…interwoven appreciation of the neural function with literary commentary
September 28, 2021 11:27 AM   Subscribe

What Is Literature For? - A Symposium on Angus Fletcher’s “Wonderworks” (LARB): Three reviews of Wonderworks (two glowing, one scathing) and a reply by the author. Erik J. Larson: "All of this tech-talk injected into literature would seem superficial, perhaps, except that Fletcher makes an entirely convincing case that literature really does function like this, and that the form of the narrative is a key to understanding its impact on us and why we find these creations so important. While the neuroscientific accounts of what’s happening in our brains when we find love or let go of old sorrow might be debatable, the overall achievement of Wonderworks strikes me as immensely important. It’s rare in academic literary circles to find mainstream criticism of literature that reaches outside of theory and into the hearts and minds of real readers. Fletcher no doubt does this. The result is a fantastic tour through the world’s literature, an explanation of how it works as a technology, and a scientific discussion that opens the lid on our complex brains, tying it all to our most ancient and cherished activity: reading stories."

Ed Simon: "Show me a scholar who claims that science can explain all of literature, and I will show you someone who is performing schtick. According to Angus Fletcher, in Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, his subject is a “narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology,” an argument that isn’t as inspiring as he thinks (nor as much as the volume’s breathless publicity would indicate). Fletcher has traded in grammar and syntax for serotonin and dopamine; gone is the literary critical commandment to “worry about themes or representations or what the author is saying,” replaced now with invocations of the “amygdala” and “hippocampus,” as if naming parts of the brain was adequate for interpreting a text. Theory becomes therapy and criticism pharmacology, so that literature’s only purpose is to “alleviate depression, reduce anxiety, sharpen intelligence, increase mental energy, kindle creativity, inspire confidence, and enrich our days with myriad other psychological benefits.” Ask your doctor if George Eliot might be right for you."
posted by not_the_water (30 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I want to cross-reference this framework with The Neural Lyre.

And wish for some slightly more rigorous neurophysiology studies of how narratives affect brain structure.
posted by Quasirandom at 11:46 AM on September 28

"Breathtaking." Heh.
posted by No Robots at 12:26 PM on September 28

Yeah, I’m with Ed Simon. I get suspicious when someone gets all sweaty to prove and promote literature’s usefulness. I guess it’s far too late in the day for any kind of anti-capitalist hope, but, gee whiz, it’d be nice if we didn’t feel the need to reify literature.

Fletcher’s reply just reinforced my feelings. He writes like a salesman.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 12:26 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]

Oh, ffs. Not this again...neuroscience to the rescue of the poor struggling humanities.

I haven't read this one yet, so I will have the excitement of seeing how much this is like the dozen or so other books and all the assorted articles I've read "promising" answers to art through science and failing to deliver any of the goods. (Not that there isn't a place for science and the arts to share common ground, but the claims of "solving" are getting seriously annoying.)
posted by gusottertrout at 1:11 PM on September 28 [4 favorites]

I look forward to the day that every English Lit department can afford an fMRI machine.
posted by sjswitzer at 1:37 PM on September 28 [7 favorites]

Just a quick note that the Angus Fletcher of this article is not the Renaissance scholar Angus Fletcher
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:38 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]

I think our time would be better spent inventing new chapters for this book.

Chapter 26: Abuse Your Illusion

Nimoy's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," Cumberbatch's Rickman and the Invention of the Chitinous Reflex

posted by chavenet at 1:54 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]

Thanks, Saxon Kane, for that clarification. I was confused and disappointed to think that this Angus Fletcher was that Angus Fletcher. Whew!
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 1:57 PM on September 28

Wait, he is the Angus Fletcher I was thinking of. He was a Renaissance scholar before becoming a “story scientist” or whatever. Hunh. Sorry, everyone.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 2:00 PM on September 28

Surely not? I'd like some clarification on this since I really admire the "other" Angus Fletcher. Who is no longer living. The OP's Fletcher appears to still be alive.

Edit: I've checked, Saxon Kane was correct; different Fletcher.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 2:06 PM on September 28

They were both Renaissance scholars. One is dead, and the other, alive.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 2:32 PM on September 28

This new Angus Fletcher studied Shakespeare at Yale. I sat for a talk he gave, and thought he was a promising young scholar. And now he’s a budding public intellectual, I guess. Sorry, again, for a stupid derail on my part. Mods, please feel free to nuke me from space.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 2:37 PM on September 28

From the author's response:
I did not write it to tell people how they should read literature. ... Instead, the revolutionary thing I stumbled into is a method for radically expanding the way we use literature in schools, from kindergarten through university. ...

