What Is Literature For?: A Symposium on Angus Fletcher’s “Wonderworks”

What Is Literature For?: A Symposium on Angus Fletcher’s “Wonderworks”

Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature by Angus Fletcher

Keith P. Mankin: Wonder Full Words

THERE IS GREAT emotional weight in literature. Anyone who has cried for the death of Old Yeller, laughed at the antics of Lucky Jim, or been thrilled by the adventures of Simon Templar can attest to that simple fact. What has never been simple is understanding why a string of written words can create such an emotional response, or possibly more important, why some strings achieve it so much more effectively than others.

Angus Fletcher’s breathtaking book Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature attempts to explain that very thing. With degrees in both English Literature and Neuroscience, Dr. Fletcher explores the intersection of two fields that, on their face, have little overlap. His book follows a linear and roughly chronological narrative of literary innovation from the standpoint of a reader’s emotional response. At the same time, he peers into the central nervous system at each milepost to find out what biological and biochemical action may be governing those emotions. Intriguingly, he has also found a parallel and almost linear narrative of our knowledge of the way the brain works, furthering his argument that the two functions are intertwined.

Fletcher’s task is almost insurmountable. Both fields are immense in their scope. A single volume can never hope to survey all literary innovation. By the same token, one moderate-length book can never fully delineate the complex and imperfectly understood function of the brain. Experts in either field, literature or neural studies, will no doubt find points of argument throughout this work.

For the general reader, though, Wonderworks creates a delightful and eminently readable framework for appreciating both the genius of the written word and the sheer miracle of the mind’s responses to it. Even if every question about either subject is not fully explored, answered, or conclusively proven, the resulting book offers a refreshing and intriguing vantage for a richer appreciation of reading.

The book is organized in 25 chapters, titled by the emotional effect of the works discussed, ranging from “Chapter 1. Rally Your Courage” to “Chapter 25. Lessen Your Lonely.” If this aspect makes the work sound at first glance like a self-help guide, the subtitles remove any question that this is mere simplistic coaching. The first chapter, for example, is subtitled “Homer’s Iliad and the Invention of the Almighty Heart.” Other chapters bear subtitles like “Aesop’s Fables, Plato’s Meno, and the Invention of the Serenity Elevator” and “Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and the Invention of the Riverbank of Consciousness.” This is highfalutin stuff, indeed.

Readers may pick or choose the chapter that is most relevant to their interests and needs, but part of the effectiveness of Wonderworks is its additive nature. Within the narrative description and explanations, the inventions build upon one another, and Fletcher often shows how the main actors were influenced by what had come before. Even the neuroscience portions are cumulative in that the author will frequently show how one effect is balanced by another.

One of the great strengths of Wonderworks is the breadth of writing it covers. There are familiar works — high school curriculum fodder such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Dante’s Inferno, but they are set alongside books that may not be on the average reading list, like Cao Xuequin’s Dream of the Red Chamber and Zhuangzi’s “Tale of Wonton” or the Malian Epic of Sundiata. There is also a wide range of literary genres, including not only novels, poetry, and literary dramas, but also memoirs, nursery rhymes, graphic novels, and even television series.

Where Wonderworks is most effective is in taking a single thread and exploring its origins and the brain’s responsive neurofunction in a coherent line. For example, in chapter eight, (“Heal from Grief: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Invention of the Sorrow Resolver”) the discussion begins with a simple story, in fact a speculation, about whether Hamlet was written in response to the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and if so, why it took Shakespeare over three years to craft his response. Fletcher guides us through a discussion of grief and revenge theater that Shakespeare would have known before presenting the simple and effective beauty of Hamlet. Rather than some brutally extravagant bloodbath in immediate response to death (as in Euripides’s Medea or Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus), the audience finds “a plot that stalled … and strayed … and stuck. A plot that seemed to be no plot at all.” 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). Fletcher has interwoven appreciation of the neural function with literary commentary in such a way that the reader cannot identify where the science ends and the art begins.

