With Comeuppance, William Flesch delivers the freshest, most generous thinking about the novel since Walter Benjamin wrote on the storyteller and Wayne C. Booth on the rhetoric of fiction. In clear and engaging prose, Flesch integrates evolutionary psychology into literary studies, creating a new theory of fiction in which form and content flawlessly intermesh.
Fiction, Flesch contends, gives us our most powerful way of making sense of the social world. Comeuppance begins with an exploration of the appeal of gossip and ends with an account of how we can think about characters and care about them as much as about persons we know to be real. We praise a storyteller who contrives a happy or at least an appropriate ending, and fault the writer who refuses us one. Flesch uses Darwinian theory to show how fiction satisfies our desire to see the good vindicated and the wicked get their comeuppance. He conveys the danger and excitement of reading fiction with nimble intelligence and provides wide reference to stories both familiar and little known.
Flesch has given us a book that is sure to claim a central place in the discussion of literature and the humanities.
I admired William Flesch’s examination of fiction and evolutionary biology, in Comeuppance: Costly Signalling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction, not least because Flesch, a young professor at Brandeis, is aware of the limits of the application of biology to aesthetics.
Those who appreciate theories of fiction from such critics as Harold Bloom, Wayne C. Booth, E. M. Forster, and Northop Frye will find Flesch’s work a welcome addition to the literature. And those interested in the juxtaposition of literature and psychology will find this book a refreshing take on both disciplines.
Comeuppance by William Flesch is a surprising excursus into what I might have thought an impossible project. What Flesch undertakes with skill and cunning is what might be called the conversion of sociobiology into its aesthetic analogs. By means of this transposition, we are given a surprisingly fresh account of the workings of high literature.
Flesch’s book is at once authoritative and flexible, intellectually adventurous and careful. It is hard to imagine a reader who would not learn from its arresting arguments or take pleasure in the freshness of its juxtapositions. This is a book of immense originality and energy. Flesch opens up—for literary critics of every persuasion—new ways of thinking about the books they love.
How lonely I feel when I’m angry. How clearly, deeply, learnedly and originally William Flesch, in this magisterial—yes, magisterial—work lights up the ways that I am never less alone with my anger than when it finds its way into literature. Drawing on texts I only thought I knew well, and on an array of science I only thought I could never know at all, Flesch redeems some of our most shameful affects—hate; the pleasure we take in the pain of others—as the very material of social charity and communion. I would name famous names to praise Flesch—Hazlitt, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Simmel—except that to do so would be to miss what matters most about this life forgiving work. For all his engagements with the genius of others, the genius of this book is really all his own.
Deftly drawing on 40 years of research in evolutionary psychology, William Flesch sheds new light on heroes, villains, narrators, authors, and the art of narrative itself. Our fascination with narratives of all kinds, Flesch argues, is based on our evolved capacity to track the selfish, the selfless, and those who take it upon themselves to mete out punishment. In this wild romp through contemporary culture and western literature, we are treated to new insights into characters real and imagined, ranging from J. K. Rowling to Jane Austen, Ludwig Wittgenstein to the 9/11 hijackers, Homer’s Telemachus to Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, and the governess in James’s The Turn of the Screw to the Bride in Kill Bill.
- 264 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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