What happened with Deconstruction? And why is there so much bad writing in academia?

How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” has been making the online rounds for 20 years for a good reason: it’s an effective satire of writing in the humanities and some of the dumber currents of contemporary thought in academia.* It also usually raises an obvious question: How did “Deconstruction,” or its siblings “Poststructuralism” or “Postmodernism,” get started in the first place?

My take is a “meta” idea about institutions rather than a direct comment on the merits of deconstruction as a method or philosophy. The rise of deconstruction has more to do with the needs of academia as an institution than the quality of deconstruction as a tool, method, or philosophy. To understand why, however, one has to go far back in time.

Since at least the 18th Century, writers of various sorts have been systematically (key word: before the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, investigations were rarely systematic by modern standards) asking fundamental questions about what words mean and how they mean them, along with what works made of words mean and how they mean them. Though critical ideas go back to Plato and Aristotle, Dr. Johnson is a decent place to start. We eventually began calling such people “critics.” In the 19th Century this habit gets a big boost from the Romantics and then writers like Matthew Arnold.

Many of the debates about what things mean and why have inherent tensions, like: “Should you consider the author’s time period or point in history when evaluating a work?” or “Can art be inherently aesthetic or must it be political?” Others can be formulated. Different answers predominate in different periods.

In the 20th Century, critics start getting caught up in academia (I. A. Richards is one example); before that, most of them were what we’d now call freelancers who wrote for their own fancy or for general, education audiences. The shift happens for many reasons, and one is the invention of “research” universities; this may seem incidental to questions about Deconstruction, but it isn’t because Deconstruction wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t exist in the way it does without academia. Anyway, research universities get started in Germany, then spread to the U.S. through Johns Hopkins, which was founded in 1876. Professors of English start getting appointed. In research universities, professors need to produce “original research” to qualify for hiring, tenure, and promotion. This makes a lot of sense in the sciences, which have a very clear discover-and-build model in which new work is right and old work is wrong. This doesn’t work quite as well in the humanities and especially in fields like English.

English professors initially study words—these days we’d primarily call them philologists—and where they come from, and there is also a large contingent of professors of Greek or Latin who also teach some English. Over time English professors move from being primarily philological in nature towards being critics. The first people to really ratchet up the research-on-original-works game were the New Critics, starting in the 1930s. In the 1930s they are young whippersnappers who can ignore their elders in part because getting a job as a professor is a relatively easy, relatively genteel endeavor.

New Critics predominate until the 1950s, when Structuralists seize the high ground (think of someone like Northrop Frye) and begin asking about what sorts of universal questions literature might ask, or what universal qualities it might possess. After 1945, too, universities expand like crazy due to the G.I. Bill and then baby boomers goes to college. Pretty much anyone who can get a PhD can get a tenure-track job teaching English. That lets waves of people with new ideas who want to overthrow the ideas of their elders into academia. In the 1970s, Deconstructionists (otherwise known as Post-structuralists) show up. They’re the French theorists who are routinely mocked outside of academia for obvious reasons:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

That’s Judith Butler, quoted in Steven Pinker’s witty, readable The Sense of Style, in which he explains why this passage is terrible and how to avoid inflicting passages like it onto others. Inside of academia, she’s considered beyond criticism.

In each generational change of method and ideology, from philology to New Criticism to Structuralism to Poststructuralism, newly-minted professors needed to get PhDs, get hired by departments (often though not always in English), and get tenure by producing “original research.” One way to produce original research is to denounce the methods and ideas of your predecessors as horse shit and then set up a new set of methods and ideas, which can also be less charitably called “assumptions.”

But a funny thing happens to the critical-industrial complex in universities starting around 1975: the baby boomers finish college. The absolute number of students stops growing and even shrinks for a number of years. Colleges have all these tenured professors who can’t be gotten rid of, because tenure prevents them from being fired. So colleges stop hiring (see Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas for a good account of this dynamic).

Colleges never really hired en masse again.

Other factors also reduced or discouraged the hiring of professors by colleges. In the 1980s and 1990s court decisions strike down mandatory retirement. Instead of getting a gold watch (or whatever academics gave), professors could continue being full profs well into their 70s or even 80s. Life expectancies lengthened throughout the 20th Century, and by now a professor gets tenure at say 35 could still be teaching at 85. In college I had a couple of professors who should have been forcibly retired at least a decade before I encountered them, but that is no longer possible.