Also, Fletcher does an excellent job for the most part in explaining the difficult concepts of neuroscience. His descriptions are elementary without being condescending, and he is able to introduce the secondary and foreign language of brain physiology in a way that blends the descriptions into the tone of his literary discussion. For example, in chapter 12, where he reviews Frankenstein with respect to a literary device termed the “Stress Transformer,” Fletcher offers this elegant anatomy lesson:

The difference between these two kinds of rush [“distress” and “eustress”] has been traced by scientists to a weird anatomical structure that sprawls from our brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary glands to the adrenal cortex of our kidneys. The structure is our HPA axis.

Not all the technical discussions are equally effective, though. Some are overly opaque, and there is at least one instance where he has delved in a convenient oversimplification. Chapter 23 magically couples Euripides’s plays with the graphic novels of Alison Bechdel to discuss the freezing of emotions that can occur from chronic emotional trauma. Fletcher’s recognition of the revolutionary effectiveness of Euripides’s “happy” endings is brilliant, as is his connection of two such dissimilar literary entities. But his characterization of PTSD is oversimplified (the prevailing thought in the literature is that type 2 or Complex PTSD is not a subtype but a cognate of type 1 — at the very least there is enough controversy to merit discussion). For once, his neuroscience seems cursory.

As is the case with any finite list, some of the inventions seem forced, included either to complete the numbers or to fit in a favorite author. For example, Fletcher’s discussion of what he terms the “Double Alien” (chapter 20) is a convenient means of discussing both science fiction and picaresque novels, as well as presenting an elegant description of the function of the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) “that tracks our mental expectations and alerts us when they’re not met.” But throughout his discussion of “bias-busting,” Fletcher never clearly explains what he means by the “Double Alien” of the subtitle.

Also, there is some level of repetition — we encounter Shakespeare’s Hamlet twice (as well as his Julius Caesar), and seem to run into Aristotle and Cervantes with surprising frequency. Although these seminal authors probably merit such attention, perhaps there were others who could have been introduced for both variety and latitude.

Another point that begs discussion is the intentionality of the inventions he describes. 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? Or was their contribution more a brilliant response to the recognition that something was lacking in the books that had come before? How much of their work was purposeful innovation and how much was because their creative brains sensed that their work was effective?

Finally, and this is both a minor point and a topic for great debate, it is hard to prove that there was a first example of anything in literature, especially, as Fletcher himself points out, with so much of past literature being lost. For instance, we know the Romans had fables (he discusses Aesop in chapter four). Is it not possible that a concept like Straparola’s “Fairy-tale Twist” of chapter seven was already in use but examples simply are beyond our reach?

Despite these quibbles, Wonderworks is a spectacular work. It is readable, likable, and consistently interesting. It delves into the difficult question of what makes a book great, not only from a craftsmanship point of view but also from the neural response it engenders. Finally, it provides a masterful reading list that can help open an adventurous reader’s mind. If it achieves no other goal, the book demonstrates, well, the wonder inherent in great literature.


Ed Simon: Literature Isn’t Practical

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.

Fletcher claims that fairy tales, free indirect discourse, autobiography, and such are “technology,” and that their primary purpose is medicinal, so that neuroscience should supplant traditional criticism. At the very least, comparing first-person narration’s development to smelting iron or metaphysical conceits to the telescope are interesting as metaphors. And Fletcher is absolutely correct that too often academic scholarship ignores literature’s evolutionary aspect; the fact that how consciousness is represented in the modern novel seems (with few exceptions) a recent development merits investigation. Yet there is a danger in stretching the simile too far, not least because Fletcher often attributes some innovation to particular writers, so that in Hamlet Shakespeare invents the cumbersomely named “Sorrow Resolver,” just as, in Frankenstein, Mary Shelley is the creator of the “Stress Transformer,” while ignoring any antecedents, along with the influence of society, politics, economics, and culture. Literature obviously has a palliative aspect — of course it helps us better understand what it means to be human. But Fletcher’s earnestness shouldn’t be mistaken for respect. When he writes, “You can still reap all the psychic benefits of Greek tragedy. The invention-finding method can show you how,” or, “when you’re done with those pages, there’s plenty more literature that can boost your self-acceptance,” I taste more snake oil than the streams of Parnassus.

