Wonderworks Review by Angus Fletcher – the power of invention | Literary criticism


WWhen my kids were young, I used to joke about their reading preferences. Of the youngest (who was maybe 13 years old), I would say: “We don’t know if he can read. “If Wonderworks If I had existed then, I would have sat my son down and read to him word for word Angus Fletcher’s Exploration of the History and Psychology of Literature. I think it may have convinced him, and I hope it will convince others that there are benefits and pleasures that can be derived from literature that are unique and valuable. Unlike many writers who have analyzed how various forms work (as I did in my book Thirteen Ways to Look at the Novel), Fletcher focuses on what cognitive psychologists have learned about what parts of the human brain do and how they do it, and links this to groundbreaking work in the history of literature and their related forms – songs, opera , cinema and television. He explores many works that we know (The odyssey, Hamlet, Don Quixote, Mrs Dalloway, 30 Rock) and others we may never have heard of (The epic of Sundjata, The dream of the red room, Varney, the vampireyou are beautiful). His desire is not to rate or rank them, but to show how they have contributed to the ever-increasing appeal and power of invention and narrative.

Fletcher’s style is perky and often fun – one of my favorite lines is “To reach the full readership of Clarisse and give this readership full hospital treatment, a novel couldn’t go half and half like Tom jones. Instead, each of its pages should be entirely romantic and entirely ironic. In some ways, Fletcher is sort of Jeeves, leading us around the Castle of Literature in a respectful yet mindful manner.

Tina Fey stars as showrunner Liz Lemon in 30 Rock
Innovative… Tina Fey as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. Photograph: NBC / NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

We all have literary preferences and fashions come and go. The importance of austere realism (e.g. Anthony Trollope) gives way to fantasy (Dorian Gray’s photo, The turn of the screw). Fletcher makes sure that all genres are explored (and there is no evidence of which he prefers) because all genres alter the brain – both thoughts and emotions – in different and productive ways. In his section on “penny dreadfuls,” Fletcher discusses how 19th-century writers used suspense and empathy (and cheap paper) to attract a different audience: “street urchins, coal drivers, rat catchers, merchants and other members of the poor Victorians and barely literate ”. The episodes used suspense to build sales but, according to Fletcher, they also used a sense of ongoing connection with the characters combined with “partial dopamine” – some fun in the semi-resolution of the suspense, but not as much. pleasure that we. are able to stop reading. Interestingly, Thomas Peckett Perst, a prolific producer of penny dreadfuls, drew his ideas from his failed career as an opera singer and his knowledge of Monteverdi’s works.

Perhaps one of the most striking sections is Fletcher’s exploration of how Virginia Woolf proposed Mrs Dalloway. We know that all writers owe a lot to previous writers, but we don’t always know who they were thinking of when they came up with their own ideas, or how those influences came together. Fletcher details how Woolf suffered from the misogynistic theories of mental illness and “rest cures” that were rampant in his day, and used reading for comfort. A Dorothy Richardson novel introduced her to consciousness, then she read In Search of Lost Time, which she liked, but it was Odysseus, which she found difficult to read (much less to enjoy) which gave her the idea to jump between several different consciousnesses and use them all to explore everyday life. Fletcher writes: “She wanted us, her readers, to know the psychiatric benefit of experiencing our own ‘freedom’… As modern neuroscience has revealed, the style of Mrs Dalloway can indeed create a feeling of psychological freedom that provides the therapeutic peace that Woolf herself sought.

In these frightening times, Fletcher nonetheless has hope for the future of literature (and therefore of the human race). I almost believe it. Often the famous works that attract us (Macbeth, The scarlet letter, Plague) are scary and we think should make us despairing, but Fletcher makes a compelling argument that using even the saddest books to experience and learn new feelings is the way forward for writers and readers.

Wonderworks: Literary Invention and the Science of Stories is published by Swift (£ 20). To support the Guardian and Observer, purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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