When my kids were young, I would joke about their reading preferences. Of the youngest (who was maybe 13), I would say, “We don’t know if he can read.” If Wonderworks had been around then, I would have sat my son down and read Angus Fletcher’s exploration of the history and the psychology of literature to him, word by word. I think it might have convinced him, and I hope it will convince others that there are benefits and pleasures that you can get from literature that are unique and valuable. Unlike many writers who have analysed how various forms work (as I did in my book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel), Fletcher focuses on what cognitive psychologists have learned about what parts of the human brain do and how they do it, and connects that to innovative works in the history of literature and their related forms – songs, opera, film and TV. He explores many works we are familiar with (The Odyssey, Hamlet, Don Quixote, Mrs Dalloway, 30 Rock) and others we may never have heard of (The Epic of Sundiata, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Varney, the Vampyre). His desire is not to rate them or rank them but to show how they have contributed to the ever-widening appeal and power of invention and narrative.
Fletcher’s style is perky and often amusing – one of my favourite lines is “To reach the full readership of Clarissa and give that readership a complete hospital treatment, a novel couldn’t go half-and-half like Tom Jones. Instead, every one of its pages would have to be entirely romantic and entirely ironic.” In some ways, Fletcher is a kind of Jeeves, leading us around the castle of literature in a respectful but knowing manner.
We all have literary preferences, and fashions come and go. The prominence of stark realism (for example, Anthony Trollope) gives way to fantasy (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw). Fletcher makes sure that all genres are explored (and there’s no evidence of what he prefers) because all genres tweak the brain – both thoughts and emotions – in different, productive ways. In his section on “penny dreadfuls”, Fletcher discusses the way that authors in the 19th century used suspense and empathy (and cheap paper) to draw in a different audience – “street urchins, coal cabbies, rat catchers, costermongers, and other members of the Victorian poor and barely literate”. The instalments used suspense to build their sales but, according to Fletcher, they also employed a sense of ongoing connection with the characters combined with “partial dopamine” – some pleasure in the semi-resolution of the suspense, but not so much pleasure that we are able to stop reading. Interestingly Thomas Peckett Prest, a prolific producer of penny dreadfuls, got his ideas from his failed career as an opera singer and his acquaintance with the works of Monteverdi.
Maybe one of the most arresting sections is Fletcher’s exploration of how Virginia Woolf came up with Mrs Dalloway. We know that all authors owe a lot to previous authors, but we don’t always know who they were thinking about when they got their own ideas, or how those influences meshed. Fletcher details how Woolf suffered from the misogynistic theories of mental illness and “rest cures” that were rife in her day, and used reading to comfort herself. A novel by Dorothy Richardson introduced her to stream-of-consciousness, then she read In Search of Lost Time, which she enjoyed, but it was Ulysses, which she found difficult to read (much less enjoy) which gave her the idea of jumping around among several different consciousnesses and using all of them to explore daily life. Fletcher writes, “She wanted us, her readers, to know the psychiatric benefit of experiencing our own ‘freedom’ … As modern neuroscience has revealed, the style of Mrs Dalloway can indeed create a sensation of psychological freeness that provides the therapeutic peace that Woolf herself was seeking.”
In these frightening times, Fletcher nonetheless has hope for the future of literature (and therefore of the human race). I almost believe him. Often, the famous works that we are drawn to (Macbeth, The Scarlet Letter, The Plague) are frightening and, we think, should fill us with despair, but Fletcher makes a convincing argument that using even the saddest books to experience new feelings and to learn from them is the way forward for both writers and readers.