That poetry and drama are therapeutic has been noted since Aristotle first parsed catharsis, and arguments about moral uplift have long been popular in Ars poetica. Far from being some radical innovation, fiction’s pharmacological function is positively Victorian, even while there has been a newfound popularity in so-called bibliotherapy, with Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin enthusing in The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You that “[w]hatever your ailment, our prescriptions are simple: a novel (or two), to be read at regular intervals. Some treatments will lead to a complete cure.” If a psychiatrist replaced Zoloft with Balzac, I suspect that his board certification would be endangered. To their credit, neither Fletcher, Berthoud, nor Elderkin argue that bibliotherapy is preferable to actual psychiatric treatment, always emphasizing that it’s only a supplement. But at his most zealous, Fletcher’s therapeutic enthusiasms seem less about defending the ethical utility of reading than offering prosaic self-help advice. Besides, if it were true that reading intensely and deeply always conferred such positive benefits, then we’d expect that English departments would be filled with the happiest and most grounded of folks.

In terms of trying to transform criticism into biology, I’m wary of positivist claims such as entomologist E. O. Wilson’s in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge that the world should be “run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time,” because that technocratic dream almost always implies the subservience of the humanities to the sciences. There is a colonial hubris to that line of thought, and brilliant a scientist though Wilson may be (and a beautiful prose stylist), his claim that science can “explain” the humanities should be as objectionable as if I told him prosody is adequate to interpret ant behavior. Psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience can tell us about what reading does to the brain, but literary theory does something different: it tells us what a text means.

Fletcher (ironically?) writes that scholars should “take advantage of the powerful mind-surveying gadgets housed in your local neuroscience lab.” Explanation and interpretation are two different things, however. While I don’t begrudge the clinician who gets funding to see what happens to Broca’s region when The Waste Land is read, that’s not the same as an analysis of T. S. Eliot. Out with syntax and grammar; in with serotonin and dopamine. Except that what Fletcher describes isn’t literary study, but something else. A nascent scientific discipline perhaps, but one whose efficacy he hasn’t demonstrated. Wonderworks is a morass of simplicity and reductionism, a 400-page category mistake that confuses science with the humanities while somehow inadvertently diminishing both. Most egregiously, while rejecting the unifying thread from the New Critics to the deconstructionists, Fletcher confidently intones that it's important to not “get lost in the words of literature.” Except that this is what literary study is: the examination of words. To tell a critic to ignore words would be like telling a chemist to ignore molecules.

Wonderworks offers flattened, superficial, or simply wrong interpretations of multiple canonical books. Partially this is due to the pedestrian role which Fletcher imparts to literature, leaning heavily on the affect he assumes certain works will have on hypothetical readers rather than on thoroughly considering the works themselves. He advises those of us trying to achieve self-acceptance to consult Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Philip K. Dick’s Total Recall, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Will those books help you achieve self-acceptance? I don’t know. Maybe. Reactions depend on the person; this is obvious to anyone who has taught literature. Such prescriptions tell us nothing about the novels and everything about the reader. Reducing brilliant novels by towering authors to the function of a mindfulness app on your smart phone is to miss the point of why literature is produced in the first place. Ellison’s seminal novel is an uncompromising portrayal of how institutional racism grinds down the individual. Transforming Ellison into a lifehack for a thought-leader at a TED Talk is, at the very least, tone-deaf.

Techno-critical reductionist enthusiasms have proliferated over the past half-generation — concurrent with the economic collapse of the humanities — and, no doubt, much of the popularity of such claims (outside of actual English departments) has something to do with the hubris of those who shout “STEM!” as the solution for everything. Several different movements have emerged, ranging from the digital humanities and cognitive prosody to Darwinian literary criticism, the latter of which where Hamlet’s behavior might be explained by the character’s desire to maximize the propagation of his genes. According to the editors of the manifesto Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning,

Many “literary Darwinists” aim not just at creating another “approach” or “movement” in literary theory, they aim at fundamentally altering the paradigm within which literary study is now conducted. They want to establish a new alignment among the disciplines and ultimately to encompass all other possible approaches to literary study.

