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Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel

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Why We Read Fiction offers a lucid overview of the most exciting area of research in contemporary cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" and discusses its implications for literary studies. It covers a broad range of fictional narratives, from Richardson’s Clarissa, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Nabok Why We Read Fiction offers a lucid overview of the most exciting area of research in contemporary cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" and discusses its implications for literary studies. It covers a broad range of fictional narratives, from Richardson’s Clarissa, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Zunshine’s surprising new interpretations of well-known literary texts and popular cultural representations constantly prod her readers to rethink their own interest in fictional narrative. Written for a general audience, this study provides a jargon-free introduction to the rapidly growing interdisciplinary field known as cognitive approaches to literature and culture.


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Why We Read Fiction offers a lucid overview of the most exciting area of research in contemporary cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" and discusses its implications for literary studies. It covers a broad range of fictional narratives, from Richardson’s Clarissa, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Nabok Why We Read Fiction offers a lucid overview of the most exciting area of research in contemporary cognitive psychology known as "Theory of Mind" and discusses its implications for literary studies. It covers a broad range of fictional narratives, from Richardson’s Clarissa, Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment, and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Nabokov’s Lolita, and Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Zunshine’s surprising new interpretations of well-known literary texts and popular cultural representations constantly prod her readers to rethink their own interest in fictional narrative. Written for a general audience, this study provides a jargon-free introduction to the rapidly growing interdisciplinary field known as cognitive approaches to literature and culture.

30 review for Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mattia Ravasi

    Video introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48-LR... An interesting, quick and accessible introduction to a pretty drastic, pretty revolutionary way of looking at the way we read, and at the biological/physical reasons why we do. It will make classic literary theorists cringe and I myself am not 100% sold (maybe not even 50%), but it still makes for a very interesting read. A must for Literary scholars, an interesting read for book lovers. (It's also really short, and the Kindle edition is Video introduction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48-LR... An interesting, quick and accessible introduction to a pretty drastic, pretty revolutionary way of looking at the way we read, and at the biological/physical reasons why we do. It will make classic literary theorists cringe and I myself am not 100% sold (maybe not even 50%), but it still makes for a very interesting read. A must for Literary scholars, an interesting read for book lovers. (It's also really short, and the Kindle edition is almost free on Amazon).

  2. 5 out of 5

    H.A. Leuschel

    A wonderful exploration about why "fictional narratives, from Beowulf to Pride and Prejudice, rely on, manipulate, and titillate our tendency to keep track of who thought, wanted, and felt what and when" Zunshine suggests that this is the reason why we take pleasure in reading novels. Throughout the book the author uses a series of texts to show how fiction has evolved an increasingly complex set of techniques to test, deceive, and stimulate the reader's Theory of Mind (the ability to attribute A wonderful exploration about why "fictional narratives, from Beowulf to Pride and Prejudice, rely on, manipulate, and titillate our tendency to keep track of who thought, wanted, and felt what and when" Zunshine suggests that this is the reason why we take pleasure in reading novels. Throughout the book the author uses a series of texts to show how fiction has evolved an increasingly complex set of techniques to test, deceive, and stimulate the reader's Theory of Mind (the ability to attribute mental states to others via our hardwired theories that help us speculate about how others think and behave) when reading literature. The book offers an interesting approach to the question why literature can move us in so many different ways

  3. 5 out of 5

    Nicky

    I normally hate reading literary theory. It just tends to tangle me up in knots and make me feel like my degrees are just two bits of paper and a silly hat. But I loved this one: I loved the whole concept of applying ideas like a theory of mind to fiction, and I enjoyed the way it was written, with examples and some humour. It helps that the cognitive theories are ones I understand well from a) being the daughter of a psychiatrist and having long discussions about this kind of thing and b) being I normally hate reading literary theory. It just tends to tangle me up in knots and make me feel like my degrees are just two bits of paper and a silly hat. But I loved this one: I loved the whole concept of applying ideas like a theory of mind to fiction, and I enjoyed the way it was written, with examples and some humour. It helps that the cognitive theories are ones I understand well from a) being the daughter of a psychiatrist and having long discussions about this kind of thing and b) being interested in mental illness/non-neurotypical people, but I think Zunshine also made it pretty accessible. She also anticipates a lot of my bugbears (oversimplification! I don't do that when I'm reading! anecdata, anecdata, anecdata!) and at least convinces me she's thought it all through and can see other perspectives. I kinda want to pursue reading about this sort of thing, but then I'm worried that even the stuff she references gets back into that quagmire of entanglement that I so often find. My main criticism of this relates to a) the formatting, which in my edition at least was all over the place, and b) sometimes astoundingly long sentences which threatened to confuse me. But still, it's thirty degrees here (Celsius) and all I want to do is lie very still and not have to think with a massive glass of mostly ice cubes next to me, because I am not made for this heat, but I enjoyed reading this.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sherwood Smith

