James Wood is a well known literary critic, based at Harvard, who writes for The New Yorker. A while back I went after one of his articles, which was a critique of both the “new atheists” and the faithful. I was distressed that Wood not only criticized atheists unfairly (raising the usual canard that our view of theology is unsophisticated), but also proposed a middle-of-the-road “solution” that was both smug and ineffectual. As he said:
What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.
Professor Wood kindly responded on this site, defending his own atheism but getting deeper into the mire by saying things like this:
As I made quite clear in the piece, I am on the side of Dawkins and Hitchens if I have to be, but I dislike their tone, their contempt for all religious belief, and their general tendency to treat all religious belief as if it were identical to Christian fundamentalism. Dawkins always sounds as if he wouldn’t mind too much if the European cathedrals were razed. For anyone, like myself, who loves literature and music, so saturated in religious belief and disbelief, one can’t simply dismiss this history it as if it were at the level of astrology or Gypsy Rose Lee.
I discussed Wood’s views with a friend in the humanities, who assured me that Wood was not only a good literary critic, but perhaps our nation’s preeminent literary critic. That intrigued me, and so I read one of Wood’s better-known books of criticism, How Fiction Works (2008; see reviews here, here, and here).
I’m a passionate reader of fiction — granted, hardly as passionate as Wood, who seems to have read everything — but not an analytical one. I am moved by novels, but often can’t articulate why. For those like me, Wood’s book is great. In this short (194-page) volume, he takes apart many of the world’s novels, making the case (I hope I’m accurate here) that the merit of fiction is not so much in conveying truth about the world as in conveying what it feels like to be on the inside of a situation. And he analyzes the various devices writers use to convey those feelings, telling us why some devices succeed more than others. It’s a fascinating read that will make you go back to the novel with renewed vigor. (Wood provides a four-page appendix of all the novels he cites, and I intend to essay many of these. He even mentions Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McLoskey!) And it’s a fascinating look at the mind of a man who apparently lives for literature.
That said, I have one plaint, for near the end of the book Wood decides to go after evolutionary biologists.
On page 129, he mentions a “quaintly antique” notion of the municipal president of Neza, a crime-ridden area of Mexico City. In 2006, the president gave his police a reading list of great novels to expand their knowledge of the world and promote their morals. Wood notes, “One does not have to be as morally prescriptive as the Mexican police chief to feel that he has taxonomized three aspects of the experience of reading fiction: language; the world; the extension of our sympathies towards other selves.” And then Wood adds a footnote:
We don’t read in order to benefit in this way from fiction. We read fiction because it pleases us, moves us, is beautiful, and so on — because it is alive and we are alive. It is amusing to watch evolutionary biology tie itself up in circularities when trying to answer the question, ‘why do humans spend so much time reading fiction when this yields no obvious evolutionary benefits?’ The answer tend either to be utilitarian — we read in order to find out about our fellow citizens, and this has a Darwinian utility — or circular: we read because fiction pushes certain ‘pleasure buttons.’
Well, the first part is fine, but really, Professor Wood, we evolutionary biologists hardly tie ourselves up in knots about this question. Although I’m a professional in the field, I have never encountered a discussion of the adaptive significance of reading fiction, even from those evolutionary psychologists who love to masticate ideas like this. No respectable evolutionist would bother with the question, “What was the adaptive value of ‘novel-reading’ genes?” In contrast, Wood implies that this kind of story-telling is a major preoccupation of our field. Perhaps he’ll supply us with an extensive list of evolutionary studies of fiction-reading.
Reading is a recent innovation: it appeared about 5000 years ago, 0.07% of the time since we branched off from the lineage that lead to our closest living relatives. Fiction is even younger: many regard the first novel as The Tale of Genji, written about a millenium ago.
That’s not enough time for a “fiction-reading module” to evolve. (And would those who read novels really have more offspring than those who ignore the printed page in favor of seeking mates?) Further, diligent novel-reading is hardly a fixed trait in the human species. Even when novels are available, few people “spend so much time” reading them. The average American, for example, reads four books per year (not all fiction!), and one person in four reads none. With this much variation in the human species, no evolutionist save a bored evolutionary psychologist would even ask the question of adaptive significance. One gets the impression that Wood is talking about his own voracious reading, not that of our species as a whole
It seems likely that, as Wood states, reading fiction does push certain “pleasure buttons” in our evolved brains. It may, in that respect, resemble drinking alcohol, smoking, masturbating, or doing sudoku: things that we like to do (and obviously stimulate something in our brain), but need not be regarded as direct adaptations instilled by natural selection. They’re spandrels. (And, by the way, this is not a circular explanation, since in some cases we can, at least theoretically, find out which pleasure centers are being stimulated, and perhaps understand how they evolved in the first place. It is not circular to say that we masturbate because natural selection built in a system of getting extreme pleasure from copulating, and we’ve learned how to short-circuit the system.)
Why do I spend so much time on a footnote? Because Wood’s readers are not likely to know a lot about evolutionary biology, and so might very well conclude that we’re all a pack of morons who waste our time trying to explain the unexplainable. With this gratuitious swipe, Wood gives a bad — and false — impression of our field. And then, of course, there are the supercilous words “amusing” and “tie itself up in circularities,” as if Wood sees himself superior to those of us who muck about in the swamps of science. Right when I was getting all amiable toward Wood, he goes and ruins it with another display of hauteur.