At this year's Aspen Ideas Festival, we asked a group of writers, journalists, and producers to explain what makes a story great. According to House of Cards showrunner Beau Willimon, the answer is a simple one: "The most important element in a good story is conflict. It's seeing two opposing forces collide with one another." Other panelists include Michael Eisner, Catherine Burns, Jay Allison, Jon Lovett, Yoni Bloch, Paula Kerger, and Jonathan Harris.
For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.
7. A book is an object fixed in time.
A book can tell us about its status in history. If we look through first editions of Moby Dick or Leaves of Grass, we find that they give away information not only about when they were created, but also about the worlds in which they were created, by way of advertisements, bindings, the quality of their paper, and watermarks on that paper. Such components are often not captured by scanning or are flattened out to make them of negligible use. In Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold—his saga about how libraries microfilmed runs of newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s and then discarded them—one of his chief complaints was that the filmers skipped advertising supplements and cartoons: things that had been deemed unimportant.
For more than forty years, Le Guin has defied conventions of narrative, language, character, and genre, as well as transcended the boundaries between fantasy and realism, to forge new paths for literary fiction. Among the nation’s most revered writers of science fiction and fantasy, Le Guin’s fully imagined worlds challenge readers to consider profound philosophical and existential questions about gender, race, the environment, and society. Her boldly experimental and critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and children’s books, written in elegant prose, are popular with millions of readers around the world.
In recognition of her transformative impact on American literature, Ursula K. Le Guin is the 2014 recipient of the Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She is the Foundation’s twenty-seventh award recipient.