Such disciplinary imperialism is consciously aimed at the assortment of theoretical movements which dominated the academy in the ’80s and ’90s, so that while they’re not claiming that “post-modernism” is secretly a “Cultural Marxist” plot à la Jordan Peterson, they’re not entirely free of assaulting what Harold Bloom infamously called the “school of resentment” either. In particular, the literary Darwinists often seem to affect cigar-chomping, red-meat-eating, scotch-drinking masculinity, and whether conscious or not there are certain implications in so vociferously rejecting feminist theory, queer theory, postcolonial theory, and so on. For that reason, much of the new techno-criticism could be understood as an Oedipal manifestation of Generation X scholars (the last cohort able to find tenure track jobs) chaffing against the leather-jacketed partisans of critical theory who taught them in graduate school, answering Foucault and Derrida with Crick and Watson. “That, after all, was the way of ambitious students,” Fletcher notes, “they came up with outrageous new ideas to make a name for themselves.”

Despite Fletcher’s coda entitled “The Secret History of This Book,” with its conspiratorial Dan Brown overtones, none of what Wonderworks offers is particularly new. Ever since Plato expelled poets from his imagined Republic, some critics have anxiously tried to fortify literature’s pragmatic reasons for existing. Jane Austen parodied such pretentious didacticism in Persuasion, where a character unconvincingly advocates for “such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering […] as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurance.” Such bourgeois reasoning for literature’s utility are congruent with our own era’s neoliberal dictates where every part of the individual buffalo must be consumed so as to maximize our time and labor that we then sell off. Ironically, utilitarian bromides about what writing is for are just as often a presence on the left as they are on the right. In a New York Times editorial from late last year, the brilliant novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen rhetorically asks if mainstream writers will continue only “writing about flowers and moons” when there are admittedly gargantuan issues of justice and oppression which need to be considered. Nguyen is correct that political novels are crucial in the public conversation — just as Fletcher is correct that novels can illuminate individual experience. Where they err is in demanding that literature is good for only one thing, demanding from books only practicality, utility, and usefulness. Self-help and consciousness raising can be good things, of course, but if the proverbial library is converted entirely into an archive of one or the other you risk shelves with either nothing but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To reduce literature to technology — or to medicine or to political rhetoric — is to degrade literature.

Because the real usefulness of literature is that it’s so gloriously useless, in the most profound and sacred of ways. Like God generating Creation ex nihilo, poetry and fiction serve nothing beyond themselves. This is not an indictment — it’s a celebration. And a radical one at that, since, as Americans, we’re inheritors to a Puritan ethos that has always prostrated itself at the altar of function over form. Literature can do many things — even practical ones — but the reasons why it exists are mysterious and all together more beautiful. Fletcher encourages us to read the “way that modern scientists explored the human brain, treating it as an evolved machine whose deep blueprints could be brought to light by a mixture of reverse engineering and laboratory experiment.” Compare that lifeless perspective with Emily Dickinson, who defined poetry as something which “makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me […] [where] I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” or Franz Kafka, who said that a book is an “axe for the frozen sea inside of us.”

Literature is an exquisite singularity. Personally, when I need to be challenged, when I court transcendence, when I thirst to disrupt the status quo, or when I choose to experience what it means to be another consciousness — that’s when I turn to literature. When I want to boost my mental energy and reduce anxiety, well, then I take a multivitamin and get on the treadmill.


