The Frontal Cortex

Razib has some thought-provoking, if incorrect, speculations on literature, literary audiences and modernity:

Here’s the argument: contemporary mainstream fiction is very different from the storytelling of the deep past because of a demand side shift. Women consume most fiction today, and their tastes differ, on average, from those of men. How do they differ? To be short about it men are into plot, while women are into character. This means that modern literary fiction emphasizes psychological complexity, subtly and finesse. In contrast, male-oriented action adventure or science fiction exhibits a tendency toward flat monochromatic characters and a reliance on interesting events and twists. Over my lifetime I’ve read a fair amount; but the vast majority of the fiction has been science fiction & fantasy. Many males outgrow this bias, perhaps as they become more psychologically complex and nuanced, but I haven’t (though I don’t read much fiction in general at this point). I know many other males who are similar; we aren’t dumb, and not all of us have Asperger’s. We just aren’t interested into characterization or character. We are people of exotic ideas, novelty of story arc and exploration of startling landscapes. Contemporary mainstream fiction, high, middlebrow and low, does not usually satisfy these needs.


Why does any of this matter? For one, I think that it is somewhat peculiar that many of us find fiction from the past more engaging than popular contemporary works. Aupelius’ Golden Ass gets my attention; most contemporary fiction does not. I am arguing here that this is partly due to the fact that in the past those who read copiously were, on average, much more like me than they were like the typical human. Not only were readers by and large men (usually of some means and comfort), but they were often also disproportionately eggheads who were eccentric by their nature. How many elite scholars were there such as Claudius who were not attracted to the public life of politics and do not appear in the annals of history? With the printing press, cheaper paper, and the rise of mass literacy, things changed, the distribution of taste shifted. And so did the distribution of genres.

Obviously, his theories about the differences between male and female readers are gross oversimplifications. In fact, they are so oversimplified as to be utterly meaningless. Philip Roth is most certainly a male, writing testosterone-laden fiction, and yet his work is defined by its characters. (Quick: summarize the plot of “Portnoy’s Complaint”…)

But I do think Razib is mostly right to characterize modern literary fiction as more “psychologically complex” than, say, Virgil, Ovid and most ancient literature, with its emphasis on plot and memorable dramatic arcs. On the other hand, this generalization requires some lofty exceptions, so that Shakespeare, Cervantes, Euripedes, etc. are all classified as moderns.

And I’d also quibble with his theory of changes in demand driving a shift in literary content. His argument is that the female reading masses have propelled literature inwards, so that it’s more interested in the mind than in, say, Martians and picaresque adventures set in space. (I happen to think that’s a very good thing…But then I’ve never enjoyed science fiction, since most of the stuff I’ve read is bad science and even worse fiction. The only notable exception I can think of is Philip K. Dick.) Anyways, I think Razib’s theory overlooks the fact that modernist literature – the first movement dedicated to “psychological complexity” – was an incredibly elite movement, with virtually no popular appeal. That’s why Virginia Woolf needed her own printing press. Gertrude Stein’s first novel sold 73 copies. Proust had to pay to get the first volumes of In Search of Lost Time printed. Joyce had a certain cult status, but that was largely because he was lewd enough to get banned. So I think it’s wrong to blame the womanly masses for this movement away from manly plot.

So why did novelists begin exploring the interiors of the mind? I’d argue that the modernist experiments were largely a response to the success of modern science. By the start of the 20th century, you had scientists coming up with lucid and successful descriptions of the material world. Reality was being broken apart into its elemental parts. I think artists responded to this empirical assault by trying to carve out their own cultural space. If science dealt with the material world, then perhaps art dealt with the psychological side? As Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield, “Only thoughts and feelings…no cups and tables.” Or as she famously wrote in her essay “Modern Fiction,” “They [the eminent novelists of the time, like H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett] have looked at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at life, never at human nature.” In other words, Woolf wasn’t interested in human nature because she wanted to sell lots of books to female readers. (Woolf was a tremendous snob, as her diary makes clear.) Rather, she was interested in human nature because she thought that the purpose of literature was to reveal the reality of the mind.


