Wonderworks: Literary Invention and the Science of Stories, by Angus Fletcher

To paraphrase 18th century British playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, this book contains much of what is new and what is true. Unfortunately, what is new is not true, and what is true is not new.

Mixing his degrees in literature and neuroscience, Angus Fletcher, professor of history science at Ohio State University, offers a spectacularly broad review of the Greek tragedy narrative on Tina Fey’s sitcom. 30 Rock. Each of its 25 chapters deals with related texts that allow pseudo-scientific explanations of different narrative “inventions”. The self-help sections, introduced by subtitles like “Use the Secret Revealer Yourself”, demonstrate that literature is a technology to help us deal with emotions.

What is true here is old hat. “Inventions” are simply new names for familiar literary devices. Omniscient storytelling, for example, becomes “the voice of God.” Literary models are “blueprints,” while the novel, epic comparison, and twist ending are presented as literary “technologies”.

Fletcher promises to innovate with neurological and psychological explanations of the effects of literary techniques (technologies) on the brain. Take, for example, Jane Austen’s use of irony, which resides in the cortex, and love, which resides in the amygdala. “By focusing our cortex and amygdala on different narrative objects,” we are told, “literature can inspire a neural blend of ironic perspective and romantic sentiment.” Thus, Austen’s “cortex-amygdala mix” is his “gift… to our neural circuits”.

When science stirs up literary criticism, the results are miserable. For Fletcher, literature becomes a form of psychotherapy that releases hormones such as oxytocin and cortisol. Reading stimulates neurotransmitters such as dopamine and regions of the brain such as the amygdala. Unfortunately, most of these neurological claims are neither founded nor substantiated. Fletcher ignores relevant scientific research and literary criticism, including cognitive approaches to theory of mind and reader response / reception theory.

By generating feelings such as love, empathy and serenity, literature becomes “technology” for therapeutic self-improvement. Fletcher prescribes specific stories for their healing effects: if you’re depressed, try Euripides and “pivot to happiness” (the invention of clinical joy). Read The Iliad to increase courage (Invention of the Almighty Heart) or Cinderella to combat pessimism (the invention of the fairytale twist). My favorite advice is that instead of taking LSD readers should stumble upon John Donne’s poem A Valediction: Forbid mourning, which “triggers the same neural pathways that activate in the soul’s sight, stimulating a loop of wonder …”

Each chapter ends with recommendations for further work that will produce the effect of the specific “technology” discussed. (If Shakespeare’s “Sorrow Resolver” in Hamlet doesn’t do the trick, try Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.)

While Fletcher’s reductive formula ultimately results in ideas that are neither new nor true, he tells a good story, I’ll give it to him. Did I mention he’s a history science teacher? Although this discipline is newly invented and most attempts to interpret the literature in scientific terms are heavy, if you can get past the neurological gibberish, much of Wonderworks is the retelling of many stories in a readable and engaging manner that can make literature more understandable and appealing to the lay reader. Ultimately, however, Fletcher weaves a big story.

Deborah D. Rogers is Professor of English at the University of Maine. Its history of the university, Become Modern (co-edited with the late Howard Segal), will be released in January.

Wonderworks: literary invention and the science of stories
By Angus Fletcher
Swift, 464 pages, £ 20.00
ISBN 978180070210
Posted on September 2, 2021

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