- Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? by Blakey Vermeule
In her recent book, Blakey Vermeule poses a provocative question right out of the gate with her title: Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? If we stop to think before we start to read her book, it doesn't make much sense that we respond emotionally to characters who we know aren't real. So why do we care? Vermeule's general answer is that "literary characters are tools to think with" (245)—that they teach us how to develop our mind-reading abilities, how to detect cheaters, and how to navigate the ins and outs of coalitions and manipulative social systems. Socially, in other words, reading fiction is good for us. Vermeule's theories about the purpose of literature, which draw on cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, may dismay traditional humanists because they value literature for its utility rather than its art, but they are worth considering if we are to keep the Humanities alive and relevant in an age where every academic subject must constantly justify its "use."
The "care" in Blakey's Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? is twofold: it refers to both attention and empathy. First, why do we give our time—a precious and limited resource—to people we know do not exist? Second, why do we care about them if, unable to care about us, they cannot provide a return on the investment of our affections? The book poses these questions to the mind sciences as well as to literary theory, engaging with the work of literary critic Lisa Zunshine on "theory of mind" and levels of intentionality, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker on literature as a space for exploring and resolving hypothetical problems, and literary Darwinist Joseph Carroll on the arts as an emotional compass. As a work of literary criticism, Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? is grounded in eighteenth-century British literature, but it expands its scope to find evolutionary threads throughout a wide range of narratives, from Homer's The Iliad to "Curious George." Vermeule sets out to explore exactly what functions narrative serves and what those functions reveal about how our minds work. She maintains that our minds are "of ancient stock" (xiii) and the world around us has not succeeded in changing them: "The sheer profusion of narratives in all known human cultures suggests that storytelling is a human universal, that it has a function, and that it is a human necessity" (161). Vermeule sees literature as more than just a pleasurable pastime or a byproduct of other sets of [End Page 378] survival mechanisms. At the core of her argument is that narrative directly benefits survival, and our capacity for it has been inherited via natural selection.
Vermeule's first answer to the titular question is that fictional characters fulfill our desire for gossip: "we need to know what other people are like, not in the aggregate, but in the particular" (xii). In fact, we prefer gossip, or social information, to other types of information. "In my view," says Vermeule, "most stories are gossip literature" (7). The argument for the similarity between literature and gossip rests on Vermeule's collapse of the difference between literary characters and real-life people we will never meet, which allows her to place both into the category of "fictional characters." She argues that celebrities, for instance, are not "real" people to us: in addition to the unlikelihood of us ever encountering them, and thus their distance from our real lives, the media represent them in flattened ways that capture our attention and elicit ready-made responses. Vermeule, who frames her argument with narratives from her own personal and teaching experience, compares gossip-magazine readers' reactions to Kobe Bryant's alleged rape of a young woman with those of her students to the problematic sexual act committed by David Lurie, a character from J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. In both cases, the sexual sins are ambiguous and open to interpretation, and...