  1. #1 Jed Harris
    May 2, 2008

    You and Razib are talking past each other in at least one important respect. You use examples of Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf to show that author intentions don’t necessarily fit Razib’s model. But Razib is talking about the cultural response, not authorial intent, so Roth’s testosterone doesn’t conflict with his point, as long as Roth’s output is character driven. (I’m not necessarily agreeing with Razib, just noting that you aren’t connecting.)

    One related element of this schema that you and Razib both sidestep is preference for sophisticated language (where Joyce is an extreme example).

    I agree with you that the market for fiction is not the primary causal driver. There are normative aesthetic judgements (like your “worse fiction”), cultural status (being able to demonstrate that I’m more literary than thou), etc. However I am inclined to see these all having roots in social facts — who has time to read, who’s considered an authority on what is “good” literature, etc.

    In fact the market for science fiction and detective fiction is much better than the market for “good” literature, so a simple market driven analysis would fail for that reason as well.

    Your point about artists trying to define their own niche in response to the “empirical assault” is interesting, especially because you take it for granted that science was experienced as an assault! Why should that be? Other writers (often science fiction, but not exclusively) took the results of science as making the world more interesting and richer. Science and math even show up in poetry. Why does the “normative” modernist writer see it as an assault, or at least as something that can be ignored with no loss?

    This topic must be addressed in the critical literature, I’d be very interested in references to that.

  2. #2 agnostic
    May 2, 2008

    In the comments to that post, I cite a meta-analysis on sex diffs in personality traits, referring to those in the trait Openness to Experience. There is no sex diff in the sub-factor Openness to Fantasy, so males are females are equally fond of using their imagination. However, males score higher on sub-factor Openness to Ideas and females on the sub-factor Openness to Feelings.

    There is therefore a solid empirical basis for suggesting that males will be more interested in applying their imagination to exploring ideas (life on Mars, the death penalty, the nature of the gods and man, etc.), and females to exploring the world of feelings.

    Cite is McCrae, Costa, & Terraciano (2001). (pubmed it)

  3. #3 Luna_the_cat
    May 2, 2008

    Yeah, women are all about interpersonal relationships, and men are generally better at math. We’ve heard it all before. Color me just WILDLY unimpressed.

    The other group I tend to hang out with and around is authors, who also tend to be avid readers. The “men are about ideas, women about interpersonal interaction and feelings” bs has also been thoroughly trashed within the writerly community, on a number of occasions, not least because of interactions with our old friend Vox Day. It is not only a shallow oversimplification, it’s another one of those stereotypes which, on examination, turns up so many exceptions as to become utterly meaningless in very short order. It does no-one any favours to perpetuate myths.

    And that’s not even STARTING on the myths that science fiction is primarily for males, that it isn’t about interpersonal relationships, or that it is something that one “outgrows” “as they become more psychologically complex and nuanced”.

    Razib is an idiot. That’s not meant to be an argument or refutation of anything, it’s just a personal opinion.

  4. #4 Luna_the_cat
    May 2, 2008

    Ah, forgot to mention: the stereotypes about SF were true a few decades ago. The genre *does* change.

  5. #5 agnostic
    May 2, 2008

    Color me just WILDLY unimpressed.

    No one’s here to impress you — just to correct your ignorance.

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    May 2, 2008

    Razib is an idiot.

    Razib seems to be enamored of apologetics for the misogynist, racist, imperialist status quo.

  7. #7 Michael Woods
    May 3, 2008

    Its very difficult to pin down the reasons for any shift in things like tastes and demand and creative output. Everything depends on so many cultural and historical factors, and happens over such a long time that we can only really speculate. I find it interesting, however, to think how the particular paradigm of knowledge acquisition is related to cultural movements.