This method of practical empowerment is why my book has been embraced by doctors, nurses, scientists, therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, and creative writers. And it’s why the book has also been embraced (to my surprise) by Malcolm Gladwell and Brené Brown, by J.P. Morgan and McKinsey, by professors at top MBA programs, and even by faculty at the US Army’s Command and General Staff College, the Air Force, and the special operations community. Not because they agree with everything in the book, certainly, but because they don’t disown utility as vulgar.
Sure, the CIA had its Paris Review, but not many schools of literary criticism can claim the approval of both the US military and Harvard Business School.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 4:14 PM on September 28 [4 favorites]

I do think scientific approaches to literature have potential. The last novel I read was Jonathan Carroll's Bones of the Moon, which is about the interpenetration of the real world and a fantastical dream world, and I think "neuroscience" could find interesting things to say about it -- like what happens cognitively in the reader's mind when the story moves between realities (or when they collide), or how the imagination manages to internally represent a story-world full of impossible things that are only half-suggested rather than described in detail. Or consider Nabokov's experience of aesthetic pleasure as a tingle between the shoulder blades: there is something physiological there, and I can imagine a neurocriticism that has more to tell us about it than just what part of the brain is activated when we feel it.

But that would require using scientific tools in order to understand literature better, rather than reducing literature to something we can comfortably account for within some preexisting scientific paradigm.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 4:32 PM on September 28

the book has also been embraced (to my surprise) by Malcolm Gladwell and Brené Brown

how positively devastating. and to think he admits it! it's almost brave
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:03 PM on September 28 [10 favorites]

Fletcher presents many of the breakthroughs as acts of conscious engineering. Did a Jane Austen, a Mary Shelley, or a Virginia Woolf really know they were creating a unique form of literature?

gosh, he's right, there's just no way to guess what "a" virginia woolf thought she was doing with literature. she never wrote anything down in a letter or a diary or a piece of criticism and she never spoke to anyone, either

and this is a fletcher fan's main criticism of fletcher: that he assumes writers (women writers? oh but these examples are coincidentally chosen by this critic, I'm sure) often do things on purpose. the one thing fletcher's NOT obviously wrong or glib or facile about.

what can one say? jesus wept? jesus's limbic system acted on his lacrimal glands, I mean to say
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:20 PM on September 28 [6 favorites]

I'm sure there is compelling stuff in there, but the general thrust of it definitely sets off alarm bells. It seems like a superficial understanding of the science and a superficial understanding of the literature combine to form... deep insight? That can't be right.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:09 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]

To add to queenofbithynia's observation, I could not help somewhat dourly noting that the reviewing slate included none of the women doing similar work, like the eighteenth-century specialist Lisa Zunshine.

I have been poking around in the previews on GoogleBooks and am...puzzled. The claims about Frankenstein's innovations don't make literary-historical sense: so-called "rational Gothic," associated with Anne Radcliffe, is very meta--it's literally about characters encountering something they believe to be supernatural, getting terrified, discovering that, nope, not supernatural, and then analyzing their responses--and Frankenstein certainly didn't pioneer inset narratives. (That's before we get to his interpretation of the ending, which pointedly ignores everything the novel has told us about Victor's ethical failings.) The universal "we" to denote the reader ignores the unpredictability of reader-response and flattens out the diversity of actual readers. Do we "identify" with Hamlet when he soliloquizes? Who the heck is "we"? Does serial fiction make us any more "social" than, say, football?
posted by thomas j wise at 6:14 PM on September 28 [7 favorites]

jesus's limbic system acted on his lacrimal glands


There's something kinda quaint and charming about this reductio ad absurdum of the materialist worldview (to which which I generally ascribe). I almost want to applaud it for its audacity.

But like the underpants gnomes of South Park fame, there's just SO MUCH .... between step one and step three that it's hard to really care.
posted by sjswitzer at 6:15 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]

I mean, I'm a neurologist, and I teach literature to medical students, and I am deeply deeply skeptical of this line of inquiry. It's like a few years ago when data scientists ran a bunch of texts through a machine learning algorithm and no one had the heart to tell them Vladimir Propp did it first and better.

But my administrators want quantitative, measurable outcomes besides just "fewer med students contemplate suicide," (that's not good enough, apparently; this is how I spent my morning, rewriting learning objectives to eliminate any possibility of nuance or ambiguity or vulnerability; no, I'm not discouraged, why do you ask), so if fMRIs will allow me to keep doing the work I love, bring it.
posted by basalganglia at 8:01 PM on September 28 [4 favorites]

Call me Beanplate.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:13 PM on September 28

I bought this book before reading any reviews and have been sorely disappointed. I was hoping for actual discussions of the 25 most important literary inventions, like the unreliable narrator, the prose poem, the second person narrative, the multiple point of view novel, the epistolary novel, etc. instead Fletcher proposes 25 unsound claims based on "neuroscience". I do not recommend this.
posted by mfoight at 8:20 AM on September 29 [2 favorites]

