Why We Read Fiction

Lisa Zunshine

Zunshine’s focus is on the application of the psychological concept of “Theory of Mind” to literary criticism. Zunshine sees our interest in the inner workings of the minds of others as a human baseline characteristic, one that can help explain both why fiction is written and why it works such magic on its readers.

Humanities professors proclaim, with considerable relief, that the Theory Wars are over. The postmodernist and poststructuralist battles which reduced much of the scholarship of the liberal arts to a mad and maddening scramble for the pinnacle of obscurantism and abstruseness have passed, and the survivors have settled back into their armchairs to read a good book.

But how to read it? What now, that the possibility that some books may actually mean something, that some few authors may actually have written with effective intent, has been resurrected — has been, at the very least, de-demonized?

A while back, I wrote about two approaches to literary criticism, strategies that took their cues, even their methods, from more empirical disciplines. In “Doing Hamlet by the Numbers,” Franco Moretti applied statistical methods to the character dynamics in Shakespeare.  And in “Brain Science and Literature” Nabakov specialist Brian Boyd advocated the application of contemporary neuropsychology to studies of story and character in fiction.

These articles led me by a circuitous path to 18th century literature scholar Lisa Zunshine’s 2006 book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind in the Novel. (Available at Amazon for the bargain price of $1.99 in the Kindle edition.)

Zunshine’s focus is on the application of the psychological concept of “Theory of Mind” to literary criticism. Zunshine sees our interest in the inner workings of the minds of others as a human baseline characteristic, one that can help explain both why fiction is written and why it works such magic on its readers. She writes:

Theory of Mind is a cluster of cognitive adaptations that allows us to navigate our social world and also structures that world. Intensely social species that we are, we thus read fiction because it engages, in a variety of particularly focused ways, our Theory of Mind.

There are other enthusiasts for this approach, but there are inevitably still others who are skeptical. Some see any attempt to wed literary studies to psychology, especially to empirical neuropsychology, as the latest desperate attempt by the humanities to use the relevance and cachet of science to stem the accelerating decline of their influence — and their enrollment numbers. Others are suspicious of the cavalier way that some of the new critics throw around casual evolutionary speculations about the origins or purposes of fiction.

Zunshine seems fairly immune to these criticisms, at least in this book. She is careful to suggest adding insights from neuropsychology to existing LitCrit methods, rather than uncritically substituting a partly understood discipline for the one in which she is an expert. She also shies away from too much storytelling (how much is too much?) about the possible evolutionary underpinning of the way we read fiction, concentrating instead on the practical uses of attention to Theory of Mind for critical readers.

When we read about fictional characters, we naturally treat these characters as other minds, “real” even if not real, for we invoke “our evolved cognitive tendency to assume that there must be a mental stance behind each physical action and our striving to represent to ourselves that possible mental stance even when the author has left us with the absolute minimum of necessary cues for constructing such a representation.”

In so doing, we both validate the power of the reader central to the notion of the death of the author and, paradoxically, resurrect the author as an additional intentional agent whose point of view must be rewoven into any consideration of the narrative:

… by following the readily available representations of such states throughout the narrative, and by comparing our interpretation of what the given character must be feeling at a given moment with what we assume could be the author’s own interpretation, we deliver a rich stimulation to the cognitive adaptations constituting our Theory of Mind.

And, “We can speculate, then, that it is our awareness that there is a source behind the representation that legitimates a variety of personal and institutional endeavors to resituate, reinterpret, and reweigh every aspect of a literary text.”

Taking a language theory approach, Zunshine suggests that one of the primary attractions of reading fiction is that it gives us rewarding opportunities to practice “metarepresentations” — to sort out the multiple levels of intentionality represented by characters in the contexts of stories, whether entirely fictional or substantially real. When Gina says that she knows that William is unaware of what his wife Tess thinks she’s gaining by lying to her boss, can we believe Gina, given the context in which she makes the claim? Can we even follow the chain of intentionality, which has five nested levels, even before we add ourselves?

Zunshine relies for many of her examples on several books that famously force their readers to “sort out” the true from the assumed, the real from the purported. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Jane Austen’s Emma are favourite sources for her illustrations.

Zunshine spends several chapters on the detective story genre, which she sees as a direct product of the entertainment we get from trying to figure out who’s who and what’s what in a space where everything is designed to complicate our search for the truth. If we didn’t have a strong and basic urge to investigate the minds of others, she asks, why would detective stories and other mysteries be so popular?

One answer is simply that we enjoy “figuring out” other people, including fictional characters. “The detective stories want us to disbelieve, from the very beginning and for as long as possible, the words of pretty much every personage we encounter.”

Zunshine cites another Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, as a primary example of just how far the reader must go to deconstruct the many conflicting levels and sources of intentionality. She suggests that when we view the entirety of the novel critically, including the author in our list of intentional agents, even such apparently neutral facts as “Lydia ran away with Wickham” must be seen as potentially deceptive, and certainly complex, metarepresentations of intentionality, not historical truths.

Thinking in terms of our metarepresentational capacity allows us to see a pattern behind a series of seemingly unrelated conceptual processes informing our interaction with works of fiction. We begin to recognize that the same cognitive predisposition, that is, our ability to process information under advisement, makes possible both the metamorphosis of the once-proud or -prejudiced protagonists into romantic lovers and the metamorphosis of the formerly trusting readers into “detectives” querying the author’s motives.

Again, Zunshine does not suggest that Theory of Mind (or fMRI studies of reading brains, for that matter) is “the” way to approach fiction. What she advocates is adding the insights of cognitive science to the more traditional methodologies of criticism.

After several decades in which it was considered naive, even reactionary, to wonder what Shakespeare might have meant young Prince Hamlet to think or to feel or to mean, I’m glad to learn that there are others out there who just might allow that an assessment of the motivations, not to mention the reality, of the ghost of Hamlet’s father might provide something useful to one’s experience of the play.


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