    I am a male (last time I checked, at least) and I love fantasy novels. I am also a psychologist, and therefore get a great deal from observations and descriptions of characters and interactions and their ‘feelings’. I love fantasy with an explicit philosophical bent, and the fact that it often has a rollicking good storyline is a nice little escapist benefit.

  8. #8 razib
    May 3, 2008

    Razib seems to be enamored of apologetics for the misogynist, racist, imperialist status quo.

    LOL. color me white physio, blackamoor that you are….

  9. #9 razib
    May 3, 2008

    But then I’ve never enjoyed science fiction, since most of the stuff I’ve read is bad science and even worse fiction. The only notable exception I can think of is Philip K. Dick

    dick is good fiction, but not hard science. if you want hard science, go with hal clement. but don’t expect good fiction from that….

  10. #10 razib
    May 3, 2008

    Obviously, his theories about the differences between male and female readers are gross oversimplifications.

    more precisely, they’re generalizations. e(x). your var(x) may vary….

  11. #11 Robert Niblick
    May 3, 2008

    Razibian litcrit. The end is near. Well, GNXP and English academic circles are similar in many involutional ways…

  12. #12 PhysioProf
    May 3, 2008

    LOL. color me white physio, blackamoor that you are….

    As I am sure you know, your skin color and my skin color have fuck all to do with whether you are an apologist, and whether you are unduly focused on identifying essentialist explanations for variations in human behavior.

  13. #13 Luna_the_cat
    May 3, 2008

    agnostic — in order for anyone here to correct my ignorance, they would have to be less ignorant than I am regarding literature and SF. So far, I haven’t seen that — not in this. Even more certainly not from you, or Razib. I mean, for a start, you would surely have to be familiar with the people, the field, and the criticisms, just as basics. On the contrary, though, these are hashed over and discredited stereotypes dragged out by you as some sort of profound discovery, like people in the field haven’t had far more interesting discussions about it several million times already. Jumping jesus christ on a pogo stick. It’s not quite as bad as watching creationists criticise genetics, just almost.

    Do you even know why Ted Beale was an issue relevant to Razib’s stupidity here?

  14. #14 Jonah
    May 3, 2008

    I appreciate the disagreement here, but let’s try to keep it civil. Razib’s post was clearly a very tentative hypothesis – I happen to disagree with it but, as he makes clear at the end of the post, he was looking for constructive criticism. So let’s stay polite and constructive. Thanks.

  15. #15 Luna_the_cat
    May 3, 2008

    Hm, rebuke accepted. I just get very, very sick of Razib’s casual (and quite possibly mostly subconscious) sexism.

    That, and…seriously, you know how biologists get after about the 6-millionth time they try to explain that yes, mutations DO “create information” to creationists? A wee bit cranky, maybe? Well, that kind of thing happens to SF authors on the “it’s by men, for men, and it’s not about people interactions” issue, too. And there have been so many good discussions of these stereotypes over so many years; at just about every Worldcon, when the authors and fans get together, and places on the web like Making Light….I guess my first reaction to seeing this was banging my head off my desk and screaming, “Oh, not AGAIN! — And it’s not even very well DONE!”. So, I got snarky about it. Sorry.

  16. #16 PhysioProf
    May 3, 2008

    Razib’s post was clearly a very tentative hypothesis

    Why should apologists’ “tentative hypotheses” be given even the slightest deference when they have been debunked over and over and over again by people who have done the hard work of genuine research and analysis? Pulling a huge load of bullshit our of your ass and then labeling it “tentative” is a disingenuous rhetorical tactic, and should be called out for exactly what it is.

    Luna_the_cat owes apologies to no one.

    Coincidentally, I just posted today on this exact issue, albeit in a slightly different context:

  17. #17 BikeMonkey
    May 3, 2008

    So would Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant and the GAP series be works that appealed mostly to men or women?

