Adam Ash

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bookplanet: why do we read fiction?

1. 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.
By Nick Gillespie
From Reasononline

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 (see the list of male and female preferences below), 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 Bennet, 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.

(Reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie is the editor of Choice: The Best of Reason)

2. Take it as read: men prefer angst
… but a study shows women like some passion between the covers, writes Charlotte Higgins
From the good old Guardian

THE novel that means most to men is about indifference, alienation and lack of emotional response. The novel that means most to women is about deeply held feelings and a struggle to overcome circumstances and passion.

Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins, from the University of London's Queen Mary College, interviewed 500 men - many of whom had a professional connection with literature - about the novels that had changed their lives. The most frequently named book was Albert Camus's The Outsider , followed by J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five .

The Men's Milestone Fiction project, commissioned by the Orange Prize for Fiction and London's Guardian newspaper, followed on from the same team's research on women's favourite novels last year.

The results are strikingly different and there is little overlap between men's and women's taste. On the whole, men preferred books by dead white men - only one book by a woman, Harper Lee, appears in the list of the top 20 novels with which men most identify.

Women, by contrast, most frequently cited works by Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Margaret Atwood, George Eliot and Jane Austen.

Jardine said women also named a "much richer and more diverse" set of novels than men. There was a much broader mix between contemporary and classic works and between male and female authors.

"We found that men do not regard books as a constant companion to their life's journey, as consolers or guides, as women do," Jardine said. "They read novels a bit like they read photography manuals."

Women readers used much-loved books to support them through difficult times and emotional turbulence. They tended to employ them as metaphorical guides to behaviour, or as support and inspiration.

"The men's list was all angst and Orwell. Sort of puberty reading," she said. Ideas touching on isolation and "aloneness" were strong among the men's "milestone" books.

The researchers also found that women preferred old, well-thumbed paperbacks, whereas men leant towards the stiff covers of hardback books.

"We were completely taken aback by the results," said Jardine, who admitted they revealed a pattern verging on a gender cliche - women citing emotional, more domestic works, and men nominating novels about social dislocation and solitary struggle.

She was also surprised, she said, "by the firmness with which many men said that fiction didn't speak to them". For instance, the historian David Starkey said: "I fear fiction, of any sort, has never worked on me like that … Is that perhaps interesting in itself?"

In addition, some men cited works of non-fiction as their "watershed" books, even though they were explicitly asked about fiction.

For example, David Cameron, leader of Britain's Conservative Party, picked out Robert Graves's World War I memoir Goodbye to All That as his watershed book. "Brilliantly written, wonderfully clear, and his description of life in [World War I] is harrowing but fascinating," he told the researchers.

Most of the men cited books they had read as teenagers, and many of them stopped reading fiction while young adults, only returning to it in late middle age.

Jardine said the research suggested the literary world was run by the wrong people. "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. This is completely at odds with their lack of interest in fiction. On the other hand, the Orange Prize for Fiction [which honours women authors] is still regarded as ephemeral."

She noted that when Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson had started writing novels in the 18th century, the new literary genre was regarded as strictly for women. "On the whole, men between the ages of 20 and 50 do not read fiction. This should have some impact on the book trade. There was a moment when car manufacturers realised that it was women who bought the family car, and the whole industry changed. We need fiction publishers - many of whom are women - to go through the same kind of recognition."

1 Albert Camus The Outsider
2 J.D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye
3 Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five
4 Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude
5 J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit
6 Joseph Heller Catch-22
7 George Orwell 1984
8 F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby
9 Milan Kundera The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
10 Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird
11 Vladimir Nabokov Lolita
12 J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings
and Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment
14 Graham Greene Brighton Rock
15 Nick Hornby High Fidelity
16 James Joyce Ulysses
17 Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
18 Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
19 Franz Kafka Metamorphosis
20 John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath

1 Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre
2 Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights
3 Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale
4 George Eliot Middlemarch
5 Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice
6 Toni Morrison Beloved
7 Doris Lessing The Golden Notebook
8 Joseph Heller Catch-22
9 Marcel Proust Remembrance of Things Past
10 Jane Austen Persuasion
11 Mary Shelley Frankenstein
12 Jeanette Winterson Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
13 Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude
14 George Eliot The Mill on the Floss
15 Louisa May Alcott Little Women
16 Gustave Flaubert Madame Bovary
17 C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
18 Margaret Mitchell Gone with the Wind
19 Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
20 Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird


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