June 12, 2011
Fiction: A Dialogue
By (Stanford University)

An essay written in the spirit of Montaigne: to find out what I think.

Suppose you become curious about fiction—the concept, its history, its reasons for being.

You decide to ask me, your friend the English professor, since I spend my days in fiction’s deep thickets. While you worry that fiction’s deep thickets have become, for me, a labyrinth, the request for information strikes you as reasonable. Even simple.

Thus when I ask you, with what sounds like a sob, what you mean by fiction, you cut me off: “All those books in the fiction section of the book store,” you say. “Help me out here. Give me a line, a clue, a way in. I want the good stuff. You have been reading all this evolutionary psychology, right? Hit me with the big bang, the cheesecake, the telescope. Why do we make and consume so much of the stuff?”

“Okay,” I say (eyes blinking warily in the sunlight). “I will. Darwinian thought is an enormously powerful tool for understanding our shared history and fate—a universal acid, as Daniel Dennett rightly says, capable of cutting through everything in sight. Since the 1960s, Darwinian thought has gained powerful support from game theory and mathematical modeling. The so-called modern synthesis has moved through the academic world like a slow flame, burning a little here, annealing a little there. It has now become part of the generally accepted background in experimental psychology, the discipline on which humanistic inquiry nominally rests. Yet the arts and humanities have remained fortified against it. In fact I’d go further. Remember that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the knights try to ransack a French castle?”

“Um, the Pythons were a bit before my time,” you say.

“The French soldiers inside hilariously taunt the invaders. Then a cow carcass comes hurtling over the wall from a catapult. That’s generally been the response from the humanities. Fetchez la Vache! But literary Darwinism has not yet delivered much in the way of good literary criticism (and I include my own). Why not? Philosophers have an old joke. The objection to any philosophy paper can be boiled down to ‘yeah right’ and ‘so what?’ Literary Darwinism is immune to the first objection (at least among people who care about science) but it is vulnerable to the second. And this is for several reasons. The first one—the one before which all others tremble like a guilty thing surprised—is that aesthetic experience is enormously resistant to ultimate explanations. By which I mean explanations that lasso art from a great distance. I have, for instance, a passion for George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch.There is some feeling in it that draws me in again and again and that sets off a depth charge in my soul. Every time I read it I learn a little bit more about its internal workings and language, which are like the harmonies in a Wagner opera. I see a bit more what George Eliot was trying to accomplish, the intensity and passion of her vision. I increase what the philosopher Richard Wollheim calls my ‘cognitive stock.’1But the ulti mate horizon remains the novel itself, the beautiful enclosed organ beating inside its fragile casing.”

“But surely,” you object, “you can distinguish between how aesthetic experience feels to you and the interesting features of it that science can explain. Shouldn’t the human obsession with fiction be a problem for Darwinism? A Yale psychologist recently claimed we spend roughly four minutes a day having sex and hours and hours a day absorbed in fictions.2 I guess this includes everything from our private fantasies to the yarns we spin all day long to the mass-market stories we consume like that greedy boy Augustus Gloop in the candy factory. I read a news story about a young couple in Korea who spent so much time taking care of their vir tual infant in a simulation game that their own baby died of neglect. How could that contribute to their inclusive fitness?”

“Yes to both points,” I agree. “Fiction-obsession is indeed a strange problem. Jared Diamond wrote a book a few years ago called Why Is Sex Fun? You would think that that was the only topic that needs no explanation, evolutionary or otherwise. Fiction probably does. The case of the Korean couple is most likely what the naturalist Niko Tinbergen called a ‘supernormal stimulus,’—an exag gerated version of a stimulus that produces a maladaptive response. He first noticed it when his pet stickleback went into fight mode whenever the red mail truck drove past the window outside his fish tank—red being the color that male sticklebacks use to signal aggression.3 I have no doubt that media saturation creates ever stranger and more super normal stimuli for us to get hung up on—pornography and gaming being only two. Most Darwinians, when confronted with some apparently useless trait or practice, suspect that sexual selection is in play. You know—the peacock’s tail, the handicap principle, an arms race of runaway selection pres­sures, that sort of thing. The fussy drab female driving the anxious plumed male to dance his ever more frantic jig. In his beautiful book The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton gives more or less that account of art’s lavishness, excess, and ornament.”

