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Yulia Greyman

Literature and Medicine, Volume 30, Number 2, Fall 2012, pp. 378-382
DOI: 10.1353/lm.2012.0021

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Blakey Vermeule. Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 296 pp. Hardcover, $62.00;
Paperback, $30.00.
In her recent book, Blakey Vermeule poses a provocative question
right out of the gate with her title: Why Do We Care about Literary
Characters? If we stop to think before we start to read her book, it
doesnt make much sense that we respond emotionally to characters
who we know arent real. So why do we care? Vermeules general
answer is that literary characters are tools to think with (245)that
they teach us how to develop our mind-reading abilities, how to detect cheaters, and how to navigate the ins and outs of coalitions and
manipulative social systems. Socially, in other words, reading fiction
is good for us. Vermeules theories about the purpose of literature,
which draw on cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, may
dismay traditional humanists because they value literature for its utility
rather than its art, but they are worth considering if we are to keep
the Humanities alive and relevant in an age where every academic
subject must constantly justify its use.
The care in Blakeys Why Do We Care about Literary Characters?
is twofold: it refers to both attention and empathy. First, why do we
give our timea precious and limited resourceto people we know
do not exist? Second, why do we care about them if, unable to care
about us, they cannot provide a return on the investment of our affections? The book poses these questions to the mind sciences as well
as to literary theory, engaging with the work of literary critic Lisa
Zunshine on theory of mind and levels of intentionality, cognitive
psychologist Steven Pinker on literature as a space for exploring and
resolving hypothetical problems, and literary Darwinist Joseph Carroll
on the arts as an emotional compass. As a work of literary criticism,
Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? is grounded in eighteenthcentury British literature, but it expands its scope to find evolutionary
threads throughout a wide range of narratives, from Homers The
Iliad to Curious George. Vermeule sets out to explore exactly what
functions narrative serves and what those functions reveal about how
our minds work. She maintains that our minds are of ancient stock
(xiii) and the world around us has not succeeded in changing them:
The sheer profusion of narratives in all known human cultures suggests that storytelling is a human universal, that it has a function,
and that it is a human necessity (161). Vermeule sees literature as
more than just a pleasurable pastime or a byproduct of other sets of

Book Reviews


survival mechanisms. At the core of her argument is that narrative

directly benefits survival, and our capacity for it has been inherited
via natural selection.
Vermeules first answer to the titular question is that fictional
characters fulfill our desire for gossip: we need to know what other
people are like, not in the aggregate, but in the particular (xii). In fact,
we prefer gossip, or social information, to other types of information.
In my view, says Vermeule, most stories are gossip literature (7).
The argument for the similarity between literature and gossip rests on
Vermeules collapse of the difference between literary characters and
real-life people we will never meet, which allows her to place both
into the category of fictional characters. She argues that celebrities,
for instance, are not real people to us: in addition to the unlikelihood of us ever encountering them, and thus their distance from our
real lives, the media represent them in flattened ways that capture
our attention and elicit ready-made responses. Vermeule, who frames
her argument with narratives from her own personal and teaching
experience, compares gossip-magazine readers reactions to Kobe Bryants alleged rape of a young woman with those of her students to
the problematic sexual act committed by David Lurie, a character from
J. M. Coetzees Disgrace. In both cases, the sexual sins are ambiguous
and open to interpretation, and they invite speculation on the guilt
of the character, as if he were real and as if readers judgments of
him were somehow important to their personal lives.
Vermeule also argues that there is evolutionary value in this
response to characters. Though many of the books points deal with
longstanding reasons for human interest in fiction, Vermeule, whose
background is in eighteenth-century literature, maintains that the novel
as a form serves particular psychological needs that arose with modern
culture. The social novel, she asserts, the novel in which the narrative interest comes from the way the characters interact and from the
vast question of what other people are like, is an eighteenth-century
invention (129). Vermeule points to how financial and information
revolutions in late seventeenth-century Britain opened economic markets for trade across a wider, global spectrum, and she connects the
emerging commerce among strangers to an increased paranoia over
whether those strangers are trustworthy. She invokes the literary historian Catherine Gallagher to show how modernity requires skeptical
and flexible habits of mind, interpretive skills related to the new
difficulties readers were facing in their financial lives (8). At this time
especially, keeping track of other peoples inner compass became a