Consequently, the personnel churn that used to produce new dominant ideologies in academia stops around the 1970s. The relatively few new faculty slots from 1975 to the present go to people who already believed in Deconstructionist ideals, though those ideals tend to go by the term “Literary Theory,” or just “Theory,” by the 1980s. When hundreds of plausible applications arrive for each faculty position, it’s very easy to select for comfortable ideological conformity. As noted above, the humanities don’t even have the backstop of experiment and reality against which radicals can base major changes. People who are gadflies like me can get blogs, but blogs don’t pay the bills and still don’t have much suck inside the academic edifice itself. Critics might also write academic novels, but those don’t seem to have had much of an impact on those inside. Perhaps the most salient example of institutional change is the rise of the MFA program for both undergrads and grad students, since those who teach in MFA programs tend to believe that it is possible to write well and that it is possible and even desirable to write for people who aren’t themselves academics.

Let’s return to Deconstruction as a concept. It has some interesting ideas, like this one: “he asks us to question not whether something is an X or a Y, but rather to get ‘meta’ and start examining what makes it possible for us to go through life assigning things too ontological categories (X or Y) in the first place” and others, like those pointing out that a work of art can mean two opposing things simultaneously, and that there often isn’t a single best reading of a particular work.

The problem, however, is that Deconstruction’s sillier adherents—who are all over universities—take a misreading of Saussure to argue that Deconstruction means that nothing means anything, except that everything means that men, white people, and Western imperialists oppress women, non-white people, and everyone else, and hell, as long as we’re at it capitalism is evil. History also means nothing because nothing means anything, or everything means nothing, or nothing means everything. But dressed up in sufficiently confusing language—see the Butler passage from earlier in this essay—no one can tell what if anything is really being argued.

There has been some blowback against this (Paglia, Falck, Windschuttle), but the sillier parts of Deconstructionist / Post-structuralist nonsense won, and the institutional forces operating within academia mean that that victory has been depressingly permanent. Those forces show no signs of abating. Almost no one in academia asks, “Is the work I’m doing actually important, for any reasonable value of ‘important?'” The ones who ask it tend to find something else to do. As my roommate from my first year of grad school observed when she quit after her M.A., “It’s all a bunch of bullshit.”

The people who would normally produce intellectual churn have mostly been shut out of the job market, or have moved to the healthier world of ideas online or in journalism, or have been marginalized (Paglia). Few people welcome genuine attacks on their ideas and few of us are as open-minded as we’d like to believe; academics like to think they’re open-minded, but my experience with peer review thus far indicates otherwise. So real critics tend to follow the “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” model described by Albert Hirschman in his eponymous book and exit.

The smarter ones who still want to write go for MFAs, where the goal is to produce art that someone else might actually want to read. The MFA option has grown for many reasons, but one is as an alternative for literary-minded people who want to produce writing that might matter to someone other than other English PhDs.

Few important thinkers have emerged from the humanities in the last 25 or so years. Many have in the sciences, which should be apparent through the Edge.org writers. As John Brockman, the Edge.org founder, says:

The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

One would think that “the traditional intellectual” would wake up and do something about this. There have been some signs of this happening—like Franco Moretti or Jonathan Gottschall—but so far those green shoots have been easy to miss and far from the mainstream. “Theory” and the bad writing associated with remains king.

Works not cited but from which this reply draws:

Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.

Paglia, Camille. “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf.” Arion Third Series 1.2 (1991/04/01): 139-212.

Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. 1 ed. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Falck, Colin. Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-modernism. 2 ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Windschuttle, Keith. The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. 1st Free Press Ed., 1997 ed. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Star, Alexander. Quick Studies: The Best of Lingua Franca. 1st ed. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

Cusset, Francois. French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States. Trans. Jeff Fort. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking Adult, 2014.


* Here is one recent discussion, from which the original version of this essay was drawn. “How To Deconstruct Almost Anything” remains popular for the same reason academic novels remain popular: it is often easier to criticize through humor and satire than direct attack.