Erik J. Larson: Tech for Our Times

Literary criticism seems uniquely suited to the endless discussions that occur on university campuses. Ordinary readers — you and me, that is — plumb novels and other literature for amusement and inspiration. Academic literary critics, instead, read novels for different and seemingly weird reasons — to “deconstruct” them, for example, or to consider them through a Marxist lens, where the plot becomes a device for understanding economic or material relationships, or indeed through the lens of feminism or critical race theory. Critics, then, treat literature as a means to some other end, while ordinary readers read literature because it’s a story. And we like stories. More: We need them. The typical criticism of the critics: Literature is (or seems to be) important as literature. To other readers, literature seems imperiled by the critic’s quest, the triumph of some theory or other over the centrality of storytelling. A good story in the humdrum of our lives seems to be the whole of it — the rub.

Literary criticism as academic theory (in the pejorative sense) occasionally gets upended by an apostate, a professional critic who manages a kind of hat trick and somehow reopens the discussion about literature afresh: as something — an experience or exploration — whose essence is that it’s not what the critics say it is. Literature is larger and more important than the theories concocted to rein it all in. At the height of the Cold War, for instance, Lionel Trilling penned The Liberal Imagination, a work of literary criticism that became an overnight sensation, selling over 100,000 hardback copies and 70,000 paperbacks. The book effectively ignored what literary critics were talking about (the New Criticism was all the rage), and posed an awkward question about the role of literature in free institutions, and indeed in relation to what Trilling saw as the dominant politics of our time: liberalism. Trilling, notoriously, failed to define liberalism, though in our own time Louis Menand has argued that Trilling’s failure was deliberate. He intended a big-picture idea of liberalism as “human perfectibility or progress.” Menand’s take on Trilling’s virtuoso book fits, and it illustrates nicely Trilling’s point about literature in society: politics — and especially liberalism — tells a story of undoing the mistakes of the past, in prejudice and myth and in the assurance of the triumph of reason and ethics over superstition and injustice. Yet literature is nothing if not the endless telling of stories that complicate, obfuscate, confuse, and otherwise muddle the neatness in our lives. Literature, in other words, teaches us that life is perpetual existential mess. If politics tells us that the mess is only apparent, literature suggests that it’s part and parcel of being human.

Enter Angus Fletcher. In a fascinating and important book, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, Fletcher brings into our own time something of Trilling’s big-picture view of literature as different from politics and other social interests, occupying in our lives a more central role than academic literary critics have been prepared to grant. Fletcher channels Trilling in insisting that literature’s function is to grapple with core existential issues about meaning, and by so doing it supplies each generation with a kind of lifeline against the stultifying effects of simplistic politics and ideology. Like Trilling, Fletcher here speaks outside the academy, as the anti-literary critic, whose purpose, again like Trilling’s, is to rescue literature from the spate of theories intended to bring it to heel as fitting something other than our basic need for storytelling. And here we do see common cause and similarity with Trilling's Liberal Imagination. Fletcher traces the original source of literature back to what philosophers deride as “sophistry,” a term meant to indicate trickery in argument, but originally designating the study of innovation in the written word. The triumph of Plato meant also the loss of our original connection to literature and storytelling. Fletcher calls literature the “lost technology.”

Technology? Well, yes. Wonderworks as a book about literature has a “twist”: while literature is indeed more than debate and argument and politics, and while it’s also what Trilling insisted on, it’s also a technology. Here, the author means the connection quite literarily:

Our drones, our phones, our algorithms, our virtual realities, and our smart homes have all been built to shuttle around meals and data and other stuffs, turning space-time into an extension of our needs and wants. Yet if we work backward, we can see that life poses an even more basic challenge than the problem of being human in a nonhuman world. That challenge is: the problem of simply being human.

He goes on: “To be human is to wonder Why? As in, Why are we here? What’s the purpose of our hours? Does this life mean anything? And to be human is to have irrational desires, and uncontrollable passions, and griefs that split us into pieces.” The need to deal with this existential complexity at the heart of life, then, is the reason literature was invented. For Fletcher, just as for Trilling, literature is at odds with ideology precisely because no tidy and neat answers are available in life as we experience it.