    Zunshine's "theory of mind" is fascinating, as is her explication of the way minds play with levels of reference. She delves deeply into these two points, drawing on examples ranging from Woolf to Nabokov to Austen, so that the reader can pause, reflect, examine the text and see what it is she wants you to see. Yet at the same time, she seems to think that there is one way to look at Mrs. Dalloway, for example. While I found her example interesting, it didn't match my reading experience at all. G Zunshine's "theory of mind" is fascinating, as is her explication of the way minds play with levels of reference. She delves deeply into these two points, drawing on examples ranging from Woolf to Nabokov to Austen, so that the reader can pause, reflect, examine the text and see what it is she wants you to see. Yet at the same time, she seems to think that there is one way to look at Mrs. Dalloway, for example. While I found her example interesting, it didn't match my reading experience at all. Good in one way--the elucidation of others' reading protocols is always valuable--but not so good when I sense the implication there is one correct way to evaluate texts. But oh, so worth reading. Her style is fun, fresh, and shows her passion for literature.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ed Erwin

    Zunshine describes the way that fiction can be written and read in ways that exercise the mind-reading skills of the reader. Mind-reading in the sense of: what is this character thinking? what does character A know about what B knows about C? what does A want B to think he knows about C? what is the narrator lying to us about? or lying to himself about? Yes, that is a big part of what makes reading some novels fun for some people, including me. But she presents it here as the one and only reason Zunshine describes the way that fiction can be written and read in ways that exercise the mind-reading skills of the reader. Mind-reading in the sense of: what is this character thinking? what does character A know about what B knows about C? what does A want B to think he knows about C? what is the narrator lying to us about? or lying to himself about? Yes, that is a big part of what makes reading some novels fun for some people, including me. But she presents it here as the one and only reason we read fiction. I don't buy that. There are many kinds of novels and many kinds of readers. There are, for example, stories of adventure where reader's enjoyment comes more from projecting themselves into the story and experiencing the action. And there are novels which could appeal to some readers for the way it makes them think about engineering problems of space travel or surviving alone on the open sea. And there are those that can be enjoyed for the way they bring a historical period to life, or explore what it is like to live in a society with rules and customs different from the ones we are used to. My ability to "mind-read" was poorly developed for a long time and I did not begin to enjoy (or often even notice) the mind-reading aspect of novels (and films, etc.) until I was around 25. But I was still a voracious reader and got a great deal of enjoyment out of it. When those skills began to develop, I found a new and richer way to enjoy (some) novels, but I haven't stopped enjoying other aspects of them as well. So, I agree with Zunshine that this aspect of novel reading exists and is a part of the pleasure for many people. I greatly enjoyed her analyses of several works. I was already a great fan of Nabokov, but she has almost convinced me that I would also enjoy reading "Clarissa". The text is a bit dry and "academic". I would have enjoyed parts of it more if she'd left the mentions of other researchers for the footnotes rather than slowing-down the main text. But the biggest pain in reading this was seeing the words "metarepresentation", "metarepresentational", "metarepresentationally" over and over. If she can use the abbreviation "ToM" to avoid repeating the 4-syllable "Theory of Mind", then surely there must be a word shorter than 9-syllables she could use to refer to "metarepresentation".

  6. 4 out of 5

    Max Nemtsov

    Бывают интересные книжки о книжках, а бывают не очень. Все просто — эта относится к последней категории. Психолог-когнитивист читает худло, применяя модель психического. Так читать романы, я бы решил, неинтересно. Т.е. сама по себе эта книжка, видимо, не очень насосана из пальца, но близка к этому. Ну да, мы относимся к литературным персонажам, как к своему реальному соседу по даче, ну да, читая детективы, мы всех подозреваем, потому что нам хочется быть умнее автора. И? Мы же высшие приматы, ек Бывают интересные книжки о книжках, а бывают не очень. Все просто — эта относится к последней категории. Психолог-когнитивист читает худло, применяя модель психического. Так читать романы, я бы решил, неинтересно. Т.е. сама по себе эта книжка, видимо, не очень насосана из пальца, но близка к этому. Ну да, мы относимся к литературным персонажам, как к своему реальному соседу по даче, ну да, читая детективы, мы всех подозреваем, потому что нам хочется быть умнее автора. И? Мы же высшие приматы, ексель-моксель. Название, конечно, завлекательно (как и некоторые заголовки), но, если вдуматься, не очень хочется знать ответ на этот вопрос (как разбирать шутку на составные части, чем автор у нас неоднократно занимается). Хочется же какой-то недосказанности, чуда и волшебства, в конце концов.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kitty