“What do you think?” you ask.

“I think he’s right in the macro sense, but I also think there are a lot of details for fey little demons to lurk around in. So what are you curious about exactly? Fiction can mean stories we enjoy even though we know they aren’t true, which covers a lot more than books. Or it can mean the forms those stories come packaged in. The history of movies, TV, novels, plays, and so on.”

(Now you start to look worried. Academics, you think. Pretty soon she’s going to tell me that what fiction means is up to me.)

“Or fiction can mean: the kinds of techniques that creators of fictions use to work their magic, in which case you need to settle on a specific medium. You know the technique in film called shot/reverse shot?”

“Well,” you say, “I can imagine.”

“You’ve seen it your whole life. When two characters are having a conversation, the camera cuts back and forth from one face to the other. Why do you think directors do that?”

“Obviously to mimic the back-and-forth of actual conversation.”

“For a long time people thought so—they thought it was naturalistic,” I explain. “One person holds the spotlight, then the other, then the first, and so on. But eventually people figured out that it isn’t naturalistic at all. Cutting back and forth is nothing like conversing, which is all about connecting. So then people started to think of it as (merely) a convention. But the truth is more interesting. Shot/reverse shot is an artificial artistic code that seems naturalistic because it fits so well with our underlying cog nitive architecture. David Bordwell makes a very detailed and persuasive argument on this point. Shot/reverse shot is actually ‘quite unfaithful to perceptual experience,’ he writes. Simple panning from one speaker to the other would be much more realistic. Instead filmmakers cut quickly back and forth between faces, using the ‘transfer of attention’ as a substitute for panning—‘a substitute that has no exact correlate in ordinary perceptual experience.’4

“Other departures from ordinary perception are also noteworthy. For instance, one person’s face is often shot from behind the shoulder of the other person. And the camera typically shows each face in three-quarter view. Shot/reverse shot delivers neither the experience of nor a faithful picture of a face-to-face conversation. Nevertheless we accept the overall effect without effort or protest. Bordwell claims, I think correctly, that the choice of some artistic conventions is ‘weighted because human proclivities favor them.’5Shot/reverse shot is one such. Think of it as an alien spaceship gliding over a town and suctioning all the people and buildings into its belly. Different parts of our cognitive architecture are activated by the technique, but the technique itself is somewhat alien to us—at least it seems to be if you break it down into component parts.”

“That’s really smart,” you say. “Can you tell me which features of our cognitive architecture are triggered by shot/reverse shot?”

“I could, but you could just as easily go and read Bordwell. He’s a fantastic writer.”

“Okay, I’ll take the bait” (you sigh). “Does fiction do something similar?”

“Lots of things—and has done for much longer than film in a medium that grabs people far less obviously. Film is like Fred Astaire and fiction is like Ginger Rogers—she does everything he does, except she does it backwards and in heels.”

“Please, just stop. But you’re mixed up. Surely movies are also largely fictional—?”

“Of course they are. Movies have become fiction’s preferred vehicle. Fiction means something broad and some thing narrow. Broadly it means ‘something made up, that I know is made up, but that I am able to enjoy without worrying too much that it is made up.’ Narrowly it means made-up dramatic realist stories organized into scenes. Those stories used to be told in prose. Now they are told in so many different media it makes your head spin. To those who love it, prose is muscular and fancy, robust and vibrant. But in the rushing stream of image-based stories, it is a stately moss-covered boulder.”

“Wait, you said realist? Does that exclude, say, Harry Potter?”