Fletcher makes a compelling case that we should understand literature not so much as an argument or even as content or idea, but rather as form. This brings us to neuroscience, an unlikely participant in the project of freeing literature from the scientism of ideology and politics — what Dostoyevsky once derided as the “crystal palace of reason” that so worried earlier anti-critics like Trilling. Fletcher argues, in effect, that literature doesn’t so much say something as do something: it radically changes how we view ourselves and the world around us. The neuroscience connection may seem at times like an add-on, but on closer scrutiny it plays an important role in Wonderworks. To Fletcher, the purpose of our brain is to predict and to act. Having a theory of what is true is good, but crucially having a disposition to move in response to what’s already known as good is even better. Surveying early psychologists and neuroscientists like William James in the 19th and Roger Sperry in the 20th century, Fletcher argues that apart from invoking Cartesian dualism, one practical division of mind and brain is that the former conceptualizes things, and the latter acts on them. The brain is a prediction engine. Our mind might delight in slicing and dicing concepts, but the brain wants to do something, to take some action. And it’s in this action-oriented aspect of our biological brains that the plot twists and narrative devices we find in literature find efficacy as “life-technology.”

We learn, for instance, that the God-narrator in Homer’s Iliad uses tone and taste — two narrative devices — that whip up in effect a battle cry. The Iliad is, in Fletcher’s words, a rally for our courage. The God-voice of the Iliad and other epic tales (think the Bible or the Epic of Gilgamesh) is a technology that solves a particular problem for us. The problem of having — or losing — courage is also at least partially illuminated by modern neuroscience, according to Fletcher, who instructs us also that oxytocin is released by our brains in response to perceived threats. (It’s also the hormone that bonds mothers to infants, and as such it has the dual effect of bonding people in the nurturing sense and also priming our “survive-together” feelings, which allow comrades and soldiers to find solace in terror and bloodshed.) The tie-in with our brains creates a virtuous circle of explanation, where writers through the ages innovate in narrative, which then helps guide us through the inherent mess of life and love and loss. Or, as in the Iliad, to find our courage.

Wonderworks covers a truly impressive suite of literature, from ancient epics to modern classics such as Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and Frederick Douglass’s The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. We learn, for example, that Edgar Allan Poe, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” tricks us into thinking we are smarter than the narrator. We read his protagonist Dupin’s mind; no, we don’t. Dupin reads ours. Fletcher then points out that our brains learn largely by making predictions and revising our beliefs according to outcome. Each chapter follows this form of elucidation of a literary innovation (in Poe’s case, it’s the invention of the detective novel itself), and then explaining how it works to solve a problem for us, and what’s going on in our brains when we puzzle through the dilemmas and challenges and difficulties posed. Stream of consciousness — think Virginia Woolf — is a technology for helping find peace of mind. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein creates “eustress” — good stress — by telling a horror story that is also a tale of scientific empowerment and creation. Jane Austen tells us how to ward off heartbreak. And, of course, Shakespeare’s Hamlet helps us deal more philosophically with grief.

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. This is Trilling, perhaps, for our own age. Wonderworks is itself an innovation, and, admirably, perhaps the best kind of medicine for our modern troubled times.


Angus Fletcher’s Response: Our Revolutionary Opportunity

First, I’d like to thank Keith, Ed, and Erik for their strong readings of my book. I’m humbled by Keith’s and Erik’s enthusiasm and praise. Second, I want to acknowledge the book’s deficiencies and faults — including the litany documented by Ed. In trying to be straightforward about what novels and poems can do, I have often been reductionist. In trying to help readers get more out of their local libraries, I have lapsed into crass utilitarianism. And in trying to capture the astonishing range of literature’s psychological powers, I have repeatedly overreached. Like Eve in Eden, like Faustus in his study, I have hurried into knowledge — to expose my nakedness and folly. But even as the book reveals my own shortcomings, it contains something bigger than me. Something I did not invent, but was lucky to stumble into. Something, I think, revolutionary.

That revolutionary thing isn’t to be found by taking my book prescriptively. I did not write it to tell people how they should read literature. Literature’s primordial power is to free us from such external dictates. That’s why literature lives in libraries where we can walk to any shelf, select any volume, and read any way we choose. That’s why literature can provide the existential uplift celebrated by Erik and Ed. That’s why literature has worked for millennia to grow our human diversity and not — as generations of cultural reactionaries have learned to their dismay — to instill universal values, aesthetic tastes, or civilized behaviors.

