Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher review: Literature as TED Talk.

Shakespeare giving a TED Talk.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

While reading Angus Fletcher’s absurd book Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, I kept thinking of Alain de Botton. When the Swiss philosopher published How Proust Can Change Your Life in 1997, the book was partly a joke. People have always read fiction hoping to better themselves, but Marcel Proust, a sickly, snobbish neurasthenic so sensitive that he worked and slept in a cork-lined bedroom, seems a dubious source for life lessons. De Botton knew this, of course, but so powerful is the pull of self-help and its lucrative rewards that soon he’d become a full-fledged purveyor, delivering TED Talks on “a kinder, gentler philosophy of success” and co-founding the School of Life, which provides classes on “the key ingredients of emotional well-being.”

De Botton’s not the only one responsible for the dispiriting reductiveness of a book like Wonderworks; there are so many culprits to choose from, including such purveyors of pop neuroscience as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer, countless resolutely uncritical profilers of tech entrepreneurs, and the TED Talk industrial complex. Wonderworks is a cornucopia of insufferable-but-profitable intellectual and publishing trends, a survey that grinds down centuries of art into the stuff of dietary supplements and serotonin reuptake inhibitors. In his preface, Fletcher, “a professor of story science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, the world’s leading academic think-tank for the study of stories” with “dual degrees in neuroscience and literature,” describes literature as a “narrative-emotional technology that helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology. It was an invention for overcoming the doubt and the pain of just being us.”

Instead of the rabble of depressives, shirkers, grudge nursers, monomaniacs, and dogs in the manger that we know most great writers to be, Fletcher portrays the authors covered in Wonderworks as a gang of spunky Thomas Edisons, each intent on coding a new storytelling app whose value proposition is to improve our “daily mental health and happiness.” For thousands of years, the world’s great writers have provided “solutions” to problems people didn’t even realize they had, Fletcher declares, using the power of neuroscientific principles that hadn’t been discovered yet.

Is Fletcher dishonest, or merely ignorant? Wonderworks covers a lot of ground, and I’m only familiar with some of the authors he treats with, but the chapters on those I know well contain multiple falsehoods and/or misrepresentations. Some are simply baffling. Why would Fletcher claim, for example, that Hamlet has a troupe of traveling actors perform a play in the Danish court as a memorial to his dead father, with the hope that if it might “stand as a fitting testament, enshrining the uniqueness of the dead man by documenting his existence like a faithful eulogy”? Even the least attentive sophomore English student knows that Hamlet’s goal is to observe his uncle’s response to the play, which depicts a king murdered by his envious brother, in order to “catch the conscience” and detect his uncle’s guilt. And besides, who would “document the existence” of a loved one by portraying only his murder? This stuff is Hamlet 101, and Fletcher doesn’t just fail to make a textual case for an alternative; he doesn’t even try to.

Angus Fletcher portrait outside in a blue shirt.
Angus Fletcher.
Sarah Lagrotteria

I’m pretty sure that Fletcher (whose bio states that he “taught Shakespeare at Stanford,” whatever that means) knows that his characterization of Hamlet’s motives is untrue, but the truth inconveniently refuses to support his central argument that the play’s purpose is to help its audience process their own personal losses. It does this, he claims, by combining a technique that he calls the “Grief Releaser”—that is, “a plot that abandons the usual forward momentum of plots”—and “the ‘Guilt Lifter’ of a character who shares our disdain, our dismay, and even our anger, at clichéd funerals and formulaic condolences.” The result is a combination of two “inventions” to form a third, which he dubs the “Sorrow Resolver,” making Hamlet a “revolution in therapy.” You might have thought Hamlet was a towering, if enigmatic, masterpiece, but in fact, Fletcher wants you to know, it’s really just an extended session with your shrink.

Fletcher likes to coin leadenly literal terms like “Sorrow Resolver” for the “inventions” he identifies in various texts. Often these amount to merely renaming well-known literary devices; what you and I know as foreshadowing is, to Fletcher, the “Tale Told from Our Future.” Sometimes he reduces complex forms, like the lyric poem, to basic psychotherapeutic functions (the “Secret Discloser”). Because the purpose of any of these devices must, in his framing, be proven to serve some curative psychological purpose, he often has to stretch works completely out of shape to make them fit. He asserts that the Iliad was meant to instill courage in its listeners by reproducing the effect of a paean, a type of rallying song that he describes as “joining a holy chorus” with a deity when on the verge of battle. Homer achieves this effect, Fletcher claims, by opening the Iliad with the lines “Sing, goddess, sing of the anger of Achilles,” even though the goddess Homer addresses is not a battle goddess but (as Fletcher surely knows) the muse traditionally invoked by poets to inspire their art. Furthermore, as depicted by Homer, the anger of Achilles is far from inspirational. The Iliad is in large part a cautionary tale about how even a legendary hero can disgrace himself should he be overcome by his passions, something the ancient Greeks considered catastrophic. Achilles’ fury leads him to desecrate the corpse of Hector, and that fury is admonished in the very line that Fletcher quotes.

