1. Jonathan Gottschall, a professor and classicist, says literary critics should adopt scientific methods. This article is alternately silly and smart. It starts off silly:
But over the last decade or so, more and more literary scholars have agreed that the field has become moribund, aimless, and increasingly irrelevant to the concerns not only of the “outside world,” but also to the world inside the ivory tower. Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can’t find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them.
When was the time in our glorified past when morale wasn’t sagging, when huge numbers of liberal arts PhDs easily found gainful employment, when books didn’t languish unpublished or unpurchased? Gottschall, author of a book about Homer, should know that golden ages tend to be highly overrated. To the extent that this article posits an urgent current literary crisis that a paradigm shift towards scientific exactness will solve, it’s a highly unconvincing piece.
Flawed framing aside, though, there are good ideas here:
Homo sapiens is a bizarre literary ape — one that, outside of working and sleeping, may well spend most of its remaining hours lost in landscapes of make-believe. Across the breadth of human history, across the wide mosaic of world cultures, there has never been a society in which people don’t devote great gobs of time to seeing, creating, and hearing fictions — from folktales to film, from theater to television. Stories represent our biggest and most preciously varied repository of information about human nature. Without a robust study of literature there can be no adequate reckoning of the human condition — no full understanding of art, culture, psychology, or even of biology. As Binghamton University biologist David Sloan Wilson says, “the natural history of our species” is written in love poems, adventure stories, fables, myths, tales, and novels.
Amen. This is why, as a reader fairly obsessed with global history and politics, I turn so often to fiction and poetry and drama to help me understand societies of the past. Now, let’s see an example of Gottschall’s “scientific method” in practice:
In some cases, it’s possible to use scientific methods to question cherished tenets of modern literary theory. Consider the question of the “beauty myth”: Most literary scholars believe that the huge emphasis our culture places on women’s beauty is driven by a beauty myth, a suite of attitudes that maximizes female anxiety about appearance in order, ultimately, to maintain male dominance. It’s easy to find evidence for this idea in our culture’s poems, plays, and fairy tales: As one scholar after another has documented, Western literature is rife with sexist-seeming beauty imagery.
Scholars tend to take this evidence as proof that Western culture is unusually sexist. But is this really the case? In a study to be published in the next issue of the journal Human Nature, my colleagues and I addressed this question by collecting and analyzing descriptions of physical attractiveness in thousands of folktales from all around the globe. What we found was that female characters in folktales were about six times more likely than their male counterparts to be described with a reference to their attractiveness. That six-to-one ratio held up in Western literature and also across scores of traditional societies. So literary scholars have been absolutely right about the intense stress on women’s beauty in Western literature, but quite wrong to conclude that this beauty myth says something unique about Western culture. Its ultimate roots apparently lie not in the properties of any specific culture, but in something deeper in human nature.
Nicely done. If this is what Gottschall means by scientific method, I’ll bite. What it really amounts to is the adoption of empirical testing for commonly held presumptions about literature, and I bet there are many insights to be gained by an approach like this. I would not want to go too far with it, though. In the age of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and William James, psychological investigations involved more imagination and speculation than observation and proof. But the field of psychology is now completely dominated by empirical testing and observation — the “scientific method” — and while much may have been gained by this paradigm shift, it should not escape our notice that there have been few great or visionary psychologists on the scale of Freud or Jung or James since. Empirical testing should complement the work of the imagination; it cannot replace the work of the imagination.
I’d like to follow the work of Jonathan Gottschall further. I see that he has also written a book called The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of the Narrative (co-edited by David Sloan Wilson, the same source Gottschall quotes in the first passage above, which indicates that the field of scientific literary criticism may be an uncomfortably small world). I am disturbed, though, to see that this volume is priced at a ridiculous $79.95. Empirical evidence tells me that books priced at $79.95 deserve the tiny readership they get. Gottschall may want to descend a few steps from his ivory tower, and then perhaps his interesting ideas may actually find an eager audience.
2. Even though I already know every word in this book, an appealing cover design compelled me to glance at a new paperback Kafka collection published by Penguin, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, which was prominently displayed in a store. I then almost fell over in shock and knocked over the “New Paperbacks” display when I read the biographical note on the very first page and learned that Franz Kafka was born in 1833.
Yes, 1833. Empirical evidence tells me that this is highly unlikely, since he would have been 82 years old when he wrote Metamorphosis and 93 when he wrote my favorite of his novels, The Castle. In fact Franz Kafka was born in 1883. So, seriously, doesn’t Penguin have a responsibility to recall this new “Deluxe Edition”? It’s funny to read about this mistake on a blog, but it’s not going to be funny when generations of readers and students are misinformed and confused by the error. I say Penguin is obligated to recall, and to eat the cost. What do you say?
I showed the mistake to my friend Dan Levy, who quipped “Sure, Penguin, what do they know about classic literature?” Exactly.
3. Here’s the Best of the Booker Prize shortlist. LitKicks says J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is the masterpiece of the bunch. Though Booksquare is correct to ask: “does it really help literature if the establishment keeps finding new ways to give awards to the same group of authors over and over again?”