Blinding Me With Science

Lit-Crit News Psychology Publishing
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 Class enrollments and funding are down, morale is sagging, huge numbers of PhDs can't find jobs, and books languish unpublished or unpurchased because almost no one, not even other literary scholars, wants to read them.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wasn't sagging, when huge numbers of liberal arts PhDs easily found gainful employment, when books didn't languish unpublished or unpurchased?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?"
19 Responses to "Blinding Me With Science"

by rubiao on

80 dollars should be enough to get anyone off the shelf in your publishing company arguments. What does this guy think he's selling, hot dogs at a baseball game? Again, reason number 500 why libraries are better than Barnes and Noble.

As to your point about literary criticism being an "uncomfortably small world," there are some studies to prove it. Jack Green's FIRE THE BASTARDS is a study on the criticism of William Gaddis' The Recognitions, namely the incestuous relationship of reviewers to each other, the final result being that they are basically reviewing each other. He showed that the same adjectives were used over and over again, the same passages quoted (out of over 400k words), even going as far as finding reviewers who admitted to not finishing the book (one review was stolen from the blurb on the back cover). One of the many conclusions being that critics are not equipped to handle a truly innovative book, especially by a lesser known author.

Tangentially related: In THE BLACK SWAN, Nassim Taleb talks about how a scientist's prestige is based upon luck. His theory is that scientists are given grants on the basis of how many citations they have in other scientists' works. And that the way these citations usually come about is by an unrelated factor such as alphabetical order of your last name. For example, someone writes a paper and cites 20 sources. The next person who writes a paper on a similar subject will write what they want, and then "borrow" a number of those citations to fill out their own list, sometimes even going as far as to borrow a quotation. Now they could be basing their decision of which 5 references to use on any criteria: the alphabetical order of the entries, the date of publishing, a random pointing of fingers, to the way the names sound (how I pick my horses in races). As these people are cited in more and more scholarly papers (which will happen exponentially), people assume their opinions are the most valid (ie. they have the most citations) and they get more grants and more work, through none of their own merit. I assume this is at least sort of how literary criticism (and most professions where there is no metric for success) works. You get a break and appear in the NYTBR, then as long as you don't do anything too terrible, like go out on a limb and get overly enthusiastic about an unusual novel, you will have a long career as a critic for Harpers, New Yorker, and all the usual suspects. Meaning much more importance should be placed on the initial break you got than the quality of your work thereafter. Which is why you should spend much more time at cocktail parties with journalists than honing your writing skills.

I would guess Kafka's hopefully correct birthday is printed in there more than once, but it should be taken off the shelves, seeing as it will surely become the gold standard for Kafka books. I assume all they'd have to do is donate the bad copies to our schools for a corporate write-off, or outsource the books to India and pay people to go back in with a pen and change all those 3s to 8s.

And finally, I'm glad that the Booker Prize has been reduced to a VH1 rerun. Do we really need a list to define every list? Where will this Borgesian labyrinth end? Can I recommend a sister prize for the worst book to ever win the Booker Prize?

We are our myths, said Northrup Frye some fifty years ago. It’s a profound statement - in its implications for both reader and writer. I’m glad people are listening. The writer/myth maker is an awesome responsibility. My fear though, is that neither reader nor writer take this responsibility seriously. There is an essential need to understand entertainment processing in the human brain. Why does one gravitate toward Kafka, another toward Britney Spears or Hanna Montana? Why doesn’t everyone simply say - Brit and Hanna are a waste of my limited time.

Since first grade I’ve have to go out there and live - we all do, will Cormac McCarthy help me do that? If not, why would I bother reading him. Writers, artists, performers - create something that’ll help me go out there and live, if not, don’t waste my time. Readers, viewers - embrace and promote that which is essential for our better understanding of life - or fucking volunteer for Iraq. One or the other, please.

And when you wake up in the morning, try to understand - Darfur, Iraq, Hitler - don’t just happen. People make these things happen, this is what people do when they don’t know what to do.

by Michael on

Yes, you're right--the article is both silly and smart, but you've got it the wrong way around. It starts out smart (literary criticism is moribund and increasingly irrelevant to the outside world) and quickly becomes very silly (the solution for this is some basis in science).