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necessary and rather anxious pastime (9). The novel was fueled by
these anxieties: with its tropes of kind-hearted and gullible characters
deceived by rakes and liars, the early novel discourages blind faith
in other people. Instead, it shows readers how to develop the social
competence necessary for survival in their new environment.
Ultimately, the most useful habit of mind is one Vermeule calls
Machiavellian. With this term, she connects her work to Nicholas
Humphreys Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis, which holds that
the complexities of social groups have been more influential on the
evolution of human intelligence than nonsocial environmental problems
(3031). In other words, the problem of other minds puts a greater
stress on our intellect than questions of how to get food or shelter.
Our survival depends on orienting ourselves with respect to others,
negotiating for status and resources at every turn. Literature, which
teaches us how to navigate social environments, is thus a survival
toolkit, and its most important tool is mind reading, especially skeptical
mind reading. Vermeule stresses that, in the modern world, the most
important internal state to identify is that of a fraud. We think deeply
about fictional people so that we can improve our interpretation of
real-life people, guessing at their motives, determining whether they
mean us harm, and planning our interactions with them accordingly.
Machiavellianism, or social intelligence, is an incredibly powerful
source of literary interest because it is an incredibly powerful source
of human interest (31). We want to understand human cognition
because our social lives, and by extension our survival, depends on it.
In terms of the mind-reading benefits of reading fiction, Vermeule
engages with the work of Lisa Zunshine, who also views literature as a
kind of training ground for reading people. Like Zunshine, Vermeule
proposes that literature stimulates and experiments with our theory
of mind, neurological inference systems that enable us to guess at
the mental states of other humans. Unlike Zunshine, when Vermeule
discusses the cognitive basis of caring about literary characters, she also
considers simulation theory to explain how literary characters serve
as mind reading practice. Simulation theory holds that the guesswork
is actually based on imagination and empathy, rather than an innate
system. Because the theory emphasizes the imagination, Vermeule finds
it a more promising hypothesis for explaining our interest in fiction,
although she also states that both theories are necessary to account
for the phenomenology of the readers experience.
Vermeule extends her discussion of mind reading to explain why
the most Machiavellian literary characters are also the most popular.

Book Reviews


The characters that endure are those who, like Sherlock Holmes, possess lots of mind reading appeal because their perceptive powers lie
just slightly outside the limits of what ordinary humans are capable
of (52). We are drawn to unusually perceptive characters because
that is the quality we would most like to replicate. It follows, then,
that an omniscient character endowed with unlimited access to other
minds would fulfill our most fundamental mind-reading desires and
would thus be the most appealing. And in fact, Vermeule wonders
whether there are connections between the spirit of religion and the
spirit of gossip: she speculates that the gossip-shaped hole in our
souls certainly overlaps with the God-shaped hole in our souls (10).
No character has a more desirable theory of mind than God, nor is
any character better at meting out justice. As Vermeules students made
clear in their discussions of Disgraces sexually transgressing character
David Lurie, the question of judgment and justice is also intrinsic
to our reading (and gossip) strategies: if we cannot have access to
other minds, we can at least propagate and enact the idea that justice ultimately prevails, a myth that serves to deter those that would
hide information and use it for evil means. Schadenfreude stories, for
instance, are eternally fascinating for readers because they provide the
pleasure of detecting and punishing rules-violators and cheaters (7).
That untrustworthy characters get punishedcheating celebrities by
the public and villains by the plot of the moralistic authorfeeds into
our desire for fairness in a world where crucial social information is
unevenly distributed.
Vermeules commitment to integrating the study of literature
with cognitive science affects her approach to close readings. While
she includes formalist analysisincluding, for instance, chapters on
Jane Austen and J. M. Coetzee and the eighteenth-century novelshe
is careful to avoid formalism purely for formalisms sake. Instead, she
contextualizes form historically and cognitively, as when she argues that
the technique of free indirect discourse suited the eighteenth century
novelists desire to expose the psychology of character in new ways.
Vermeule feels that the founding gesture (or was it a sin?) of literary
criticism may have been to suppress a psychological interest in character in favor of more difficult topics, a gesture born of the modernist reading practices with which the ruse of criticism was historically
twinned (1415). For Vermeule, mainstream criticisms opposition to
the emotional and instinctual carries us away from understanding why
and how we relate to fiction. We must remember that art has always
competed with other forms of entertainment; its prevalence indicates


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that it must possess some kind of competitive advantage. Art cannot

be only about lofty ideals and sophisticated reading practices; rather, it
must say something vital about our instincts, as it has been designed
to entice and stimulate them. High-minded critics want to believe
that art rises above this quality, but Vermeule stresses that without
it, literature would never have existed at all.
The cognitive literary criticism movement of which Vermeule is
a part has caused discontent in some quarters. Critics of the movement feel that the encroachment of science into art misses the point
entirely and reveals nothing significant about what really matters in
literature. But Vermeule stresses that the research being done in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science can help tell a heretofore
missing part of the story, since it shows how humans have evolved
psychological capacities that shape cultural forms at least as much
as, and probably more than, they are shaped by them (9). For her,
as for other literary Darwinists, the cognitive and the cultural are
inextricably bound: history alone cannot explain cultural and artistic
patterns. Nevertheless, while Vermeule writes that she appreciates the
more scientific direction in which the field is headed, she keeps her
own work more personal and contemplative, claiming that her study
might be called palpitational rather than empirical (249). Since, for
Vermeule, contemporary literary criticism has become too elitist and
stifling, too far removed from what attracts us to literature in the first
place, she is not turning to scientific theories for more of the same.
Rather, she says, evolutionary literary criticism appeals to me because
it is charitable towards the sorts of things humans care about (161).
Vermeules integration of scientific studies into the cultural conversation never veers from a human, flesh and blood approach (249),
thus encouraging readers to care not only about literary characters,
but also literary criticism.
Yulia Greyman
Graduate Center of the City University of New York
Arthur W. Frank. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 224 pp. Hardcover, $25.00;
Paperback, $17.00.
The idea that stories are important to people is hardly new, but
the claim that they are of paramount importance is a view that is