This post is by Emily Troscianko.
Emily is a Junior Research Fellow in Modern Languages at St John’s College, Oxford. She works on ‘cognitive realism’ in French and German Realist and Modernist literature, and has recently started to move in the direction of the medical humanities, with a project on eating disorders and literature. Her monograph Kafka’s Cognitive Realism came out with Routledge this spring.
On 15 May Patricia Waugh gave a lecture at the British Academy entitled ‘Fiction as Therapy: Towards a Neo-Phenomenological Theory of the Novel’. Her argument was that prose may be Prozac – especially for people who are, at least figuratively, on Prozac. Waugh’s work on literature, science, and philosophy has taken in explorations of empathy and other emotions in the literary context, on the body in Modernism and Postmodernism, and on the self and dualism. She has recently also published specifically on (mainly Damasio) so this talk was a natural development of her emerging cognitive interests.
The argument was sitting, if you like, on a three-legged stool, and all three legs seemed to me a bit rickety.
The first necessary premise was that readers engage with fiction – or at least are able to engage, though by the end of the talk this had slipped more into ought to engage – with a willingness to let their normal ways of cognitive storytelling be challenged. The idea is that when we read we’re able to switch off the usual comforting cacophony of cognitive biases, and let ourselves be therapeutically dislocated and disturbed.
The second plank was that fiction is an effective prompt for this kind of self-unsettlement and its potential culmination in some kind of enlightenment.
And thirdly, fiction is a better prompt for self-questioning and hence insight (into self and others) than actual therapy.
So that’s the basic idea; but what was the proposed mechanism? It boiled down to getting over transparency. Assuming transparency where it isn’t is (for Waugh) a Cartesian mistake. Descartes was wrong to think that the self looks into itself, sees / understands itself first, and only then looks out and understands other things. That, says Waugh, is what we’re doing when we have therapy and think we can transparently introspect. And it’s what fiction can show us the error of our ways about. If we read with a dual focus on the content and the form; if we read – and writers write – at once naively and sentimentally, then fiction can be a form of therapy. A meta-therapy: a therapy for all the therapies that tell us to look within if we want to find ourselves, one that allows us to discover the fact that the transparency / opacity distinction we normally make in relation to our access to self / others is false.
Language, then, and specifically the language of fiction, has the power to direct our attention on to the stories we normally tell ourselves, hence honing our emotional intelligence and providing a ‘rigorous workout for the mind’. It doesn’t matter that the authors in question have almost never read the relevant psychology that would allow them to set up these kinds of effects deliberately, because they manage to ‘get it right’ before science cottons on.
Some of these elements are familiar. Martha Nussbaum has resolutely fought the self-improvement corner (see the piece by Heather McRobie here); Lisa Zunshine has the mental-workout claim; Jonah Lehrer has argued the Proust was a Neuroscientist angle; and criticising Descartes is pretty much the cognitive literary dress code. However, the way Waugh put the various elements together causes serious problems.
As with Nussbaum’s optimistic proclamations about literature as a source of improvement, the first one is idealism. What evidence do we actually have that 1) readers approach the act of reading with an open-minded readiness to let their assumptions be challenged, and that 2) if they do, fiction is good at doing the challenging? There’s a distinct lack of empirical research on the subject of readers’ reasons for reading, or attitudes towards reading, but two major reasons to read are likely to be for escapism and for relaxation, neither of which at all fits the bill here.
There is evidence, though, that in terms of Americans’ current reading preferences, genre fiction beats ‘literary’ fiction hands down – and much genre fiction is all about satisfying reader expectations. As for fictional effects, certainly the evidence that fiction does in fact bring about changes in how we think or engage with others is patchy (you can read Greg Currie on this here), and tends at most to be indicative of a temporary improvement in, say, some aspect of social cognition. Pertinent papers include and ; the issue has been broached on this blog here.
Even anecdotally, I don’t think it’s particularly intuitive to say that readers read mostly to be challenged. Maybe as literary scholars we just really want fiction to be good for something, because we think (wrongly) that that’s the only thing that could justify our career choices.
In addition to this assumption about attitudes and effects, there’s the other one about textual features. This one doesn’t need careful experiments on readers’ attitudes to be established; we ‘just’ need to assess an appropriate number and range of fictional texts for their correspondence to or divergence from Cartesian transparency. So how true is it really that fiction actually constitutes a challenge to folk-psychological intuitions about introspective privilege? Waugh’s examples from Beckett and Joyce work reasonably well here, but the vast majority of the fiction people read, written by people who are, even if they’re good writers, also human beings laden with the usual folk-psychological apparatus, usually offer us a good deal fewer opportunities for error detection than they do for confirmation – even when what’s being confirmed are errors.
As Greg Currie has said, they don’t tell us some privileged truth about how the mind works. And as I , even writers as formidable as Proust carefully balance the cognitive challenges they present with confirmations of our (incorrect) preconceptions. And the trouble even with Waugh’s examples from someone as resolutely unpopulist as Woolf – that she’s parodying the dualist model of mind by evoking its absurd extensions into metaphors of thoughts such as bats flying out of darkness, or clothes emerging from the dirty washing basket – is that they needn’t be read as parody. The fiction people read most of – popular genre fiction – probably goes overwhelmingly with folk-psychological confirmation, whereas texts that people rate as more literary are those that deviate (minimally) from our standard folk models. (Some work in preparation by James Carney, Rafael Wlodarski, and Robin Dunbar, all found here, will shed light on this.)
Thirdly, the argument depends on an assumption about what (non-fictional) therapy is. Here Waugh really did seem to be in straw-man territory. I imagine her remarks were directed mainly at the psychoanalytic end of the therapeutic spectrum, though she also mentioned self-help books in general, but unfortunately it simply isn’t true that the most evidence-driven and hence well-funded therapies in use today are based on the illusion of introspection. The whole point of cognitive behavioural therapy, one of the most popular and demonstrably effective forms of therapy today, is that it understands cognition (including emotion) as part of continuous feedback loop with physiology and behaviour.
More recent incarnations of it explicitly embrace mindfulness principles too. This is as anti-Cartesian as it gets, and in an awful lot of cases it really works. The idea that people who engage in this kind of therapy would need rescuing from it by more ontologically sophisticated fictions is as irresponsible as it is implausible.
It’s always encouraging when mainstream literary studies – and what could be more mainstream than the inaugural ‘Lecture on the Novel in English’ at the British Academy? – is enthusiastic about cognitive approaches. However, I share Waugh’s gladness that the gap between academic and ordinary readers is narrowing, and it was nice to hear about recent research on readers’ experience of voice as inner speech or projections of characters’ own voices. It must also be true that reading draws on interpersonal skills on a continuum with the real world, and that given minds evolved to be social, the analytical starting point therefore shouldn’t be (and isn’t) isolation.
This paper’s approach was marked by a few too many symptoms of cog lit-lite: the standard paragraph on mirror neurons, the nod to the now weirdly trendy Reverend Bayes to pretty up the theory with something ‘harder’, the unexplored invocation of mental ‘modelling’ of fictional worlds, the reversion to neuroscience alone when discussing cognitive science (despite acknowledging some of its problems).
More care is needed in all these respects if we’re to keep cognitive literary studies on the right track. Specifically, we really do need to tread carefully when we make claims about textual features and reader-text interactions at a global level – and even more so when these claims are linked to, let alone set against, ones about real-world therapy. Mental illness is serious stuff, and it’s our responsibility to inform ourselves thoroughly about the issues before we wade in and start suggesting that Beckett may work better than fluoxetine.