“Harry Potter is made up, dramatic, and scene based,” I respond. “And as for realistic—many of the techniques of realism are there—the scar of Odysseus—the scar of Harry Potter. Also it isn’t as if anything goes in the wizarding world. The metamorphoses follow predictable laws of trans formation. But Harry Potter is missing a crucial element that so-called literary fiction now demands—”

“Oh dear, I’m really sorry I asked,” you say. “Back to the question. Fiction has its own techniques—such as?”

“It depends on the medium. Films do one thing, serial TV shows another, high-end literary fiction and mass-market thrillers something else. But despite the vast array of styles and features, the architecture of fiction hasn’t changed very much since the eighteenth century. It has just gotten more latticed. If anything, the pressure to create marketable characters has ratcheted up to an industrial level. And one technique that came online in the late eighteenth century and has never gone offline: free indirect style. The hallmark of fiction in the modern age.”

“What is that?”

“A technique for narrating a character’s thought from his or her point of view, but in the third person.”

“What? That sounds strange and complicated.”

“Well, when you try to break it down, it seems that way. But on the page, it looks so natural that you can barely detect all the funny business underneath.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“I’ll just take one from the critic James Wood. Here are two pieces of reported thought. The first one is in indirect speech of a character’s inner monologue:

“He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.

“The second is in free indirect style. Note the changes in tense and tone that free indirect style seems to demand:

He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?6

“Hmm, yes,” you say. “A shift from the simple past tense to future conditional. Also the guy sounds like a jerk in the second passage; not so much in the first.”

“Yes he does, rather, doesn’t he? That seems to be a funny feature of free indirect discourse—the characters end up sounding whiny, self-deluded, and nasty. My colleagues hate it when I say this. They think I’ve got a corrupted soul. They also think that I’m cherry-picking my examples when I point out the emotional patterns. They claim that free indirect style can be neutral—a way of reporting without bias or shadow. My friends have a trump card to play: the last line of Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway.”

“Now you’re just showing off!”

“Nope! That’s not the line! This is it: ‘For there she was.’ That’s Peter Walsh thinking about Clarissa Dalloway as she appears on the stairs at her much-anticipated party. And actually it is the first time in the novel that his thoughts appear untwisted. Over and over again Woolf dips into Peter Walsh’s thoughts to show him as a small, failed, jealous, bitter man. A man who soothes his anxiety by denigrating other more powerful men. He is a low-status primate in a slippery status hierarchy. Somehow the aggression and irony of free indirect style capture the feel of that.”

“Can you remind me why we are talking about this exactly?” you ask.

“I’m trying to show you how certain techniques come to handle certain psychic material.”

“I’ll note the weaseling language,” you say. ‘Come to handle?’ What’s your claim about historical causation exactly? How does a technique ‘come to handle’ psychic material?”

“Okay, I’ll be direct,” I say. “My story mixes the infi­nitely popular ‘geniuses-like-Jane-Austen-are-great-innova tors’ theory of historical causation with ruthless pragmatism. But (and now shut your eyes because I’m going to whisper this to the reeds and I don’t want you to see the asses ears springing out of my head), fiction has a task, a life, a service, a dedicated mission of its own. I mean that in every pos sible essentialist sense. Fiction is a switch we’ve collectively invented and refined and installed in the middle of our room. When we flip it, the current goes on. And we’re addicted to the current.”

“Careful! You’re getting carried away!”

“No, really. Fiction is a device for getting plights into our midst. An extremely useful device. Because it gets behind our defenses. And we’ve got a lot of them.”

“Such as?”

“In the spirit of Passover, I’ll answer a question with a question,” I say. “Last night you went out with your old work friends. What did you talk about?”

“Sports, of course. We had a big go-round about the World Cup Final, about whether Holland’s aggressive tactics were legitimate or dirty. We also talked about how the Liverpool Football Club fell apart last year, how the coach is a blame-shifting egomaniac, how the Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo is a gelled tumbler, how we hate Chelsea but Manchester United is so much worse. That sort of thing.”