    ma päriselt ka tahtsin teada, miks me ilukirjandust loeme, nii, teaduslikust seisukohast. ja kõik arvustused lubasid, et see on hea lihtne ja loetav raamat sel teemal. aga ei teagi, kas olen ilukirjandusega nii ära hellitatud või muidu mitte piisavalt nutikas... minu meelest ei olnud lihtne ja loetav. oli üks igavene akadeemiline rügamine. mis ma siis teada sain. et psühholoogias on olemas "theory of mind", kontseptsioon, et me mõistame teisi inimesi, sest me oskame ette kujutada, mida nad mõtlev ma päriselt ka tahtsin teada, miks me ilukirjandust loeme, nii, teaduslikust seisukohast. ja kõik arvustused lubasid, et see on hea lihtne ja loetav raamat sel teemal. aga ei teagi, kas olen ilukirjandusega nii ära hellitatud või muidu mitte piisavalt nutikas... minu meelest ei olnud lihtne ja loetav. oli üks igavene akadeemiline rügamine. mis ma siis teada sain. et psühholoogias on olemas "theory of mind", kontseptsioon, et me mõistame teisi inimesi, sest me oskame ette kujutada, mida nad mõtlevad ja tunnevad. ja siis me loeme ilukirjandust, sest... me saame seal ka ette kujutada, mida väljamõeldud tegelased mõtlevad ja tunnevad ja plaanivad jne, ja siis end hästi tunda, kui see nii läkski, nagu me arvasime? midagi sellist. aga päris nii lihtne siiski ka ei olnud. vist. kuna teooria lendas mul veidi üle pea, siis nautisin raamatuts eelkõige neid osi, kus autor tsiteeris mingeid teisi kirjandusteoseid ja nende lõikude põhjal siis seletas, mida lugeja siin teab ja mida arvab ja mida ütles/mõtles uskus autor ja mida tegelane ja mida jutustaja (narrator) ja mida me sellest kõigest järeldada saame. see oli päriselt huvitav ja nt tekkis mul soov üle lugeda Nabokovi "Lolita", sest kahjuks eelmisel lugemisel mul vist jäi täitsa kahe silma vahele, et Humbert Humbert on ebausaldusväärne jutustaja. (enda vabanduseks võin öelda, et ma olin siis ise umbes Lolita-vanune.) aga lõppeks ma vist ikkagi ei saanud teada/aru, miks me ilukirjandust loeme.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    It's probably unfair for me to rate this so poorly; the fault is partly mine for not doing more research about the book prior to buying/reading it. Based on the title, however, I anticipated an overview for lay readers of the reasons people are drawn to fiction. The book is instead an account of Zunshine's "Theory of Mind" meant for academics and specialists in literary studies. It reads like a doctoral dissertation, with lots of references to other scholarly books/articles and all the requisite It's probably unfair for me to rate this so poorly; the fault is partly mine for not doing more research about the book prior to buying/reading it. Based on the title, however, I anticipated an overview for lay readers of the reasons people are drawn to fiction. The book is instead an account of Zunshine's "Theory of Mind" meant for academics and specialists in literary studies. It reads like a doctoral dissertation, with lots of references to other scholarly books/articles and all the requisite academic throat clearing ("In this chapter I propose to..."). "Why We Read Fiction" started out promising enough. The author discussed autistic people's trouble identifying referents and determining people's sincerity, which in turn causes them to dislike reading fiction due to the challenges this poses. Zunshine also touched on schizophrenics, who develop the ability to discern intent, sincerity, etc., but are able to distinguish whether the referent is internal or external. Unfortunately the book for me went downhill from there. The author's argument, which basically had to do with the pleasure readers obtain from trying to trace the narrator's or speaker's sincerity (i.e. reliability) and intent, seemed both obvious and overdetermined. She used as her examples "Beowulf," Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Nabokov, and detective novels, arguing that the ability to identify the narrator's true motives is a skill that only the most discerning readers possess. I think our minds are far more complex than Zunshine allows for, and we are much more adept at identifying intentionality, etc. The author spends a lot of time trying to prove how convincing Humbert Humbert is in "Lolita." Sure, he's at times a sympathetic figure (a testament to Nabokov's skills as a writer), but I don't think many people fail to grasp his true nature. Zunshine redeems herself a bit in her discussion of detective fiction, pointing out how the love story and detective story have trouble coexisting in the same text because they are, in a sense, competing mysteries, one distracting from the other. But even here I think Zunshine's efforts to situate detective novels within her cognitive theory are misguided because they force her to argue against those who claim detective novels only came about recently with the advent of modern detectives and forensic methods. She instead claims these stories were present in the Bible and in Greek drama. Sure, there were mysteries solved by individuals, but that doesn't make these individuals detectives. The detective novel is a modern invention, a way of describing a genre convention. It was a chore for me to get through this book, and I considered quitting it multiple times. Surely there must be more compelling studies out there of the reasons we are drawn to stories.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Michael Austin

    I purchased WHY WE READ FICTION after reading a number of strong books on evolutionary psychology written for non experts, including Dennett's CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED, Wright's THE MORAL ANIMAL, and Pinker's THE BLANK SLATE. After reading these works and finding myself fascinated by their insights and their explanatory powers, I was curious to see how evolutionary psychology might be applied to my own discipline of literary criticism. I was not disappointed. WHY WE READ FICTION is readable, well I purchased WHY WE READ FICTION after reading a number of strong books on evolutionary psychology written for non experts, including Dennett's CONSCIOUSNESS EXPLAINED, Wright's THE MORAL ANIMAL, and Pinker's THE BLANK SLATE. After reading these works and finding myself fascinated by their insights and their explanatory powers, I was curious to see how evolutionary psychology might be applied to my own discipline of literary criticism. I was not disappointed. WHY WE READ FICTION is readable, well conceived, and patiently executed, and it shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the cognitive perspective can be brought to bear on literature in extremely satisfying ways. Zunshine's major focus in the book is on the phenomenon that that psychologists (and many others) refer to as "Theory of Mind," the cognitive process by which we collect facts about another person, assign various labels and levels of reliability to those facts, and construct a narrative about that person's thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It is our theory of mind that allows us to make reasonable guesses about another person's intentions and future actions while, at the same time, understanding that the other person's perspective is different than our own. Most people exercise their theory of mind automatically without realizing that it is an extremely complicated process built into the human mind through hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection in environments where understanding other people's perspectives was vital to survival. It is not until we encounter people with difficulties forming a theory of mind--such as individuals with autism or Asperger's Syndrome--that we realize what a complicated cognitive process it really is. After introducing this concept, Zunshine theorizes that fiction of all kinds acts as a kind of exercise program for our Theory of Mind. Much as bodybuilders train their bodies by lifting heavy weights, readers can train their theory of mind by deciphering complicated texts. And to prove it, she uses her critical vocabulary to read and explicate dozens of literary texts, including sustained readings of Richardson's CLARISSA and Nabokov's LOLITA that must be considered interpretive masterpieces. As a practicing professor of English literature and an occasional author of literary criticism, I have been, for the last ten years or so, increasingly dissatisfied with the dominant critical paradigms available in my field. WHY WE READ FICTION has changed that and introduced me to an exciting new critical vocabulary that is rooted in contemporary scientific discovery and offers the potential for meaningful, sustained interaction between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Tucker