Instead, the revolutionary thing I stumbled into is a method for radically expanding the way we use literature in schools, from kindergarten through university. At present, literature is used to teach an extraordinary number of students, tens of millions in the United States alone. And what it’s primarily used to teach is critical thinking. Critical thinking comes in different species, from the evidence-based reasoning of the K-12 Common Core to the hermeneutics of suspicion taught in PhD seminars. But it all collides with the same two empirical findings:

1. Critical thinking can be taught without literature. Which is why college literature enrollments are declining as students opt to develop their critical thinking via STEM, Business, and Communication. And which is also why even in literature classes, critique is typically taught by studying Kant, Foucault, Judith Butler, or other philosophers.

2. Literature is less naturally a source of critical thinking than of creative thinking and emotional growth, both of which are deeply valuable to human life.

Taken together, these findings suggest that we’re missing a chance to do more for today’s students. A chance to increase not just their critical prowess, but their creative range; to go beyond honing their logical skills to boost their emotional aptitude; to leverage our existing infrastructure of literature coursework to help future graduates

•Develop empathy, courage, curiosity, and resilience

•Heal more actively from grief, anger, loneliness, despair, and trauma

•Expand their capacity for love, joy, gratitude, and hope

•Accelerate creative problem-solving and innovation

•Cultivate a durable optimism — distinct from magical thinking — that rebounds from disappointment and even tragedy with fresh ideas and humble self-belief.

This imaginative and emotional work can sound like unserious froth, suited only for thinly researched self-help pablum. But it is not. It is the daily stuff of our existence, and it’s backed by science and medicine. Our mental health and well-being form the foundation of our ability to have positive relationships, get the most of what we want from our days, and contribute to larger social communities. And the wonder of literature is that it can guide our brain to become more adept at all these activities. Not because literature’s authors were blissed-out exemplars of nirvana. But precisely because they weren’t: they felt firsthand the pain of loss, hopelessness, and violence; they yearned for more kindness, freedom, and possibility; and spurred on by those wants, they dedicated themselves to creating works that could help us, their fortunate readers, experience a little less mental bad and little more mental good.

That gift of a better life is what sits now on our bookshelves. That gift is why we feel such vast gratitude for our favorite authors — and why the first thing we want to do when we discover a good book is share it with someone we love.

This psychological power of literature is broadly self-evident. What’s less evident is how to translate it into our educational institutions. There are well-established ways to teach Maya Angelou and William Shakespeare as prompts for argumentative essays, semiotic interpretations, and cultural critiques. But how to mobilize Angelou and Shakespeare as classroom sources of emotional growth and creativity? How to access their neural potency without abstracting them into themes, representations, and other meta-cognitive stuff that distances us from their visceral effects? And how to get more of those effects? How to access the psychic benefits of books that we don’t at first connect with? How to squeeze more from the books we already cherish?

In Wonderworks, I describe one way to establish that new curriculum. I do so not to set the curriculum in stone, but simply to show that such a curriculum is possible. It is possible to teach a wide variety of literary works, from Sappho to the Epic of Sundiata to 30 Rock, in a manner that fosters empathy, bravery, and curiosity; assists with bereavement and multiple types of trauma; alleviates loneliness, rage, and burnout; and grows joy, resilience, life purpose, and original thinking. From here, we will of course want to enlarge and bolster the curriculum. We will want to do more research into literature’s medical and scientific properties, building on the insights we currently possess. And we will want to widen what we teach, making it more student-centered and inclusive.

Such growth and inclusivity are core to the method of Wonderworks. I have not, myself, assigned a single work of literature during my past 15 years of university teaching. I have instead invited my students to bring in their own chosen films, memoirs, novels, poems, and comic books, and by beginning with my students’ personal responses to that material, we have worked together to uncover the hidden literary machinery that spins the diverse cogs and crankshafts of their brains. That’s why Wonderworks is so richly varied in the works it covers. Not because I am so well read. Because my students are.