“Holland made me ashamed of my heritage,” I say. “Did you talk about anything else?”

“Our favorite TV shows. Lost. Mad Men. The Office. Movies we had seen. We kept it light.”

“How about personal things—your families?”

“No. My friend’s son has been in and out of rehab. Nobody wanted to bring it up,” you admit.

“Right,” I say. “We talk about sports and TV shows because most people find it difficult to talk directly about hard personal topics. So fiction is like the motor oil that keeps our emotional engines from overheating. Which fact has led intellectuals to shake their fists and cry ‘bread and circuses’ at the gladiatorial contests.”

“Yeah,” you respond, “you intellectuals really need to lighten up. The Office and Mad Men and Manchester United aren’t some squid-like tendril of the repressive state appara tus. Why can’t you people ever just enjoy entertainment?”

“You people? You mean professors? Well, we get paid to frame hypotheses about other people’s fun. But let’s get back to the problem of fiction. Consider this paradox. One of the best-attested psychology experiments of the last three decades shows that people are enormously sensitive to cheaters, people who promise to reciprocate fairly but who violate their promise.”

“Yes I know all about that,” you say. “Cosmides and Tooby have shown over and over again that humans have evolved a ‘cognitive instinct’ for detecting violations of social exchange.7It is like what the Supreme Court would call a super-precedent.You think fiction falls into that category?”

“It certainly has, on and off, in the three centuries of its official existence.”

“Can you give me an example?” you ask.

“Okay. Remember James Frey, the guy
who wrote the fake memoir about his drug addiction? David Shields tells the story this way:

In the aftermath of the Million Little Pieces out rage, Random House reached a tentative settle­ment with readers who felt defrauded by Frey. To receive a refund, hoodwinked customers had to mail in a piece of the book: for hardcover owners, it was page 163; those with paperback copies were required to actually tear off the front cover and send it in. Also, readers had to sign a sworn statement confirming that they had bought the book with the belief it was a real memoir, or, in other words, that they felt bad having accidentally read a novel.8

“Well that’s pretty easy to figure out,” you sniff. “For­get Cosmides and Tooby. Random House was just paying a ransom to System 2.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” I ask.

“You’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel laureate address, right? I know you have because you quoted some of it in your book.”

“You’ve read my book?” (small incredulous yelp).

“I skimmed it. Actually, I read the acknowledgments. Anyway, Kahneman and Amos Tversky, his collaborator, pioneered a field called behavioral economics.9 They show, basically, that Homo economicus, far from being a rational calculating machine, is really a goggle-eyed clown with red hair sprouting up in tufts and springs coming out of his neck. The standard model—rational agent theory, expected utility theory—held that people were more or less rational when they calculated risk. But we’re not. We represent the world through all kinds of cognitive frames, and these frames deeply shape the information we take in and how we process it.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m losing the thread here . . . assuming there is one,” I say (my turn to get snippy).

“Kahneman and Tversky are part of a Copernican revolution in psychology that has been going on more or less unimpeded since Freud. I mean the revolution to decenter the rational self. Their contribution, prospect theory, is only a small piece of a very deep iceberg. The iceberg itself is the unconscious. And the rational bits really only select among different options.”

“Okay, but remind me. What is System 1?”

“System 1 is all those processes that run outside of our conscious awareness. Intuitions of all kinds, gut feelings, snap judgments, and so on. Dual-process theories of the mind have been around for a very long time—in fact you can find a fully worked out version in Plato’s Phaedrus if you want. But clearly System 1 doesn’t distinguish all that well between fiction and nonfiction—hence the Korean couple and the baby. It is designed to make fast and frugal judgments. So it is easily duped into thinking stories are true. System 2 is computationally costly and requires a lot more psychic effort.”

“Look, this is all fascinating,” I declare, “and I’d love to hear all your theories about Plato, but we’re running out of space here and as far as I can see, we’re going around in circles. So I might as well just cut to the chase and tell you what I think about fiction and evolution.