If someone is angry you may be doing something right: Alain de Botton edition

Early negative reviews of his work [How Proust Can Change Your Life], by Proust professors and philosophy dons, devastated him, admitted de Botton. “It was very surprising and upsetting. Then my wife, who is very wise, said to me, ‘It’s obvious, this is a fight.’ This is a turf war, and the battle is about what culture should mean to us.”*

If you’re a) doing significant work and b) making people angry, then you may c) be doing something right. I think the first component is particularly important because it’s easy to needlessly or cruelly piss people off—through rude remarks or punching someone, for example. We’re taught that making other people angry is a bad thing and in most contexts it probably is, but in some it isn’t and may actually be a sign of importance.

Anger is a powerful response and a common one to someone who feels threatened: suggest to a public school teacher that teachers shouldn’t be granted de facto lifetime employment after three years, or that teachers’ unions are serious impediments to education, and you’re not likely to get a reasoned discussion about policy. You’re likely to be treated as someone who violates taboo. To most of us discussions about education policy are benign, but to teachers they’re often sacred (the “benign-violation theory” of humor is similar, as discussed in The Humor Code).

I’ve gotten weirdly vituperative responses from English professors about this blog. Usually those responses are couched in language about being unprofessional or low quality or a waste of time that could be better spent advancing my career. In that worldview, having anyone read your work doesn’t matter. At first I took those responses at face value, but now I’m not so sure: they might have been unhappy that I think most English journals bogus and, worse, treat them as such. It’s dangerous to have people work outside the system they’re highly invested in. If you don’t have the apparatus of peer review and journals and so forth, what separates paid professors from blogger rabble? Some answers to that question may be terrifying.

Philosophers probably guard their jewel basket carefully because there is nothing inside.

To return to de Botton, I also think he calibrates his work towards accessibility. It is easy for a normal person to understand what he says and to judge its truth value. Many philosophers seem to take pride in doing the opposite. In addition, de Botton reaches for a relatively low-knowledge audience; I found his book about architecture charming, for example, but How to Think More About Sex was inane, mostly because of it lacked any familiarity with evolutionary biology. Over the last couple decades, that’s been where the action is. Writing about sex without reading evolutionary biology is pointless, and I know enough to know that. Alternately, even compelling writers produce some bad books, and this could be de Botton’s off book.


* From “The empire of Alain de Botton.”

Love, Actually: Make a move already

After reading a spate of essays about Love, Actually (“Loathe, Actually,” “The Six Cinematic Crimes of ‘Love Actually,’” “Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time“) I watched the movie and realized that none of the writers nail what started bothering me halfway through. It isn’t the gender politics of the movie, which are primarily disliked for the usual reason: people in reality behave differently than writers of essays and feminists would like them to behave. It’s because the characters in Love Actually are stuck at age 15.

The movie’s plot is essentially a series of attraction deferments: someone feels attraction, often quite strongly, and then doesn’t act on it. Instead of going up and saying, “Let’s get a drink later” or “let’s see a movie,” they blush and stutter and wonder. One character says, “takes me ages to get the courage up” to even talk to the other one. That’s a real problem I had when I was, say, 15, and would respond to attraction by hiding.

Why do teenagers do this? They’re stuck in a nasty social situation: high school. They’re inexperienced idiots. That described me fairly well.* There also might be good evolutionary reasons to avoid making romantic moves unlikely to be requited: for most of human history, humans lived in relatively small bands, and making a romantic move was probably a potentially dangerous and life-changing experience. Today, it’s relatively minor, and if one person says no you just move on to the next one. Humiliation is minor and generally forgotten by everyone except the person turned down. We live in a world so different than our ancestral environment that it’s hard to remember how poorly adapted we are to modern life.

The above paragraph might be wrong—it’s a just-so story, and I’m not even sure how to test these ideas—but it is plausible. Still, most of us realize what’s effective in modern life and start doing that as we get older, rather than persisting in endless crushes. In many domains a “no” is actually better than not knowing, or a “maybe,” since a “no” means that you can go on to find someone who says “yes.” Getting to “no” has value in itself.