    Zunshine's idea of "metarepresentationality" is based on work by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. Metarepresentation is a cognitive activity by which we keep track of who said what. We keep track because often it's not just the information that matters, but the "source tag" of who gave us the information. To use Zunshine's example, the idea that "It is raining" is a mere fact, something that might be called an "architectural truth" insofar as we'll quickly forget who told us it was raining as we go Zunshine's idea of "metarepresentationality" is based on work by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. Metarepresentation is a cognitive activity by which we keep track of who said what. We keep track because often it's not just the information that matters, but the "source tag" of who gave us the information. To use Zunshine's example, the idea that "It is raining" is a mere fact, something that might be called an "architectural truth" insofar as we'll quickly forget who told us it was raining as we go about planning our day around this fact, but on the other hand if someone says "It is raining golden coins!" there are all sorts of reasons we will remember who made that comment. The concept of a "source tag" -- "Jane believes," "John desires," "Tina said that Jane believes that John desires that..." -- turns out to be important for our appreciation of fiction. Not only are some characters liars, but even some narrators are themselves unreliable. And of course, with fiction, the whole story is a kind of tall tale: none of these manipulative, deluded people exist! Yet reading fiction is widely considered pleasurable. We can have an emotional response to fiction even with the awareness that the events didn't really happen and that we may not be able to offer a clear analysis of all the characters' motivations. Zunshine shows how the level of interpretation needed to "mind-read" in fiction can't be much more complicated than the level of interpretation we use in our daily lives to understand and keep track of the people around us. The book makes creative use of many literary references to illustrate its points.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Katja

