An examination of literary invention through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, showing how writers created technical breakthroughs as sophisticated and significant as any in science, and in the process, engineered enhancements to the human heart and mind.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
As Fletcher tells us, asking and answering such queries is not why writers write or readers read. Literature isn’t an argument; rather, it’s a technology designed to improve our lives. Literature generates sensations that readers need to experience, things like love, courage, empathy, and serenity. Literature can help us overcome stress, connect with our fellow humans, and find joy ... In short, we read in order to grow into our best selves. Literature can help us do all this through its verifiable impacts on the brain. Its success hinges on how well an author utilizes various techniques — or 'inventions,' in Fletcher’s language — that cause specific neurological effects: stimulating the amygdala, reducing activity in the parietal lobe, and releasing dopamine, oxytocin, and cortisol ... Fortunately, Fletcher wears his mastery lightly. His writing is never heavy or even a little academic. He introduces his authors with breezy, often witty biographies that establish their historical context and the human need addressed in their work. It’s not surprising that someone so steeped in narrative studies can tell a good story; this volume is both an original history of literature and a page-turner full of fascinating portraits and eye-catching details ... While Angus Fletcher seems, at times, to have his heart set on an anti-intellectual history of literature, he has nonetheless produced a massive re-reading — and admirable expansion — of the Western canon. To top it off, that re-reading is itself readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, practical. Wonderworks is a fascinating book aimed at people who love to read, whatever they think of literature.
The table of contents alone inspires a certain kind of wonder, bordering on incredulity ... contains many instances of critical insight and neat close-reading, often concealed beneath the cumbersome scaffold of its method. But there were also times when my word-loving heart started to shrivel and die...The facility with which he dispatches text after text sometimes reveals his critical chops, plus a persistent, easy glibness ... What’s most interesting about this compendium is its understanding of imaginative representation as a technology. What’s most troubling is its emphasis on the notion of mastery. Reading can be practiced, he says; practice begets perfection. The problem becomes clearest when the author discusses writers of color ... nuances get left by the wayside on Fletcher’s path to mastery.