I am drawn to the macro views of William Flesch in his 2007 book Comeuppance. He’s interested in how our complicated lives as reciprocal altruists shape narratives. So many of our stories are about punishment, revenge, malfeasance, and justice delivered that it seems as though part of their purpose is to sort out goodies from baddies. He gets to that conclusion by running a series of complex arguments about evolutionary game theory. One objection is that his model leaves out those stories, such as romances, that don’t turn on anybody’s being punished. He replies that if you zoom out a bit, you can see that even in stories that don’t have anything obviously to do with revenge, narratives police antisocial motives and reward prosocial ones. That’s why we like happy endings. And in romances, he said, people who don’t think the whole thing is going to turn out well (that is, that the prosocial motivations will win out) are banished to the sidelines. He calls storytellers ‘altruistic punishers,’ meaning that they get worked up on our behalf to punish the baddies and reward the goodies. I think he’s identifying large patterns, not saying every story has to have these features, though obviously a lot of them do. I also think he’s on to something pretty deep about narrative.”

“Take a breath,” you say.

“OK, there’s more. Flesch’s ideas converge with those of a research team who studied how personality traits are distributed across character types in nineteenth-century fic tion. So protagonists are altruistic, non-selfish, reproductively viable, constructive, kin-oriented, optimistic, and conscien tious. Antagonists, on the other hand, are domineering, aggressive, bullying, and obsessed with money.10I read their work and I almost had a heart attack.”


“Because I recognized so many of these antagonist traits in myself. But then I wrote to Joe Carroll, who is on the team, and he reassured me by saying that we all have to have antagonist traits or we’d be sitting ducks for sociopaths. Fiction has a stake in making it seem as though there are two separate groups of people with different traits. Anyway, putting the two views together, we could say that narrative evolved partly to police the antagonists among us and to punish displays of bullying.”

“Is that your final answer?” you ask.

“Well, for now I guess that’s what I think.”

“I think you’d have a stronger case to make if you’d been paying attention earlier when I was talking about System 1 and System 2,” you say. “The other day I was reading a bit of sports fluff in the local paper. The story was about poor old doddering Al Davis, legendary but now very elderly owner of the Oakland Raiders. A couple of years ago he drafted JaMarcus Russell, who is turning out to be one of the most expensive flops in NFL history. Al Davis and the fans and press are now in full-blown war over whose narrative is going to triumph. Al Davis has a story in his head about how failed quarterbacks can make good and worthy young men deserve second chances. The press and fans have another story in their heads about arrogant owners who don’t listen to advice. And now we can make some popcorn and pull up our chairs and see whose version is going to win. If JaMarcus pulls himself together, then Al Davis’ version wins and the story turns into a romance comedy about a visionary elder who keeps his faith in the misguided but goodhearted youngster. If JaMarcus screws up and has to be fired by the Raiders, then Davis is a senex iratus who is too cosseted to realize that his star quarter back is a lazy defector. Then the story becomes something else—not a tragedy exactly, but an occasion for the rest of us to sit around pointing fingers and saying ‘I told you so.’ ”

“But what does that have to do with cognitive heuristics?” I ask.

After taking a deep breath of your own, you proceed. “System 1 is all about what moral philosophers call deon­tological judgments—fast and frugal judgments of good and bad. System 2 (reason) is capable of Jeremy Bentham-like subtleties and utilitarian calculations. These sports stories are perfectly designed to get behind reason and appeal to the gut,” you say. “The barrier between the two systems is obviously quite porous—we can reason our way out of a deontological stance into a utilitarian one. In fact we moderns are called on to do that every day. But the cognitive load required to apply the brakes on our fast and frugal heuristics is intense. So the stories I love most offer some kind of relief from the rational self-restraint I’m forced to exercise all the time—on the road, in the office, at home. And frankly, no offense to you English professors, but I don’t really want to know how it all looks under the hood— as long as the engine keeps purring along.” You sit back, looking a bit triumphant.

