Why We Read Fiction, a review


I’ve been on a brain kick lately, soaking up books about neurology, neuropsychology, brains and learning, brains and fiction, point-of-view in fiction, fiction and lying … great stuff.

I just finished this dandy volume by Lisa Zunshine, whose name may or may not properly be capitalized. (Hey, I don’t judge. I just notice some people don’t. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel is readable, makes a lot of sense, and in Kindle ebook format it is FREE. Writers, go get it.

This book helped greatly as I struggle with a new series I’m writing, particularly her chapter “Metarepresentationality and the Detective Story,” section d, “Alone Again, Naturally.” Here’s a taste of one of the bits I highlighted from that section:

…the kind of mind-reading expected from the reader of the detective novel is indeed not particularly compatible with the kind of mind-reading expected from the reader of the story focusing on a romantic relationship.

Then she explains all that. Since it’s freakin’ free to read in Kindle, just go get it. There are many other juicy bits which I will spare you because copyright.

I found this book when Jennifer Barnes of Oklahoma University mentioned Zunshine as one of her sources. Zunshine references many of Barnes’ other favorite sources, including Steven Pinker, so I felt I had stumbled into a club full of cool smart people all talking about my world. (You’ll remember Barnes as the inventor of the Id List. She should have a book coming out one of these days. Jen, no rush or anything, but when?)

Zunshine’s Theory of Mind is founded on an assumption that we tag information as it comes to us: a weak tag is for information that seems self-evident, or that we’ve heard often enough before that we don’t question it; a strong tag is for information we question, or whose source we question. When we read fiction, we tag the whole opus with the author’s name (bless her, she thinks readers notice the author’s name!) and then we lie back and think of England. My short version.

That’s just the beginning when it comes to fiction. Particularly in a novel, where there’s room for any number of characters, each with a viewpoint that is implied, imputed by other characters, or baldly exposed through the author’s invasion of their head, a single sentence can contain three, four, or even more layers of metarepresentation. (Don’t panic. That’s probably the biggest technical term in the book, and it starts making sense pretty quickly.)

Years ago I attended a presentation at Readercon by John Crowley about point of view. He illustrated this sort of thing, using a chalkboard thank ghu: how the author hides behind a character who lies to another character about what a third character thinks of them, or said about them to yet a fourth character, and what that fourth character said back, but also really what character 4 thought of character 3 and character 2, and what they said to character 1 after the fact. He also spoke of how the viewpoint character is embedded in a narrator’s viewpoint, who is embedded in an authorial voice, which is some sort of viewpoint-related mask or assumed identity belonging to the author. My head hurt for days, and I kind of wished I’d had a video of that presentation.

This book lays it out in a way I understand.

Some authors wallow in these head games. Zunshine illustrates with an example from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Some wallow in unreliable narrators; she illustrates with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (did you know that book is 1500 pages long, and entirely epistolary?) and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The reader protocols of whole genres are founded on the efforts of readers to read the minds of characters who try to read one another’s minds. As I mention above, Zunshine gives a terrific chapter on the difference between detective fiction mind-reading protocols and the mind-reading protocols in genre romance. Spoiler: she spends more time on the detective fiction than on the romance, primarily I think because the detective fiction author is deliberately messing with the reader’s head, with the reader’s joyful connivance, by misleading the reader’s mind-reading of the characters’ mind-reading ….  This focus on detective fiction is not, apparently, out of a prejudice against romance, halleluia. I’d love to see Zunshine address mind-reading in romance fiction head-on sometime.

Zunshine speaks directly to concerns of the author in her creative mode, which I found delightful. I didn’t have to translate back a layer from her ideas about the text in order to make her ideas useful to me, and she seems to be clear on the notion that fiction is written by someone. Not all literary academics get that.

I seem to be burbling.

This book makes a ton of sense. Give it a shot. I bought my copy in print so I could highlight it and scribble in the margins.

Why We Read Fiction by Lisa Zunshine, The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 2006.

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