The premise of Wonderworks depends on the notion that human beings face a set of relatively unchanging problems based on “how our brains work,” and that a series of brilliant literary innovators have been steadily inventing solutions to these problems since the days when the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna, the first author we know by name, recorded her hymns to the goddess Inanna. This is remarkably close to the Great Man theory of history deplored by Tolstoy, an author who goes curiously unmentioned in Wonderworks. Fletcher does, however, mention the Great Man theory itself, in the chapter on Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s father, the pioneering anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, used to show his students a list of “simultaneous inventions,” devices like the telescope and the steamboat that were produced by different people at about the same point in history even though those people were not in communication with each other. Fletcher claims, with no evidence, that Le Guin perceived her father’s list as flawed because, in upholding “the founding assumption of her father’s career: that individuals were shaped by their culture” it “perpetuated modern anthropology’s self-serving bias.”

It’s a good thing for Fletcher that Le Guin died in 2018, as this passage would surely have roused her formidable ire. The degree to which culture shapes not only individuals but their ability to perceive and understand their world was one of the abiding themes of her work. In a murky and unconvincing passage, Fletcher claims that Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness compels its readers to jettison their biases “indefinitely” by making them think, of the novel’s narrator, “Genly Ai is crazy—and he’s sane. He’s so strange—and he’s just like me.” This is a bizarre and unsupported take on a novel whose position on its actual subject—the arbitrary and unfair nature of gender roles—is abundantly clear. Fletcher’s claim that Le Guin wanted to help her readers to go “backward … restoring our brain to its original state of neutrality” before the biases of culture contaminated it, or that she ever believed that such a state was possible, is equally preposterous.

Unfortunately for Fletcher, literature is made of culture, not neurons, and any given literary work can’t be fully appreciated if separated from the thousands of cultural, social, political, economic, and historical factors that affected its making. Those factors include such basics as who in a society is permitted to read and write, who (if anyone) pays the author for her work, how the work is circulated, what its audience expects of it, etc. In the chapter on Jane Austen’s Emma, for example, he ignores the role that social class plays in Emma Woodhouse’s misguided matchmaking attempts for her friend Harriet Smith. Fletcher’s chapter on Mrs. Dalloway never mentions Virginia Woolf’s express intention to represent the experiences of women at a time when she felt that prestige fiction shortchanged them.

In place of the rich and often fascinating cultural contexts that fostered these works, the reader of Wonderworks is served lukewarm potted neuroscience: “In response to the anomaly, our threat-detection network warns the decision-making apparatus of our frontal cortex: There’s something odd here! Our frontal cortex then analyzes the something odd, deciding whether it’s possibly dangerous, definitely dangerous, or not dangerous.”

And while new literary forms often emerge out of particular moments in history and the influences exchanged among the artists who live in them, Fletcher’s commitment to the “inventor” narrative typically forces him to exaggerate how unprecedented specific works were. His case for the uniqueness of Middlemarch rests entirely on the fact that “prior to Middlemarch, in all of known literature, [the phrase] ‘you and me’ never drops from the mouth of an omniscient third-person narrator.” He claims that George Eliot’s goal in writing the novel was to “invert the entire technology of the novel, upending its lordly aloofness with a humble togetherness,” although by 1871, when Middlemarch was written, the far from lordly Charles Dickens had already produced every novel he would ever publish. Dickens never gets mentioned in Wonderworks at all, presumably because his novels can’t be purged of their specific historical context and the social reforms the author hoped to spur with his work.

But of all the irksome aspects of Wonderworks, surely the most depressing and symptomatic of our increasingly aliterate age is its calculating utilitarianism. This is a book for people who don’t really want to read books, and therefore need to be reassured that reading is as good for them as a doctor’s appointment, or a yoga class. Alison Bechdel will cure your PTSD. Sappho will improve your love life. Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber will teach you self-acceptance. Perhaps these books will have that effect on some readers, but that’s ancillary to their actual worth. We experience art as a repository of our humanity, a representation that tries to capture the meaning we seek in our lives. Treating art as a means to an end feels degrading, like reducing the worth of a service worker to the service she performs. The best self-improvement scheme I can think of is to prove ourselves better than that.

By Angus Fletcher. Simon & Schuster.

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