    I lost a lengthy review draft and now I can't be bothered to type it again. I will just say that this was an interesting way to tie the Theory of Mind together with literary analysis. There is not much that is new as it's intuitively clear that when we're reading we constantly interpret the characters' actions and motivations and sometimes we try to secondguess the author too, trying to figure out which narrators are reliable and which ones are throwing intentional red herrings in our way or bel I lost a lengthy review draft and now I can't be bothered to type it again. I will just say that this was an interesting way to tie the Theory of Mind together with literary analysis. There is not much that is new as it's intuitively clear that when we're reading we constantly interpret the characters' actions and motivations and sometimes we try to secondguess the author too, trying to figure out which narrators are reliable and which ones are throwing intentional red herrings in our way or believe things that aren't true. The characters are trying to analyze other people's motivations too, and sometimes they get it wrong. The author argues that fiction that requires a lot of interpretation about what the characters feel and what their body language and action signify, and what they think about things that other characters think about other characters that think and so on, may be considered more demanding and difficult reading but that it may also bring a level of literary satisfaction if the readers feel they've successfully untangled the plot. Some of it is rather dry reading. You would probably find this book more interesting if you're familiar with the literary examples the author uses and can cross reference with your own interpretations of the same passages, but I will confess that I have not read many of them and the ones I have read I may have only a hazy recollection of. Beowulf, Lolita and Clarissa, I never knew ye. I skipped the footnotes, of which there are many. Edit: I found the draft I thought I lost. Theory of Mind refers to a part of cognitive psychology that deals with the attributions we give to other people's behavior. We do not see the mind or the workings of their brain, we just see the effects, and we have a belief that their behavior and body language is the result of thoughts and motivations that they have. For instance, when someone waves their hand we may take it as a greeting. Fictional works, such as novels, depend quite a bit on the Theory of Mind of the reader, as authors describe actions and gestures of the characters without being explicit about the motivations, and the reader develops interpretations of what is going on and why the characters are doing whatever they're doing. Fiction can also be a way for immigrants to learn about the language and culture of their new country because it gives them a window to how people in that culture think that may be harder to get from superficial daily interaction. Zunshine discusses the possibility that fiction attracts readers because we find pleasure in the awareness of our ability to pretend, ie. we know that the characters aren't real but find ourselves able to imagine their world anyway. Humor depends largely on the ability to shift mental sets rapidly. If we can read fiction, understand the humor, make sense of the character's motivations and approximate what the author wanted us to think when they described their characters' behavior in a certain way we can feel pleased that we apparently have some functioning cognitive capacity. (I would hope this would be apparent in other ways too, but I guess we can never be too certain.) A lot of fiction does describe the thoughts of the characters pretty thoroughly, and this can be pleasing too because it gives us a window to the brain of other people that we don't have in our daily lives. In theater, we are usually somewhat more limited and have to make interpretations on the basis of what the characters say or do, although a narrator voice can be used to report things that are not apparent on stage. Some novels play with the theatrical approach intentionally. Theory of mind may also play a part in determining which literature we find more difficult. In cognitive experiments, vignettes that require more and more levels of attributions, eg. "A wants B to believe that C thinks that D wanted E to consider F's feelings about G" have higher error rates than series of events in which A leads to B that leads to C, D, E F, G and so on. Remember the scene from Princess Bride in which Vizzini tries to determine whether he should drink his own wine or Westley's wine because a clever man would put the poison in his own goblet because only a fool would drink the wine that he was given, but on the other hand a clever man would know that Vizzini was not a fool and would not drink the wine in front of him? We are used to series of events in novels an in real life but nesting thoughts are a different challenge, and fiction that requires more mind reading ability from the reader may be considered more threatening and difficult, but also more satisfying if we manage to untangle it. Teachers may help their students to understand certain books better if they point out the sort of mind games that the authors are playing with their readers. Another important concept is metarepresentation. Representation is the claim that is being made, and the meta part deals with who is claiming it. In other words, we must consider the source and realize that some sources and some types of representations are more reliable than others. If someone tells you that it's raining outside it's probable that they have no reason to lie to you but if they malign another colleague it's possible that they have a personal motive that makes them biased and you should check first, and if they tell you an obviously nonsensical story you might be able to discard the information straight away and have deep suspicions about the person who is the source. This metarepresentational skill lets us categorize information as trustworthy or more tentatively subject to revisions. You may have forgotten who was the first person to tell you that plants photosynthesize because it's been proven correct and become general knowledge by now but your episodic memory may remember who told you something strange that you are not sure you can trust. Metarepresentation is tied to the theory of mind in that it references beliefs and claims that are attributed to others and implies that other people may have internal mental reasons for having false beliefs or motivations to be intentionally misleading. We can also metarepresent our own thoughts and realize that some of our thoughts are varying degrees of factual. Elizabeth Bennet's change of opinion about Mr. Darcy can be partly conceptualized as a metarepresentation. She had beliefs about dastardly Darcy that she had received from Mr. Wickham's narrative but eventually she realized that Wickham was not a reliable source and had to readjust her internal representations of Mr. Darcy accordingly. In fictional accounts, the reader may experience uncertainty about the character's point of view if they represent their suppositions, fears and wishes as facts. We may get a window to their thoughts, but are those thoughts an accurate description of what's really going on? Did the kid who saw mommy kissing Santa Claus dad grasp the whole picture? Is a comment meant to be sarcastic or ironic? Any narrator may be unreliable, in detective novels some people are purposefully lying to distract, and the author may insert red herrings to mislead. The reader is trying to second guess both the characters and the author's motivations. There is some discussion about the truth value of fiction. Robinson Crusoe was introduced as a true story and apparently this caused a bit of a furor because it turned out to be fictional, despite containing some nuggets of factual information. Every novel is a metarepresentation attributed to its author, but eventually what the readers store in their minds is their own interpretation of the story and what it means. If a book makes you cry it certainly feels very real. It is noted that the history and development of science may change what is viewed as a fact and what is viewed as a myth, a metarepresentation that some people once believed. Historians and other scientists may want you to accept their statements as fact but it might turn out they were mistaken, presented biased propaganda or believed fictional accounts. I am somewhat familiar with both literary analysis and cognitive psychology and perhaps there was not much here that was totally new and surprising to me (it is intuitively clear that we interpret the actions and thoughts of both real people and fictional characters and that there is a risk of getting things wrong). Nevertheless it was interesting to read an interdisciplinary analysis from this perspective that sets those intuitive thoughts out. I have dabbled with some fictional writing and it can be quite difficult to determine if the hints I'm giving translate to the reader the way I've intended. Some passages are rather dry reading: "Evolved cognitive predispositions, to borrow Patrick Colm Hogan's characterization of literary universals, "are instantiated variously, particularized in specific circumstances."4 Everything that we learn about Woolf's life and about the literary, cultural, and sociohistorical contexts of Mrs. Dalloway is thus potentially crucial for understanding why this particular woman, at this particular historical juncture, seeing herself as working both within and against a particular set of literary traditions, began to push beyond the boundaries of her readers" cognitive "zone of comfort" (that is, beyond the fourth level of intentionality).") At the same time, to paraphrase David Herman, the particular combination of these personal, literary, and historical contexts, in all their untold complexity, is a "necessary though not a sufficient condition"5 for understanding why Woolf wrote the way she did. No matter how much we learn about the writer herself and her multiple environments, and no matter how much we find out about the cognitive endowments of our species that, "particularized in specific circumstances," make fictional narratives possible, we can go only so far in our cause-and-effect analysis. As George Butte puts it, "[A]ccounts of material circumstances can describe changes in gender systems and economic privileges, but they cannot explain why this bankrupt merchant wrote Moll Flanders and why this genteelly impoverished clergyman's daughter wrote Jane Eyre." 6 There will always remain a gap between our ever-increasing store of knowledge and the phenomenon of Woolf's prose-- or, for that matter, Defoe's, Austen's, Bronte's, and Hemingway's prose.7." That is an awful lot of words to say that learning about an author's personal history and the society and literature that they were influenced by may help us understand their art somewhat better but it won't tell us why they chose to write the exact book they wrote the exact way they wrote it. This book would no doubt have been more interesting if I had read all the books used in the examples recently and had my own thought processes and interpretations to compare to those of Lisa Zunshine. She writes a lot about Virginia Woolf, for instance, and I must confess that while I was required to read Woolf back in the day my recollection of her books is extremely hazy now. And well, if you take a look at my reviews here it may be apparent that I have not read Beowulf and I probably won't. I skipped the footnotes, of which there are many. This is not a new book, it's from 2006, I found it because it was free for Kindle