As far as I can tell, the only literary scholar of the 20th century to get it right with regard to the value of the study of literature was Northrop Frye. (I know, I know! But please read on.) Frye alone understood that literature has its own singular "authority and autonomy" that must not be subordinated to non-literary areas of study, even though it may be relevant to any number of such areas. Therefore the first thing we must do with literature is recognize its unique forms and processes--and that is what constitutes *literary* criticism proper. "Comedy" and "tragedy", for example, are not naturally occurring phenomenon, nor are they strictly ideological arrangements of human experience: they are distinctly imaginative visions of human potential and concern, and what they manifest are our shared hopes for the human condition. Frye's further point therefore was that instead of attempting to read literature historically, sociologically, philosophically, and so on, we would be better off reading history, sociology and philosophy *literarily*. Frye consistently demonstrated that language is primarily literary (that is, metaphorical) in reference, and is only secondarily ideological (that is, metonymic). "Literary scholars", as much as anyone else, tend to get the valuation backwards (history is "real" and literature an "illusion")--and that's as true now as it was a century ago when the study of literature was emerging as a scholarly discpline. Literature is still not regarded as manifesting an autonomous way of thinking with its own relevant authority. It continues to be subordinated to some other mode of expression which is assumed to be more "authoritative" on the matters of existential concern literature addresses--like, for example, the "science" Gottschall proposes be made the basis of literary study. Science of course has its own autonomy and authority--but it is not the same autonomy and authority literature possesses, so why needlessly confuse them?

The result for decades now in literary studies has been an increasing loss of freedom both from the strictures of mandatory belief and the airy ephemerality of catch-as-catch-can relativism. There are indeed enduring human values, and literature alone elucidates them without compelling us to "believe in" let alone "obey" them. Ideology demands assent; literature merely requests consent. And the ongoing dismal state of the human condition in such matters demonstrates how unwilling we are at the best of times to grant that consent, or even to contemplate the request as such. This ought to be very easy to see. But literary scholars over the last generation especially have made it their grunt work to obscure such perceptions with lose-lose debates on value, meaning and reference. Gottschall's polemic therefore is just another forgettable squirmish in the long retreat into irrelevance.

by TKG on

Nice post, rubiao,

I'd say though, that this:

"...the incestuous relationship of reviewers to each other, the final result being that they are basically reviewing each other."

very aptly describes the granting process for scientific research as well. I'd say it probably well describes how art grants are awarded, how competitive bids get awarded, how book publishers choose who they do and even how high school baseball players are scouted to some degree.

It describes a lot of stuff.

Is it cronyism, laziness, or networking?

Is it good or bad?

As far as the 80 dollar book, any book worth that title is pseudo or pop science.

There is a lot of this around. Britain especially is taken over by this -- explaining everything via so-called evolutionary perspective. This was initially called sociobiology, a field pioneered by EO Wilson Robert Trivers (one of my old professors) and others. Trivers once said that his goal was to destroy and replace Freud and he (and others) seem to have been successful.

by n on

having heard what's his face speak at Beyond Belief 2.0 (an amusing and rather pathetic group of propagandists in my opinion, other than Scott Atran) I found his argument to be a bit "let's get on the trend"-ish.of course literary studies can benefit from a bit of old fashion empirical testing now and again to confirm our work, or a bit of research into other fields to varify some of our commonly held assumptions about anything from the cognitive act of reading to the "Who done it" of an author's murder (for example), but I'm at a stand still to see what is smart about what he says let alone witty, insightful, or original (which I find much more interesting than the rallying cry "more jobs, more read books, scientists don't think were lame")

by Duncan Brown on

Empircism schempiricism.

Art by its very nature is not science. What does your average academic want, Lit Crit by numbers, or worse, literature by numbers?

by jonathan gottschall on

literary animal costs 26.95 at Amazon--and of course even if it were 79 (probably the hard cover) it's the publisher who sets the price.

thanks for your interest in the globe piece--you are right, the "crisis" has been around pretty much from the beginning. but people seem to think it's worse now.

The Literary Animal must be a textbook for college students, who always gets gouged with artificially high book prices because they HAVE to buy them.

by RJ on

Gotschall correctly points out that literary criticism relies on vague suppositions with weak evidence. He argues we should produce better evidence. I think we should get rid of the suppositions.

While I'll accept that applying scientific methods and statistical evidence to literary criticism might produce some interesting results and thoughts, I don't see such developments as the panacea that Gotschall describes. Would scientific reasoning in literary criticism force a paradigm shift? Doubtful. Instead it would only provide another measure by which "meaning" in literature is determined. Many such measures already exist, and they don't provide any consensus in thought upon which larger theories are built. I doubt scientific evidence would either.

One can statistically prove or disprove the presence of the Beauty Myth. One can quantify certain aspects of a Novel or Author--Melville's work has a disproportionally small number of female characters!--but this, like much of literary criticism only leads us away from the work itself. Melville underrepresents the feminine...

but are his novels any good?

The problem with literary criticism is that it attempts to adopt foreign disciplines--feminism, culture studies, anthropology, statistics, science--to that to which they have no relation. In academia, it is no longer valuable to study literature as literature, an art. Critics borrow from other disciplines, almost as though the study of literature as literature is undignified, and only by viewing literature through the lens of more noble pursuits--psychology, science--does the study of literature become valuable.

