This post is in response to How the Literary Darwinists Got it Wrong by Norman N Holland

Dear Joseph Carroll,

Let's hope I can get this web site to format what I say in some readable fashion!

First off, let me say that I agree entirely with your account of the adapted mind. I have no quarrel with evolutionary psychology when, to my mind, it is correctly developed and applied.

Thank you for your very lucid and patient response. I'm afraid I still disagree with you, however, on the same grounds as before. To what extent does literary Darwinism take into account the reader's role? I think literary Darwinism drops it out of the picture or de-psychologizes the process of enjoying literature.

Let me pick up some short phrases from your account. "the arts . . . help organize the human mind"; "the arts provide . . . information"; "a strongly mimetic component'" "a strong symbolic, transformational component"; "signification." As I read you, it seems to me that your phrasings (and the sentences that surround them) all picture a literary situation in which the text imposes something or other on a reader. There is no psychological backing for this.

You describe this as the big idea of your position: "the big idea that subsumes these other ideas: 'giving emotionally and aesthetically modulated form to the relations among the elements of human experience ." But here again we have the same idea, that the arts impose something on an essentially passive human being. This is simply not psychologically sound. (I would agree that my position, reader-reponse criticism is post-structuralist, but reader-reponse criticism functions very differently from other post-structuralist tactics, like deconstruction.)

You say I say ". . . books don't constitute the world; they don't even constitute themselves. Instead, readers constitute books. Reality is nowhere to be found, except in the constructions of readers." Do you know of any way that you can interpret a text without the activity of your Broca's area, your knowledge of English, or your considerable skills at literary interpretation? Why say, then, that the text is imposing its message on you?

You write, and I would certainly agree in part, "In assimilating literary experience, the reader integrates it with other forms of imagination and uses it as raw material for his or her own imaginative productions, whether in novels and plays and films or in the relatively humble form of jokes and anecdotes and conversations." Some readers do, anyway. But "literary experience" fudges a bit. Is the experience the same as the words on the page? I think not, not without skill in reading, interpreting, and as you say, integrating and so on. In other words, texts do not impose anything on readers. Readers construct texts.

This is by no means to say that texts don't exist or that readers make it all up out of nothing. I say nothing at all about texts, which exist "out there" beyond my senses. And I certainly don't claim that they don't exist.

My claim is that the only way we know texts (or anything else) is through our adapted minds and brains, their perceptual and interpretive systems. They have to be adapted; otherwise we wouldn't survive. That's why I agree with evolutionary psychology. But I can't see that literary texts by themselves or simply reading literary tests contributes anything to that adaptation. But when we think about a literary text, Ah!, then we begin to do adaptive things for ourselves.

I am puzzled that you quote Bordwell's three-level scheme as though it disagreed with my view. In fact, I have the same three-level system, with the added idea that the three levels form a hierarchy of linked feedback systems. See ch 8 of Literature and the Brain and other writings going back to 1985 (The I, available at <> and maybe earlier.

As for the reader's role in texts, consider our own dialogue. Your posting says nothing to me unless and until I apply my own perceptions, my understanding of your large vocabulary, my interpretations, my values, etc. It seems to me quite clear that both you and I are applying three levels of interpretation: raw perception; codes we both share (meanings of words, for example); and canons (as I call them) that we do not share since we are not members of the same interpretive communities, à la Fish.

You paraphrase me: "The codes themselves, as you present them, are arbitrary, unconstrained by any independent reality. All this is boilerplate poststucturalist theory." Not so. I think the codes by which we interpret texts are things that we learn from our society, our schools, for example. And we use our adapted brains to assimilate and use them.

Alternatively, I understand you as claiming that we have some access to reality apart from our perceptual processes. But we have known, from Freud to the latest neuroscientists, that we have no such pristine access to an "original reality." We only know reality through the adapted mind.

You accuse me, "You shift literary activity from books themselves to readers." You bet I do! All the books I know sit passively on my shelves until I put my mind or brain to reading and interpreting them. (I did not realize until this moment that Stephen King's omnipotent paintings, which we both agree are nonsensical, embody your view.)

About the Author

Norman Holland

Norman Holland, Ph.D., specializes in the psychology of the arts. His latest book is Literature and the Brain.

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