Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Literary science?

What's Your Favorite Novel?
A recent survey of men's and women's favorite books points to a more fundamental question—and a fascinating answer.
Nick Gillespie


Over the past year or so, the British cultural historians Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins conducted two surveys designed to pin down a consensus on novels that had "changed reader's lives." First, they interviewed 400 women, most of them involved in the arts, media, and university life. "Absolutely every woman we spoke to had her favourite," they reported recently in Britain's Guardian newspaper. Beyond the enthusiasm evinced by the interviewees, Jardine and Watkins were struck by the wide range of responses:

The top titles that emerged were surprisingly varied. They ranged from The Lord of the Rings and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy to Catch 22, Gone With The Wind, Rebecca, Heart of Darkness and The Golden Notebook. This was alongside such perennial favourites as Jane Eyre (our way- out-in-front eventual winner), Mrs Dalloway, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch and Anna Karenina. Jeanette Winterson's Passion and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale had bands of loyal followers.

When they got around to interviewing men on the same topic, the results were decidedly different. For starters, many male respondents took issue with the question itself, either refusing to name a text or picking a non-fiction work instead of a novel. "Many men we approached really did not seem to associate reading fiction with life choices," wrote Jardine and Watkins. The men's responses also didn't vary as much as the women's. The women they interviewed coughed up about 200 different titles, whereas the men's picks congregated mostly around four works: Albert Camus's The Stranger (traditionally translated into British English as The Outsider), Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five.

"The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading," Jardine cheekily told the Sydney Morning Herald. "We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do... They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals."

This is all good fun, to be sure, even the genial gender-bashing, and the top 20 choices for women and men are online here, so you can argue with the poor taste of either or both sexes. (Alas, it's with a heavy, stereotyped heart that I cop to being a Camus man myself--though contrary to Jardine and Watkins's characterization of male reading habits, I find myself perusing the novel every couple of years at the very least.)

Jardine and Watkins did have an ulterior motive in compiling their lists: to focus attention on the way they believe Britain's publishing world systematically devalues female authors. After noting that, "on the whole, "men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction, Jardine told the Herald, "What I find extraordinary is the hold the male cultural establishment has over book prizes like the Booker, for instance, and in deciding what is the best... On the other hand, the Orange Prize for Fiction [which honors women authors] is still regarded as ephemeral." That may or may not be the case—my knowledge of the U.K.'s literary prizes is about as deep as my interest in the same. To my mind, though, Jardine and Watkins' exercise raises another, more fundamental question: Why do we—men and women, boys and girls, Brits and Americans—read fiction in the first place?

As it happens, there's a rich new book out on precisely that topic: Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, by Lisa Zunshine, who teaches English at the University of Kentucky. Zunshine is a Russian emigre who earned her Ph.D. at University of California at Santa Barbara, where she worked with two of the major players in evolutionary psychology, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Zunshine uses recent developments in cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" to explain why human beings are drawn to both the creation and consumption of narrative texts. "Theory of Mind," writes Zunshine toward the end of her book, "is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allows us to navigate our social world and also structures that world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focused ways, our Theory of Mind."

In a recent email exchange with me, she explains further. We have an "evolved cognitive predisposition to attribute states of mind to ourselves and others" that is also known as "mind-reading." "These cognitive mechanisms," writes Zunshine, "evolved to process information about thoughts and feelings of human beings, seem to be constantly on the alert, checking out their environment for cues that fit their input conditions. On some level, works of fiction manage to cheat these mechanisms into believing that they are in the presence of material that they were 'designed' to process, i.e., that they are in the presence of agents endowed with a potential for a rich array of intentional stances."

In a sense, then, we read novels about Meursault and Heathcliff, Montana Wildhack and Elizabeth Bennett, because they allow us to practice what we do elsewhere in our lives: Figure out the world by figuring out, or at least trying to figure out, what other people are thinking and feeling. Zunshine fills in the details with bravura chapters about novels with notoriously unreliable narrators (e.g., Lolita and Clarissa) and a long section on the detective novel, which underscores the desire and need to assign motives to whole casts of characters. The result is nothing less than a tour de force of cutting-edge lit-crit.

As someone who did graduate studies in English in the late 1980s and early '90s, I find Why We Read Fiction memorable for reasons that go beyond whatever light it might shed on our experience with individual texts. A decade ago, it was a given that literary studies had for a variety of reasons written off truly serious engagement with most scientific research. While it was permissible—indeed, virtually required--to use quasi- and pseudo-scientific theories drawn from, say, Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to explain texts, then-hegemonic academic heavyweights were quick to follow Foucault in arguing that all discourses were myths, fictions, or socially constructed "truths" that masked a will to power more than anything else (the only discourse that was exempted from such withering skepticism was, predictably, the critic's own).

From such a poststructuralist or postmodernist perspective, "science"-embedded as it was in naive Enlightenment narratives about Progress (with a capital P) and the possibility of objective knowledge-was viewed through a jaundiced eye, just one cultural construct among countless others, and more suspicious than most since it seemed to be dominated by men. (As I've written elsewhere, this critique possesses "considerable rhetorical and explanatory power.")

Writing in 1996—the same year as "The Sokal Hoax", in which an NYU physics professor* humiliated the editorial board of the leading poststructuralist cultural studies journal of the day by publishing a bogus article in its pages—Robert Storey, a former professor of mine and one of the first of what have come to be called "bio-critics," thundered:

"If [literary theory] continues on its present course, its reputation as a laughingstock among the scientific disciplines will come to be all but irreversible. Given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is still possible for literary theory to recover both seriousness and integrity and to be restored to legitimacy in the world at large."

Why We Read Fiction—and related work being done by critics such as Nancy Easterlin, Alan Palmer, and Donald R. Wehrs, to name three who appeared on a cognitive psychology panel at the last Modern Language Association conference—serves notice that literary studies is already in the thick of a serious engagement with science, to the benefit of critics and readers—and scientists, too, who need the human implications of their work to be explored fully—alike.

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