In life most of us realize that missed opportunities just sort of suck—so when they arise, you seize them. Instead, the characters in Love, Actually pointlessly defer them; in real life, the opposing party often comes up with a boyfriend or girlfriend in the interim. But in movie-land, it all works out, and everyone gets laid. The fellow with the hot Portuguese flatmate should’ve tried speaking the language of love while he was there.

One definition of stupidity is the failure to learn from experience. But the experiences of the characters in the movie are so limited that there isn’t enough screen time for the ups and downs more typical of romantic comedies. All the characters, regardless of their age, also seem to have very little life experiences. The 50-year-olds are mentally 16, but with wrinkles. They lack the forthrightness uncommon in teens but fairly common by… let me make up a number and say 24.

Love Actually isn’t a terrible movie—I laughed, sometimes, and frequently when the exasperated, washed-up singer had to do his hilarious bit—but I can’t see wanting to watch it again. It was also British, which meant there were more nude scenes than an equivalent American movie would have, and those are always welcome. I also get that its characters are, if not caricatures, then at least “broadly drawn.”


* Some people would argue that it still does describe me.

The critic’s temperament and the problem of indifference: Orwell, Teachout, and Scalzi

In “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” George Orwell points to an idea that almost any critic, or any person with a critical / systematic temperament, will eventually encounter:

[. . . ] the prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash–though it does involve that, as I will show in a moment–but constantly INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever. The reviewer, jaded though he may be, is professionally interested in books, and out of the thousands that appear annually, there are probably fifty or a hundred that he would enjoy writing about.

He’s not the only one; in 2004 Terry Teachout wrote:

[. . . ] I reviewed classical music and jazz for the Kansas City Star. It was great fun, but it was also a burden, not because of the bad concerts but because of the merely adequate ones–of which there were far more than too many.

Teachout uses the term “adequate.” Orwell says reviewers are “INVENTING reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feelings whatever.” Together, they remind me of what I feel towards most books: neutrality or indifference, which is close to “no spontaneous feelings.” Most books, even the ones I don’t especially like, I don’t hate, either. Hatred implies enormous emotional investment of the sort that very few books are worth. Conventionally bad books are just dull.

Still, writing about really bad books can be kind of fun, at first, especially when the bad books are educational through demonstrating what not to do. But after a couple of delicious slams, anyone bright and self-aware has to ask: Why bother wasting time on overtly bad books, especially if one isn’t being paid?

That leaves the books one loves and the books that don’t inspire feelings. The books one loves are difficult to praise without overused superlatives. The toughest books, however, are Teachout’s “merely adequate ones,” because there’s really nothing much to say and less reason to say it.

Critics may still write about indifferent books for other reasons; John Scalzi describes some purposes criticism serves, and he includes consumer reporting, exegesis, instruction, and polemics among the critic’s main purpose.* Of those four, I try to shoot four numbers two and three, though I used to think number one exceedingly valuable. Now I’ve realized that number one is almost entirely useless for a variety of reasons, the most notable being that literary merit and popularity have little if any relationship, which means that critics asking systematic questions about what makes good stuff good and bad stuff bad are mostly wasting their time. Polemics can be fun, but I’d rather focus on learning and understanding, rather than invective.


* Scalzi also says:

there are ways to be negative — even confrontational — while at the same time persuading others to consider one’s argument. It’s a nice skill if you have it, and people do. One of my favorite critiques of Old Man’s War came from Russell Letson in the pages of Locus, in which he described tossing the book away from him… and then grabbing it up to read again. His review was not a positive review, and it was a confrontational review (at least from my point of view as the author) — and it was also a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view of the work.

All of which is to note that the act of public criticism is also an act of persuasion. If a critic intends a piece to reach an audience, to be heard by an audience and then to have that audience give that critical opinion weight, then an awareness of the audience helps.

I think that one challenge for most modern writers, and virtually all self-published writers, will be finding people like Russell Letson, who are capable of producing “a good and interesting and well-tooled critical view.” Most Amazon.com reviews default to meaningless hate or praise, both of which can be discounted; getting someone who can “give that critical opinion weight” is the major challenge, since most people are lightweights. Even the heavyweights don’t waste their energy on weak opponents who aren’t even worth engaging.

