Literature, Cognition, and the Public Good

Rick Rylance, Literature and the Public Good (Oxford, 2016)

I have just got back from St Andrews: photographic proof below. I went for work, but it was very enjoyable work. Also I got to sit on trains for hours (in the dark, so window-staring was out, or at least very dull), and this meant I powered through Rick Rylance’s book. Until recently he was Chief Executive of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and Chair of Research Councils UK (translation: he was in charge of the main source of research funding that people like me can turn to, and he led the group that oversees all such bodies, including the much wealthier science ones). So he is a very interesting person to listen to on the subject, since he must have spent a lot of time thinking about how to carve out a space for humanities research funding amid the claims of the cancer-curers and the cosmos-crunchers.
I read the book on an old-school Kindle and so, as is quite often the case, I was surprised when it finished, even though I knew that The Literary Agenda series is made up of ‘short polemical monographs’. I never remember to allow for the bibliography and index, that’s the thing: 86% doesn’t mean 86%. Sometimes that early finish is a very welcome surprise, I have to admit, but this time I could have stood a bit more, because I was interested, and because I would have liked to read a conclusion that brought the book’s key strands together. Rylance outlines historical arguments for the value of literature to society, but the weight of the book’s case for the value of literature rests on two main themes.
      First, he develops ways of assessing the contribution of literature to modern British society in economic terms. By that definition of ‘public good’, literature stands up well: we write, we read, we buy, we sell, we edit, we meet to discuss, we attend events, and so on. Second — and without having read any blurbs I was surprised and pleased to see this — he turns to the argument that literature helps society by improving our skills at ‘theory of mind’ and empathy. Among many other things, there is interesting anecdotal evidence from prisons, and there is Steven Pinker’s argument that human society as a whole is getting better and better and one reason is that the rise of the novel has fostered our skills at understanding one another.
Now on the whole I am thrilled that a cognitive approach to literature, the kind of thing we’re on about here, plays such a prominent role in this book by this scholar. I am trying not to worry about the fact that in the past I’ve felt a bit sceptical about the specifics of the theory, and I really liked an essay that pointed in a slightly different direction. (Actually that argument — here — is perfectly congenial to Rylance’s efforts, it’s just not so straightforward in what it thinks reading fiction does for our ability to understand others.) And I would have liked to see the economic bit and the psychological bit put together somehow, but since I can’t easily see how that would be done, I will just be grateful that two independent reasons for the value of literature to society have been put so trenchantly.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

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