Book Review: Why We Read Fiction

I enjoyed reading Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel by Lisa Zunshine, but here’s the thing—I have a hard time thinking of reasons to recommend it. The central thesis of the book is that readers of fiction come to the novel as a way to exercise their Theory of Mind, a term borrowed from cognitive psychology which “describe[s] our ability to explain people’s behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires.” Much of what Zunshine writes about is dressed up with critical theory and demonstrated by her analysis of how Theory of Mind plays into reading well-known texts like Mrs. Dalloway and Lolita—which is great if you’ve read those books, but otherwise kind of annoying. More than the fact that she shuts out a huge section of her potential audience, what bothered me most about Zunshine’s approach is that she essentially does not tell the reader anything new about reading fiction. Though her points are laid out in a logical way, and her evidence is solid, she ends up saying a whole bunch of things that I think most people could have figured out on their own without having to read her book or understand the psychology terms used therein.

There’s nothing wrong with Zunshine’s writing, but if you’re not accustomed to reading about literature through the lens of theory then you might find yourself wondering what the hell “metarepresentationality” is and why you should care about it. Yes, Zunshine is talking about the cognitive processes behind why, supposedly, people want to read fiction. She does this is in a rather dry, academic style and uses lots of terminology that an average reader might struggle with. Normally, I’d say that this is no problem at all. The reason it is a problem in this case is that people are likely going to have different expectations about what they’re going to find once they start reading. How do I know this? A quick look at the book’s description on Amazon will prove my point. The final sentence of the description assures potential readers that the book is accessible to them (emphasis added by me): “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.” This book is absolutely not jargon-free, and I’d have a hard time finding a “general audience” that would appreciate her style. Unless that audience was made up of English majors, and even then…

There are three sections of the book, which each focus on a different aspect of Zunshine’s argument. The first introduces the concept of Theory of Mind and shows how it applies to analysis of texts, the second deals with the aforementioned metarepresentationality and how it allows readers to keep track various representations within a text, and the third is a sort of case study which uses the form of the detective novel to show how readers engage in what’s called “source-monitoring.” Again, I didn’t have any problem with her argument, and I found I could easily follow her progression from the basic aspects of Theory of Mind all the way to her discussion of how some authors craft their fiction in ways that deliberately push such reading practices. Much of what Zunshine put into the book is explanation for the sake of explanation, and so I think it could have been much shorter. Or maybe some of those pages could have been used to really speak to a general audience in terms they’d understand, assuming that was truly her motivation for writing the book.

I wanted to read more about Zunshine’s own application of Theory of Mind to texts, but the book is largely filled with examples from other scholars’ work or uses well-known (and sort of boring) analyses of famous texts. The best part of the book, for me, came in the last section. She writes about some of the common parts of detective stories, and describes how these elements force readers to think critically about what they’re being given in the text vs. what’s really happening in the story. This was where Zunshine really started to apply all of the theory and ideas she’s been rambling on about for the first two-thirds of the book, but then just as quickly the book was finished. I felt like I had started to really understand the some of the more complex ways that cognitive theory can give us insight into reading fiction, only to then be cut off right in the middle of it.

To be fair, Zunshine does go out of her way to say that she’s writing about a relatively new field of study. However, she fails to fully capitalize on the opportunity she had in writing Why We Read Fiction. With so much room to explore the topic, she could have really branched out into other kinds of fiction and different stories to lend her argument more validity. As it is, with so few examples and most of those being similar kinds of fiction, I was left to wonder if her thesis would actually hold up if it was applied to different types of texts. Not everyone reads the “classics”—shocking, I know—and not all novels approach narrative in the same way.

The final word on this one is: if you’re not expecting some grand revelation about why we read fiction, and you’re kind of a geek when it comes to literature (I am), then you might like it. Otherwise, Why We Read Fiction will probably leave you wondering why you thought it was something you’d enjoy reading.

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