Simply, the problem with literary criticism is that it asks "what" instead of "how." What: as in "What does this mean?" or "What is the significance?" We can, and have, discussed these questions ad nauseum, yet we've not come close to finding an answer. "How" might lead us in a more interesting direction. How is this novel constructed? How has this author used words and language to create something beautiful?

If the problem with literary criticism is that it is not firm or concrete, applying statistics with questionable relevance won't solve the problem. Instead talk about that which is firm and concrete. Talk about language, words and Grammar. Talk about how particular authors use these tools to create their artistic works. But most of all, talk about the artistic works themselves. Art is more beautiful than facts about art, and finding more facts isn't the way to popularize that which we love. It's a way to obscure it.

"Since first grade I’ve have to go out there and live - we all do, will Cormac McCarthy help me do that?"

Covey, you raise a good point. This could be a litmus test for all literature. I submit that Proust, for example, has helped me to live, because he took the time to put 19th and early 20th Century art into perspective. He thus helped me to live in the intellectual world of the 20 - 21st century. I am of course talking about the life of my mind, but in fact the life of the mind is just as important as the life of the spirit, the life of the body, etc. Proust took a look around, reviewed what is good about art, literature and music; and then created characters that supported his vision.

This is an excellent post by all.

I agree with RJ.

Thanks to all for the replies, and it's nice to hear from Jonathan Gottschall himself. But, Jonathan, my $79.95 link is itself an Amazon link! If I can find your book for $26.95 I'll be happy to buy it ...

And by the way, 80 bucks is too much to spend for a book unless it is a first edition Kerouac or some such rareity.

by Milton on

I second the entirety of RJ's post.

I found Gottschall's essay well-reasoned and insightful, and his idea sounds similar to what Camille Paglia tried to do with feminist studies -- which at the time were threatening to become nothing but vague suppositions. Hers was a brilliant move, and I think adopting a more scientific perspective would be of great benefit to literary criticism. But that's only the case because contemporary literary criticism has such a tangential relationship to actual literature.

by rubiao on

Jonathan Gottschall is right! (in my best Blazing Saddles voice). The paperback is only 26.95, but it doesn't come out until October (pre-order, but it seems to come out the same day as the hard-cover). Not to beat a dead horse here, but this brings an entire new fold into the book pricing discussion everyone here is so fond of. If you simultaneously release the hard and soft covers, but jack up the price of the hardcover astronomically and raise the paperback to the price of a normal hard cover, does the roosters egg roll east or west? I know book pricing is difficult, especially when someone has put in as much work as I'm sure Jonathan did on this book, so I hope it works out for him. But as a realist, this will be a hard sell, even though it does sound interesting.

Unfortunately, and I have not read the book, his premise seems misplaced. Science has its places, especially in classrooms, but science over the centuries has been mistaken (I fear this extrapolation of science to art is one mistake). And while I support evolutionary science, I do not support artistic or literary science. I do not want Charles Darwin or Richard Dawkins telling me about which paintings and novels I should like the best. I've never been that sold on mainstream literary criticism in the first place, but once you grow adept at picking through the rubbish it can be helpful.

I still think its an uncreative media that is ruining all news, criticism, television, books, etc. They want the status quo, and they are in a position to maintain it.

by jennifer cuddy on

I've written something very similar to the idea of sexism in the Western Canon called 'Homer, Western Civilization's Definition of Culture, Masculinity and the Silence of Sappho' Funny that we should so often use the term 'trophy wife' in American society when referring to a beautiful woman as man's embodiment -- or quite literally-- the personification of his material successes. Sounds like 'Helen of Troy' to me.

True, ‘golden ages’ are never quite as golden as what we imagine them to be; but, with all due respect to Levi, Jonathan Gottschall is probably right in his assessment of the dire state of literary criticism (and the arts in general) today. We truly have reached an all-time cultural low. Forty years ago, there were still television shows on the big networks that covered such topics as literature and its criticism, philosophy, theology, etc. Only 25 to 30 years ago, the networks still allowed fine novelists and poets to become television celebrities, political pundits, commentators, etc. Believe it or not, haiku poet Nicholas Virgilio was taping an interview for The Charlie Rose Show (then on CBS), when he was stricken dead of a heart attack

by jennifer cuddy on

Also, I emphatically agree about J.M Coetzee's 'Disgrace'! And as for Booksquare's proclamation: are there not slim pickings these days? lol

by Duncan Brown on

"North American haiku" what's that when its at home. Seems about as real as the Dutch Alps.