficiency in these skills.

For those with talent and motivation, to what subjects should they turn their skills? It does seem limiting that psychiatrists should have to write about psychiatry – it’s not the only thing we have to talk about. This concern aside I worry about the “principal goals” Bladon proposes for psychiatrist novelists.

“Raising awareness, educating others and promoting good mental health” are very suitable aims for a public health campaign. But an author who writes with such an explicit agenda may produce something which informs, but lacks art. The best writing richly interrogates the world, and is open to multiple interpretations: necessarily it doesn’t give up its meaning to the reader easily.

We must also be careful when seeking to “counter the negative image of psychiatry”. With all the slights, it’s easy to forget that a psychiatrist has a role with power and influence and our voice is generally heard (if not always listened to). Despite good intentions, some people feel deeply wronged by us. Their fictionalized experiences are feedback of sorts and we must be careful not to dismiss this. Our specialty will move forward most effectively if we keep in mind that ultimately it’s our patients’ viewpoints, and not ours, that really matters.

References

1. Bladon, H. (2018). Should psychiatrists write fiction? BJPsych Bulletin, 42(2), 77-80.

2. Beveridge A. Should psychiatrists read fiction? Br J Psychiatry 2003; 182(5): 385–7.

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Conflict of interest: None declared

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Should psychiatrists write fiction?

Allan Beveridge, Doctor, British Journal of Psychiatry
23 May 2018

Dear Dr Greg Shields,

While it is pleasant to read an article inspired by a paper I wrote some time ago, it was disappointing to see the author attribute views to me that were exactly the opposite to those I had originally argued.

In his paper, 'Should psychiatrists write fiction?, Henry Bladon misrepresents my original article 'Should psychiatrists read fiction?' BJPsych. 2003. 182.(5): 375-7. He writes: 'Beveridge suggests that writers are attempting to do crudely what modern psychologists do in a sophisticated manner'.

I didn't suggest this. I wrote that this was one particular line of argument. My original paper looked at six arguments in favour and six arguments against the notion that psychiatrists should read fiction. I offered a critique of these arguments. I thought it was clear that these arguments did not represent my position on the matter. How could they? They represented a range of opinions.

After stating one argument that writers are crudely attempting to do what psychologists do in a more sophisticated manner, I write in the next sentence:

'According to Downie & Charlton (1992) it is enough to state this proposition to recognize the absurdity of it'.

After wrongly attributing to me the argument that writers offer a crude version of psychology, Bladon goes on to upbraid me for 'missing the point of fiction'.

It seems to me that it is Bladon who has missed the point. My paper actually comes down on the side of the benefits of psychiatrists reading literature.

Allan Beveridge

Edinburgh.

Sent from my iPhone
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Conflict of interest: None declared

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