“Gee,” I say. “Thanks for all your help. We’re really out of space now. But let me ask you a final question.”


“What’s the one thing that the international soc­cer federation could do to make soccer more appealing to American audiences?” I ask. “I mean apart from putting in breaks every five minutes for advertisements.”

“Oh that’s easy,” you say. “I’ve thought lots about it. We need lots more scoring! The gut loves it when people score goals! All they have to do is put in a shot clock to limit each team’s possession. And we should let the players use their hands, too. That would really help.”



The views expressed by my interlocutor have been generally acquired by reading the work of Marc Hauser and Joshua Greene of Harvard University. See, for instance, this statement on Greene’s home page:

More specifically, I have proposed a “dual­ process” theory of moral judgment according to which characteristically deontological moral judgments (judgments associated with concerns for “rights” and “duties”) are driven by automatic emotional responses, while characteristically utilitarian or consequentialist moral judgments (judgments aimed at promoting the “greater good”) are driven by more controlled cognitive processes. If I’m right, the tension between deontological and consequentialist moral philosophies reflects an underlying tension between dissociable systems in the brain. Many of my experiments employ moral dilemmas, adapted from the philosophical literature, that are designed to exploit this tension and reveal its psychological and neural underpin­nings. (http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~jgreene/)

Obviously none of my interlocutor’s mistakes or failings should be attributed to Greene or Hauser.

I am grateful to Joshua Landy for most of the football (soccer) references throughout, including (I believe) some version of mordantly ironic suggestion (widening the goal posts?). But while Landy inspired some of this dialogue, including some of the objections to Flesch, he is neither of the people in it.


Barrett, Deirdre. Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Bloom, Paul. “The Pleasures of the Imagination.” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 30, 2010. http://chronicle.com/article/ The-Pleasures-of-Imagination/65678.Accessed May 30, 2010.

Bordwell, David. Poetics of Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Carroll, Joseph, Jonathan Gottschall, Daniel Kruger, and John Johnson. “Hierarchy in the Library: Egalitarian Dynamics in Victorian Novels.” Evolutionary Psychology 6 (2008): 715–38.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. “Neurocognitive Adaptations Designed for Social Exchange.” In The Handbook of Evolu tionary Psychology, edited by David Buss, 584–687. New York: Wiley, 2005.

Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolu tion. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.

Flesch, William. Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Kahneman, Daniel. “Maps of Bounded Rationality.” Nobel laure ate address, December 8, 2002: http://nobelprize.org/nobel_ prizes/economics/laureates/2002/kahneman-lecture.html.

Shields, David. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Wollheim, Richard. The Mind and Its Depths. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.


1. Wollheim, Mind, 134.
2. Bloom, “Pleasures.”
3. Barrett, Supernormal Stimuli, 12.
4. Bordwell, Poetics, 59.
5. Bordwell, Poetics, 63.
6. Wood, Fiction, 8–9.
7. Cosmides and Tooby, “Neurocognitive Adaptations,” 587.
8. Shields, Reality Hunger, 43–44.
9. Kahneman, “Maps.”
10. Carroll et al., “Hierarchy.”

We kindly thank SUNY press for allowing nonsite.org to reprint Prof. Vermeule’s article. Reproduced by permission from The Evolutionary Review, Volume #2 Issue #1 edited by Alice Andrews and Joseph Carroll, the State University of New York Press ©2011, State University of New York. All rights Reserved.

About the Author

Blakey Vermeule's research interests are cognitive and evolutionary approaches to literature, Philosophy and literature, British literature from 1660-1820, post-Colonial fiction, satire, and the history of the novel. She is the author of The Party of Humanity: Writing Moral Psychology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2000) and Why Do We Care About Literary Characters? (2009), both from The Johns Hopkins University Press. She is currently working on a book about narrative and the conceptual unconscious.

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