  12. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    The first part is the most interesting and was everything that had I hoped for and more when picking up this book. It blew my mind open with new ideas about the limits and possibilities of fiction while reading about it through this new lens. The second part delves deeply into two novels - Clarissa and Lolita - and gets really specific. It's clear while reading that section that this book was likely spawned from a Ph.D. dissertation. That section may only hold a real interest to other English li The first part is the most interesting and was everything that had I hoped for and more when picking up this book. It blew my mind open with new ideas about the limits and possibilities of fiction while reading about it through this new lens. The second part delves deeply into two novels - Clarissa and Lolita - and gets really specific. It's clear while reading that section that this book was likely spawned from a Ph.D. dissertation. That section may only hold a real interest to other English literature academics (although, it did make me want to finally read Lolita, and helped me decide to never read Clarissa). The third section is a bit of a let-down; it answers the question finally "Why (do) We Read Fiction" with just the only answer that can 100% be defended, which is "one reason is it engages our Theory of Mind capabilities". There's a whole piece delving into the genres of detective fiction and romance that planted seeds of ideas and the start of a few questions in my mind but never paid out on any of them. Although at a few points the author states things like "reading doesn't make you better at reading minds" there are several things in this last part that make me think she DOES think reading has some sort of prescriptive value but just can't figure out what it is, or maybe more accurately, she has some ideas but none are Ph.D. defensible so she can't state them outright. As a layperson, I still want to know what those nascent ideas are. I'm going to look into more literature and criticism from this cognitive point of view because this was fascinating.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Christie

    Intellectually engrossing and potentially invigorating for readers and critics 📍 Theory of the mind is an interesting conceptual framework for fictional narratives based on cognitive evolutionary approach. Lisa Zunshine made a point-by-point examination and clarification to enlighten and encourage readers to read fiction with cognitive lens. The concept that as readers of fiction, we have been using a cluster of cognitive adaptations to understand and appreciate the underlying truths and lies su Intellectually engrossing and potentially invigorating for readers and critics 📍 Theory of the mind is an interesting conceptual framework for fictional narratives based on cognitive evolutionary approach. Lisa Zunshine made a point-by-point examination and clarification to enlighten and encourage readers to read fiction with cognitive lens. The concept that as readers of fiction, we have been using a cluster of cognitive adaptations to understand and appreciate the underlying truths and lies surrounding that world, though has been a topic of research for quite some time, is also proving to be a challenging area to impress upon these varied readers. I am fascinated with Zunshine's extensive analysis of Clarissa, Lolita, and Mrs. Dalloway---classics that I so meaning to read but no 'stimulating' reasons to pass the roadblocks common to even Literature students or teachers. Her arguments regarding Steven Pinker's Blank Slate and Virginia Woolf's modernist works, or Sayer's Detective Novels and its feminist agenda among others are topics in dire need for extended studies and conversations. This is an intellectual collision of different minds tackling a world caught between fantasy and reality, with make-believe characters embodying real-life emotions, attitudes and perceptions. I hope to break my so-called "fourth" wall (or as Zunshine puts it, zone of comfort) and to push my limits beyond the experience of living in a fictional world.

  14. 4 out of 5

    anonymousreader

    to-read

  15. 4 out of 5

    _hzw

    其实觉得没怎么读懂的。我的理解是,作者认为ToM让我们在阅读过程中体验到愉悦,所以才喜欢读小说;而ToM能力弱的人因为体会不到这种感觉自然不会喜欢读。简单说就是读小说爽,所以爱读。无异于废话…最后一部分讨论推理小说倒是很有趣。

  16. 5 out of 5

    Frank Lindemann

    I loved this book. It made me think about many "classics" of fiction in a new way. It also gave, for me, a really new take on the value of fiction. I loved this book. It made me think about many "classics" of fiction in a new way. It also gave, for me, a really new take on the value of fiction.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Clivemichael

    Fascinating exploration, erudite and well referenced, enlightening and occasionally amusing.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ed Barton

    Academic and Dry Theory of mind is the act of entry into the mind and unstated feelings of fiction characters. A tough, somewhat dull read with some interesting elements.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Private Account

