What are stories for? According to a provocative book by Angus Fletcher, they are technologies invented (or discovered) to help us deal with life experience. They are psychotherapeutic tools.
Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature reviews the blueprints for literary technologies that Fletcher claims can be scientifically shown to alleviate grief. trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui, while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. He argues that they can be found throughout literature from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays.
His aim is to subvert centuries of literary scholarship, asking not “what is this story about” but rather “what are its effects on us”. You might say, at the risk of anti-intellectualism, narrative are not to be studied but experienced.
He gives each of these technologies an annoying name. For example, the Hurt Delay (giving us distance on trauma), with which he explores Sophocles’ Oedipus; and the Almighty Heart (instilling courage), with which he explores Homer’s Iliad. He explores the neurobiology of fear and courage through the origins of fear in the amygdala, and the neuropharmacological response in the counterbalancing releases of adrenaline and oxytocin.
I have to first acknowledge that it is beautifully and engagingly written. And to applaud his sentiment that stories are there to be enjoyed. And then I have to confess to a strong distaste for its underlying framework.
The distaste isn’t that of a literary scholar. Granted, Fletcher takes immense liberties with the context of the works he cites and of their authors’ probable intents. He claims, for example, that Shakespeare’s Hamlet stages a play about a king murdered by his brother as a tribute to his dead father. Generations of literature students have known that the play’s purpose is so that Hamlet can observe his uncle’s reaction and gauge his guilt for the murder.
He may well also be accused of playing fast and loose with the chronology of literary creation. But these sins would be easily forgivable if they serve to expose a deeper reality.
Nor is my distaste for the neurobiological exploration of narrative. Any thing in the universe is a potential object for scientific investigation. Though I’m not always persuaded by Fletcher’s piecing together of the neuronal circuitry.
No, my distaste comes from elsewhere. It relates to an approach that is simultaneously totalizing and reductionist. The vogue for totalizing explanations of narrative passed in the 1950s. Northrop Frye https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anatomy_of_Criticism created a taxonomy of literature. Fraser https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Bough, and then later Joseph Campbell, claimed to find universal underlying stories across all times and all cultures—the hero with a thousand faces https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hero_with_a_Thousand_Faces, which then gave rise to mechanical “Hero’s Quest” template for story-writing.
These were ideas of their time, when the world, and consequently scholarship, were in the grip of totalizing systems. They were superceded by ideas of a later time, which emphasised context and cultural diversity. I make no claim that the earlier ideas were wrong and the modern fashion right. Merely that they are more to my taste. I’m not even sure it’s possible to prove literary criticism ideas right or wrong.
What concerns me about Fletcher’s reprise of an earlier era’s concerns is that it is forced to strip stories of their specificity. And that specificity is the source of their delight. The one-sentence summary “The spoiled Emma’s pride makes her prejudiced against Mr. Darcy, though they eventually realize they’re perfect for each other” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/one-sentence-guides-to-16_b_98480 tells the reader little about whether they’ll enjoy Pride and Prejudice. The specificity of the story-telling is everything.
Stories are produced by cultures, not neurons, as Laura Miller observes in a critical essay on the book https://slate.com/culture/2021/03/wonderworks-angus-fletcher-review.html. She notes that culture determines “who in a society is permitted to read and write, who (if anyone) pays the author for her work, how the work is circulated, what its audience expects of it, etc.” She accuses Fletcher of a “calculating utilitarianism” which reduces literature and reading to a feel-good therapy. His enterprise rests on the totalising universalism that argues that human beings face relatively unchanging problems created by the way our brains work and that a set of enterprising literary entrepreneurs have been steadily inventing solutions to these problems.
He has ignored all the specificity and cultural diversity that created the epic poetry of the classical and pre-classical eras. These epics were about gods, about fate, about heroism. He has ignored all the factors that had to come into existence before stories could be about individual people and their feelings. Laura Ashe https://www.historytoday.com/miscellanies/invention-fiction, for example, argues that for fiction, as we know it today in the West, to come into existence, we had first to develop the notion that individuals and their feelings mattered. She writes:
“In Old English poetry, to be an individual, cut off from these collective bonds, is to be lost. More than this, there is no attention to an inner life that can be meaningfully distinguished from exterior action. Will the warrior make good on his boasts in the mead hall? Only in action is a man’s value known; intention is nothing.”
What changed, she argues is a set of economic, political and theological conditions in twelfth century England that permitted a literature in which The Romance could flourish. “This,” she says “is the literary paradigm which gives us the novel: access to the unknowable inner lives of others, moving through a world in which their interior experience is as significant as their exterior action.”
This is not to ignore the fact that in other places and at other times, writers have explored the theme of love, its joys and its sadness. But let us not forget that literary forms are inventions that partake of their cultures. Many story traditions in Asia are still indifferent to the idea of a “protagonist” and the changes he or she undergoes. Rather, stories are about the unfolding of circumstances.
There are many other cultural variations in story-telling. For example, while the normal Western story is composed of three parts (beginning, middle or climax, end or resolution) some Asian cultures have a four-part form, known as Kishōtenketsu in Japanese. The structure here is beginning, middle, twist, end. All of this specificity and cultural detail is irrelevant to Fletcher’s project. And, the acid test is whether, as a writer, it equips me to write better stories or, as a reader, to gain more enjoyment. The answer to both is no