  18. #18 Celeritas
    May 3, 2008

    Agnostic’s hit this blog as well.

    Agnostic, as a female, sci-fi reader with no real interest in character development in litrature if I read any fiction at all who also does maths and physics, fuck you and your misogyny. Shove those stereotypes of gender up your arse. Razib was putting forward a tentative hypothesis of an essay, largely one that is overly simplified and without any stats to back it up.

  19. #19 pablo contursi
    May 3, 2008

    To say that science fiction is mainly “male” literature is wrong, or at least is not exactly correct. There are too many examples of female writers doing good (even superb) contributions to that genre, in the past as well in the present.
    Just remember that one of the first sf authors was a woman: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
    Need more examples?: Angela Carter, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Angélica Gorodischer…

  20. #20 jasmurph
    May 3, 2008

    While I take the point that gender does not explain the modernist, modern, or contemporary novel, I think it would be useful to rethink your categorization of modernism as “an incredibly elite movement.” Rainey’s book title provokes this kind of simplification, but his actual argument is a lot more sophisticated than that. As we’ve seen in the past month, “elite” is one of those words like “facist” that communicates very little other than an emotional charge. It’s worth thinking about the degree to which Joyce, who was poor for much of his life and couldn’t find publishers for a long time could be considered an elite. Wouldn’t someone like Arnold Bennett, who had a lot of literary capital and a lot of reader in England and America count be much more elite, since he could dictate taste in a way that Woolf could not? What do you mean by elitist? Was Philip K DIck publishing for the masses? Or was he writing for a coterie audience hep enough to get his drug references and down with his antiestablishment sensibility?

    Woolf did not start the Hogarth Press because she could not find her own publisher. Her first two books were published by other publishers and her books were published by a large publisher (Harcourt Brace) in the U.S.

    A dedication to psychological complexity did not start with the modernist novel. The novel was from the start dedicated to psychological complexity in a way that the romance, for instance, or the epic was not; what’s different with the modernist novel is that the terms by which it defines psychological complexity remain compelling to us today in a way that, say, Richardson’s might not.

    Finally, Anne Banfield’s book on Woolf backs up a lot of what you say about science and modernism, but it’s science diffracted through philosophy. Still, the generalization is way too broad.

  21. #21 Lizzie
    May 6, 2008

    Personally, I think the interesting question here was Jonah’s – “So why did novelists start exploring the interiors of the mind?” My answer is quite different from his- I don’t think it had anything to do with science, but everything to do with modernity.

    I think the “interiors of the mind” and our awareness of it expanded tremendously during the last two centuries. Didn’t the term “unconscious” emerge sometime in the 19th century? I know Freud (one of the fathers of modernism, right?) was said to originate that term, but I know I saw Dostoyevkey use it before him.

    Anyway, I think that economic and social and political forces have to develop in certain ways so as for the individual to emerge. I mean to say, we need to be more than serfs living under a king- and also not be tribal members whose personal identity is almost inextricable from that of our kins’ (as is the case in many hunter gatherer societies)- before our novelists will start focussing much on the depths of our unique little minds.

  22. #22 peterchen
    May 11, 2008

    >> most of the stuff I’ve read is bad science and even worse fiction. The only notable exception I can think of is Philip K. Dick.)

    Funny, discovering “Western” Sci-Fi in the nineties was mostly disappointing – no science and just barely fiction as mental exploration. Only P.K.Dick and William Gibson made it to my bookshelf.

    Judging from the little I read here (I’ve discovered your blog only lately), I would strongly recommend trying Stanislaw Lem, “Fiasko” and “Peace on Earth”.

    East european sci-fi has been a haven for exploring ideas, and is often strong on the scientific side. “” Lem is an excellen science-philosopher. Fiasco is excellent serious sci-fi, Peace on earth a humorous “what if” exploration of callotomy with a unusually strong right hemisphere in front of a dead-serious future technology arms race.

New comments have been disabled.