    -Fun, interesting, easy read -Well-explained But I don't think she's entirely right. On the right track. She started with the wrong question. It begins, not with why we read fiction, but why we write fiction. No one can read what is not written. If we are talking about the evolution the human mind and of literature, shouldn't it begin with the writer and not the reader? It doesn't begin with, "Why do I watch people dancing?" It begins with: "Why are those people dancing?" Not, "Why do I look at pai -Fun, interesting, easy read -Well-explained But I don't think she's entirely right. On the right track. She started with the wrong question. It begins, not with why we read fiction, but why we write fiction. No one can read what is not written. If we are talking about the evolution the human mind and of literature, shouldn't it begin with the writer and not the reader? It doesn't begin with, "Why do I watch people dancing?" It begins with: "Why are those people dancing?" Not, "Why do I look at paintings?" but, "Why did he paint?" If we begin with why someone would be motivated to write a fictional story, we end up with a variety of psychological motivations, only one of which may be exploring theory of mind. When compared to Ayn Rand's "concretizing of abstract ideas" presented in her book The Romantic Manifesto, this book only gets 1 star. Concretizing of abstract ideas is what we attempt to do in any art. Much easier to contemplate an abstract idea if you can perceive it in reality. Then it follows--why do we enjoy contemplating the abstract ideas of others? Lisa's answer, "Because it works out our brain," is so lame!!!! Working out IS enjoyable (ish) but we rarely do it for the sake of it. We work out because we have a problem to solve or a goal to meet. I read fiction very rarely, but if I do it is to gain insight into certain types of situations or people, or to escape from my own life for a little while into a world or life that I prefer. Of course her argument gets more interesting after you consider what she means by "working out our brains." For Objectivists out there, she is saying, "We read fiction because it makes us better at social metaphysics." Which fascinates me because for the most part I can't stand fiction. So curious to know if other Objectivist or Libertarian leaning people are mostly non-fiction folk as well? (Or if they read fiction for better worlds as opposed to social metaphysical reasons?) What does my dislike of fiction mean about my theory of mind? Is it because I am totally uninterested in controlling other people? In misrepresentation? In lying? Are those who read fiction interested in controlling other people and manipulating? Or are they just trying to understand people? I guess it really depends on why the person reads it. As I said above, Lisa thinks there is only the one reason. I think there are many. I think of Lisa's analysis of detective novels and how I have zero desire to "play with the idea that everyone may be lying." What a waste of my time! Liars make everything harder and more complicated than necessary. People who find it fun to think about liars must be people who think lying is a necessary part of the human game and they have to get good it, right? Anyway, SUPER INTERESTING STUFF TO THINK ABOUT even if I don't agree :)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Shinynickel

    This book kicks ass. It's a little bit wandering, but the idea is so interesting that I'm willing to trail around after the author in order to see it applied to various novels and literary techniques. Central to this book is the idea of 'theory of mind', the ability each of us has to step into another's shoes and imagine the world from their point of view. Children under five, and people who are autistic, often have trouble with or lack entirely a theory of mind - one of the primary tests for it This book kicks ass. It's a little bit wandering, but the idea is so interesting that I'm willing to trail around after the author in order to see it applied to various novels and literary techniques. Central to this book is the idea of 'theory of mind', the ability each of us has to step into another's shoes and imagine the world from their point of view. Children under five, and people who are autistic, often have trouble with or lack entirely a theory of mind - one of the primary tests for it is (cribbed from Wikipedia): The child is shown two dolls, Sally and Anne, playing with a marble. The dolls put away the marble in a box, and then Sally leaves. Anne takes the marble out and plays with it again, and after she is done, puts it away in a different box. Sally returns and the child is then asked where Sally will look for the marble. The child passes the task if she answers that Sally will look in the first box where she put the marble; the child fails the task if she answers that Sally will look in the second box, where the child knows the marble is hidden, even though Sally cannot know, since she did not see it hidden there. It is, quite literally, an ability to imagine the constraints and strenghts of another mind. And Zunshine's theory is that part of the reason why novels appeal so deeply to us is that they titilate our theory of mind - all those characters, with their own minds, trying to understand each other. It is possible to get layer upon layer of theories of mind in novels - not just the reader imagining the world from a character's point of view, but instead imagining the character imagining another character imagining another character's view of the world. She talks about Nabokov and unreliable narrators, about mystery novels, about Dostoyevski and Austen. It's a solid book - enough new concepts and terms that it's a solid, useful read, but not so many that the thing's opaque to all but English PhDs.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Katia M. Davis

    I found this book to be less about WHY we read fiction than HOW to read fiction in the author's opinion. Books and opinions such as those represented in this book were the reason I dropped English Literature in my second year at university. I could not stand to be told what to think about a book, poem or passage. I found this book very pompous, as if the author was standing atop her soap box. The first person declarations really got on my nerves. It read like a PhD dissertation that had been ada I found this book to be less about WHY we read fiction than HOW to read fiction in the author's opinion. Books and opinions such as those represented in this book were the reason I dropped English Literature in my second year at university. I could not stand to be told what to think about a book, poem or passage. I found this book very pompous, as if the author was standing atop her soap box. The first person declarations really got on my nerves. It read like a PhD dissertation that had been adapted for the general public by throwing in multitudes of bracketed phrases to 'translate' her heady words. Sections relating to autism made me angry because it assumed that an autistic brain was a primitive brain, incapable of emotion or understanding and thus could be used as good counterbalance for Theory of Mind. Not that I am an expert, but clearly the author does not know much about the autism spectrum and I was surprised she wrote this book in 2006 and not 1880. If my e-reader was not expensive, I would have thrown it out a window. I did finish the book, however my reading of it reminded me of the Simpsons episode where Bart was trying to train Santa's Little Helper..."blah blah, blah blah blah". Personally, I read fiction for the simple purpose of escapism, and I imagine so does most of the rest of the world. No stars.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Caleb Ross