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. They’re not ashamed to admit that to be human is to have emotional and material needs. Nor do they see education as a zero-sum activity in which intelligence and ethics are degraded by bodily needs and joys. They’re open to the idea that literature can be everyday useful; they’re willing to stretch novels, poems, and theater beyond the rarefied air of scholarly disquisitions and professional criticism, into the muck and humdrum of the physical world.

In that world, there are no final answers or perfect lives, only endless and evolving forms of existence, branching as richly as global forests, varying as widely as human brains. And wandering now through that mazy, changing ecology are tomorrow’s most precious resource: students. A billion, all told, across the globe. So, imagine what those billion students could do if they were furnished with a few more of literature’s practical gifts. What challenges could they overcome with Angelou’s hope and resilience? What opportunities could they seize with Shakespeare’s imagination and empathic range?

We have the chance to find out — if we want. The books are there, and so are the classrooms. All it would take is a lesson plan that dares to go beyond the present, a curriculum that ventures into the psychic gifts that sit on bookshelves everywhere, inexhaustible and infinitely renewable.

If you’d like to explore the possibilities for that new curriculum, I have a book for you. A book as rigorous as a 19th-century naturalist and as elegant as an encyclopedia. A book more Frankenstein’s lab than Plato’s utopia. A book stuffed with philistine materialism and trespassing interdisciplinarity. A book written by an author who, perversely out of step with his time, quit a promising start in neuroscience to chase the shrinking career prospects of a literature PhD — and who has since been publicly denounced as an idiot, an opportunist, a profiteer, a snake oil salesman, a heretic, and “the barbarian at the gate.”

A book filled with life-enriching literary technologies that students can test against their own experience. A book that contains a scientific method for excavating the creative blueprints of novels, poems, and TV. A book that you can wield — like a hammer, a quill, or some other low tool — to heal hearts, spark dreams, change futures, and put more of the wonder to work.


Keith P. Mankin is a creative and educational consultant service in Dallas, Texas, and co-producer of the PeerSpectrum Medical Podcast.

Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions.

Erik J. Larson is author of The Myth of Artificial Intelligence.

Angus Fletcher trained in neurophysiology at Edward Stuenkel’s lab at the University of Michigan Medical School, received his PhD in Literature from Yale, and taught at Teach for America, USC, and Stanford before being recruited to join Ohio State’s Project Narrative, where he is now professor of Story Science. He is the author of Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.

LARB Contributors

Keith P. Mankin is a creative and educational consultant service in Dallas, Texas, and co-producer of the PeerSpectrum Medical Podcast. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in Boston, he earned an AB degree in Classics from Harvard University, and then an MD from University of Pittsburgh. He worked for 30 years as a developmental orthopaedist until retirement from medical practice in 2016. He has authored 11 novels, four children’s books, and four nonfiction works. He has been a staff writer at Theater Jones Arts Journal in Dallas. When not writing or teaching, he is a singer, a Rotarian, and spends time rooting for Boston sports teams in absentia along with his wife, Julia.
Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.
Erik J. Larson is a computer scientist and tech entrepreneur. The founder of two DARPA-funded AI startups, he is currently working on core issues in natural language processing and machine learning. He has written for The Atlantic and for professional journals and has tested the technical boundaries of artificial intelligence through his work with the IC2 tech incubator at the University of Texas at Austin.
Angus Fletcher trained in neurophysiology at Edward Stuenkel’s lab at the University of Michigan Medical School, received his PhD in Literature from Yale, and taught at Teach for America, USC, and Stanford before being recruited to join Ohio State’s Project Narrative, where he is now professor of Story Science. He is currently collaborating with the Ohio State College of Medicine on using literature to reduce burnout in medical students; with Gregory Bunch and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business on increasing innovation; with the US Army and Nurse Corps on training emotional and intellectual resilience; and with the special operations community on antifragile human-AI hybrids. His recent media and publications can be found at angusfletcher.co.


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