Give me a novel by a great writer and I know I will learn more about the human condition than I would by reading any book by any neuroscientist.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:03 AM on September 29 [3 favorites]

For more interesting, insightful work in this general arena, I'd recommend Shakespeare Thinking by Philip Davis & Shakespeare's Double Helix by Henry Turner. I've also heard good things about Mary Crane's Shakespeare's Brain and the work done by Lisa Zunshine (mentioned above by thomas j wise), but I haven't read any of their work.
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:09 PM on September 29

queenofbithynia: women writers? oh but these examples are coincidentally chosen by this critic, I'm sure

Similarly, I note that in the article, and presumably the book too, the “invention” of detective fiction is ascribed to Edgar Allan Poe. Around five years before he wrote his first story about a detective, a female author published a book about a female detective, which was not only a bestseller but well-respected enough to be included on lists of best ever books well into the last years of the 19th Century.

However, the name of the author or her book escapes me. I meant to rectify that by looking it up on the Wikipedia entry for “detective fiction”, but it’s not there either.

Which … ugh … just ugh.
posted by Kattullus at 8:39 AM on September 30

From here, Fletcher continues to describe the neurofunction of grieving, the need to engage “the emotion centers of our amygdala and the memory networks of our thalamus, to begin processing our grief,” all of which requires time and patience. He points out how Hamlet’s careful deliberation gives the character the time he needs to work through his complex emotions and to come out at the end with a sense of some relief and closure (albeit a fatal one).

Finally got around to reading the symposium and, well, yeah, Hamlet is really great for dealing with grief. I know when my dad died I had a lot of trouble processing his death until I killed my girlfriend's dad, drove her to suicide, sent two of my friends to their deaths, was captured by pirates and handed over my home to my declared enemies, only then could I finally come to accept the loss. Reading Hamlet to cope with grief is like reading Dashiel Hammett to deal with problem drinking or reading Miss Marple to envision your old age. Almost all books, by their very nature, are going to deal with the human condition in some form, either in direct reference or by analogy, so, sure, you understand books in part by those references and will respond to them based in part on your feelings on how those elements are handled.

But that isn't the same thing at all as talking about why this work continues to fascinate while that one doesn't. One could read any of thousands of books, poems, or plays where grief is dealt with, and often in ways closer to our own experience of it. To try and wrangle in Hamlet as especially meaningful for having grief as one of its subjects is to almost completely mistake the reason we still read the play, which is that it isn't settled and doesn't provide "an answer", it fascinates because it remains open, its tensions never being fully resolved. It is because it can't be adequately summarized as being "about" this one thing that it still lives on. Stories that are able to be fully digested are those that are easier to forget because we've already taken it all in. Tension, some sense of there being opposing or contradictory elements that can still be simultaneously true, is at the heart of the aesthetic experience. The more powerful that pull of contradictory truths, the stronger our attachment to the work for saying something that can't be satisfactorily summarized in other terms. You can point towards the opposition, but that doesn't resolve it and making claims for "an answer" is to miss the point entirely.

This is of course judging the book by the discussion, but that has been one of the major problems with other science, or pseudo-science in the case of evo-psych, based approaches to art. They look to art selectively and either use the chosen work more as a prompt to describe some scientific idea or misuse it to try and prove some concept of how art is just like "science" in teaching us some set of mostly practical "facts" about the world, like science does but cruder though sometimes more fun! Most of the books I've read along this line were truly awful, like throw across the room then stomp on it and throw it again bad, a few were mildly interesting on the science side and only the rare exceptions, writers like Oliver Sacks and Siri Hustvedt, approached the subject in a way that was worth reading for not trying to use science to "explain" art, but look to how art and science each might inform how we see the world in different ways that can provide benefit for the other by that difference. The symposium does not give me hope Wonderworks will be in that last category, but I'll probably read it anyway since it is something I'm interested in and I can always use a good book tossing workout if it's closer to the first category.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:13 PM on September 30 [3 favorites]

But that isn't the same thing at all as talking about why this work continues to fascinate while that one doesn't

*waves hands* Neuroscience!
posted by whir at 1:31 PM on September 30 [2 favorites]

As stimulating antidotes to Fletcher's noxious reductionism, I recommend two of Antonio Damasio's books, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, and The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.
posted by abakua at 10:55 PM on October 2 [1 favorite]

However, the name of the author or her book escapes me.
Wilkee Collins?
posted by thelonius at 7:54 AM on October 4

No, that early detective novel was her claim to fame, but her name recognition didn’t survive much past 1900. I think she was English.

It was on the verge of the gothic novel and the detective novel, and if I remember correctly, the detective was lower class, possibly even a servant. There may have been supernatural elements.

That’s most of what I remember, unfortunately.
posted by Kattullus at 4:24 PM on October 5

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