    As Zunshine summarizes at the end of WHY WE READ FICTION, we read fiction because “fiction helps us to pattern in newly nuanced ways our emotions and perceptions; it bestows ‘new knowledge or increased understanding’ and gives ‘the chance for a sharpened ethical sense’; and it creates new forms of meaning for our everyday existence” (164). And while the book explores this theory in depth, it never broadens the argument beyond this simple idea. Readers without a very specific bookshelf may feel le As Zunshine summarizes at the end of WHY WE READ FICTION, we read fiction because “fiction helps us to pattern in newly nuanced ways our emotions and perceptions; it bestows ‘new knowledge or increased understanding’ and gives ‘the chance for a sharpened ethical sense’; and it creates new forms of meaning for our everyday existence” (164). And while the book explores this theory in depth, it never broadens the argument beyond this simple idea. Readers without a very specific bookshelf may feel left out for much of the book. Zunshine harps on examples for her theory, ranging from Richardson’s Clarissa, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Woolf’s Mrs. Dallowy, and Nabokov’s Lolita to such extent that unfamiliarity with these texts can distance a reader. Hence, a lot of skimming. But on the bright side, as stated above, Zunshine never broadens her argument beyond a couple key points (Theory of Mind and metarepresentational capacity), so if a reader can grasp even a single example from Zunshine’s referent texts, then chances are he can fake the rest. WHY WE READ FICTION is definite must for literary theory nerds (such as myself), a probable read for psychology buffs, and an easy pass for all others.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Hilary

    Well, here's Zunshine's twofold main point--I haven't met her met her; just seen her from across a room full of other academics talking about narrative pedagogy, so I can't call her Lisa: 1) when we read fiction, we mind read. In the sense that when we're not always given access to a character's thoughts (just his behavior, say, or thoughts separated by a narrator), we still read as though they're real people with real minds. 2) metarepresentation (I believe that you said you wanted X when reall Well, here's Zunshine's twofold main point--I haven't met her met her; just seen her from across a room full of other academics talking about narrative pedagogy, so I can't call her Lisa: 1) when we read fiction, we mind read. In the sense that when we're not always given access to a character's thoughts (just his behavior, say, or thoughts separated by a narrator), we still read as though they're real people with real minds. 2) metarepresentation (I believe that you said you wanted X when really you wanted Y, or "he said that she wanted the other girl to think X) happens in both real life and fiction, and the degree to which we can keep all that straight has a) increased with print culture; b) makes some novels more complex; c) makes us work harder. Interesting, and I buy it (she also brings up some stuff about autism and schizophrenia which sounds neat), and I liked reading about her analysis of texts and the cognitive psychology stuff, too. I just don't know where she can go from here. Which is ok. And again with the detective fiction!

  24. 5 out of 5

    C Morland

    An engaging, thought-provoking book divided into well-marked chunks suitable for either binge-reading or leisurely digestion. I enjoyed the three main sections (on theory of mind, metarepresentation, and detective novels) as well as the literary examples the author picked. My only big disappointment was in the truncated conclusion, which felt like it should have been of equal length to the other sections instead of being only 5 pages long. As this short conclusion covered the Why We Read Fiction An engaging, thought-provoking book divided into well-marked chunks suitable for either binge-reading or leisurely digestion. I enjoyed the three main sections (on theory of mind, metarepresentation, and detective novels) as well as the literary examples the author picked. My only big disappointment was in the truncated conclusion, which felt like it should have been of equal length to the other sections instead of being only 5 pages long. As this short conclusion covered the Why We Read Fiction aspect most explicitly, the book's subtitle (Theory of Mind and the Novel) would make a more accurate title. Highly recommended nonetheless!

  25. 5 out of 5

    Molly Lingenfelter

    I enjoyed reading this (not a comment I make too often about literary criticism) although I stopped and started it on and off for months. She offers some interesting comments on reader response theory and writers in her final chapter, claiming that "The novel, then, is truly a meeting of the minds--of the particularly inclined minds in a particular historical moment that has made the encounter serendipitously possible." Good illustrating examples throughout and thought-provoking. I enjoyed reading this (not a comment I make too often about literary criticism) although I stopped and started it on and off for months. She offers some interesting comments on reader response theory and writers in her final chapter, claiming that "The novel, then, is truly a meeting of the minds--of the particularly inclined minds in a particular historical moment that has made the encounter serendipitously possible." Good illustrating examples throughout and thought-provoking.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    Helped me understand why I find detective stories so frustrating and annoying. Also why they seldom stick with me in any meaningful way, with one exception, "Murder on the Orient Express", because the author takes into the territory this author describes - what the reader thinks about what the protagonists are thinking, their motivations, feelings, lies, etc. Helped me understand why I find detective stories so frustrating and annoying. Also why they seldom stick with me in any meaningful way, with one exception, "Murder on the Orient Express", because the author takes into the territory this author describes - what the reader thinks about what the protagonists are thinking, their motivations, feelings, lies, etc.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Craig McConnell

    I enjoyed this, though I'd have to say that it's more the case that I enjoy watching the milage Zunshine gets out of looking at literature through cognitive studies lenses than that I think the approach is as universally enlightening as she supposes. I enjoyed this, though I'd have to say that it's more the case that I enjoy watching the milage Zunshine gets out of looking at literature through cognitive studies lenses than that I think the approach is as universally enlightening as she supposes.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nadyne

    Interesting read... Gives some insights that can be useful when reading fiction.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Payal Banik

    I definitely want to read this book to know why I read so much fiction rather than some autobiographies....

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lynn Weber

    Not for the casual reader, but really interesting if you're into literary crit/theory. Not for the casual reader, but really interesting if you're into literary crit/theory.

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