The place of literary criticism

A second Zadie Smith quote, also from Changing My Mind: “Here’s the funny thing about literary criticism: it hates its own times, only realizing their worth twenty years later.” This is remarkably close to what I wrote to a friend not long ago, concerning why I like blogging despite the fact that I’m also enmeshed in an academic context that only values peer-reviewed articles and books: “English profs always show up to a fire long after the house has been burned down and the fire already long extinguished.”

Blogging, if the blogger is any good, offers the possibility of getting to the fire when it’s still going, or even building a fire of your own. Maybe in twenty years this will be more widely recognized.

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch's Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

Evolutionary Biology and the novel: Additional directions and William Flesch’s Comeuppance

Novels are arguably about two subjects: sex and death. This isn’t an original or unorthodox observation; Leslie Fiedler famously propagated it in Love and Death in the American Novel, which was published in 1960. The reasons why we’re drawn to those subjects over and over again are less well-developed, but some good answers come from evolutionary biology. Going back to Darwin and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, we’ve known that organisms need to do two things to propagate themselves: survive and reproduce. Not coincidentally, those two items map neatly onto the fascination in narrative fiction with death (and who should be killed and under what circumstances) and sex (and who it should be had with and under what circumstances).

Novels ceaselessly interrogate and illuminate both fields. I think people are drawn to those subjects because the stakes are inherently high for us, our genes, and our communities. If we die, our genes go with us, and, according to Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, we’re the result of a long chain of ancestors who managed to send out genes into the future. Viewed in one light, we’re simply vehicles for propagating those genes successfully. One could argue from there that our communities are platforms—in the sense Steven Berlin Johnson develops in Where Good Ideas Come From—that allow us to survive and reproduce successfully. Communities that are more successful as platforms tend to spread; those that aren’t, whither, or are overtaken by communities that do. Historically speaking, this has often happened in the context of violence, cruelty, slavery, and the like, especially on behalf of the west against peoples of other cultures, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.

But for my argument regarding the novel, I want to focus on individuals, small groups, and genres. Regarding the latter, one can essentially map tragedies onto stories dealing with death and comedies onto stories dealing with sex and sex mores. The content of those stories change—what tragedy meant to Shakespeare is probably somewhat different than what it means to, say, Cormac McCarthy. And the sex comedies of Jane Austen, with their primness, their refusal to name the act itself, and their distaste for contemplating the act of intercourse outside of marriage (how shocking it is when Lydia absconds in Pride and Prejudice!) are quite different from those in Bridge Jones’ Diary or Alain de Botton’s On Love, both of which assume sex before marriage is normal and that marriage isn’t an essential part of life. The content of the stories change while their overall thrust and the fundamental subjects remain the similar. Unless humanity reaches a technological singularity (which seems unlikely to me; as Tyler Cowen likes to say, it’s 2011 and we still have web browsers that crash), I doubt we’re going to see a shift away from novels that focus on sex and death as the greatest issues that humans face. We’re fascinated by the shifting, dialectical rules surrounding both sex and death and how they may be deployed because they have such profound consequences for us and our genes.

So why don’t more people discuss this explicitly in novels?

Evolutionary biology offers some of the tools we need to analyze what drives humans in terms of sexuality and survival. I’m surprised more literary critics don’t want to or try to cross pollinate with evolutionary biology, since, as stated in the first sentence of this paragraph, evolutionary biology gives us another set of methodological principles with which to interrogate texts. The set of tools literary critics need has started to be developed by William Flesch in Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. But fundamental questions remain unanswered—like how individual variation functions within an amorphous system without definite boundaries. As with psychoanalytic criticism, however, we can still take overall ideas (like: “males and females differ in their average mating strategies because women bear the greater cost of childbirth and childrearing”) and work to apply them to literature.

This doesn’t mean that we should automatically assume a one-to-one correlation between any action a character in fiction undertakes, or that characters (or their authors) are even aware of their own motivations; when Emma is trying to set up everyone in Highbury, she’s partially trying to maintain the class structure of her time, but she’s also trying to maximize the reproductive success of the individuals she knows (and herself) through finding “appropriate” matches. Since Freud, the idea that people (or characters) understand their motivations has been a suspect premise anyway. And since Derrida, if not earlier, the idea that one can neatly create separate categories like “death” and “sex” has become suspect. But that both drive characters and intertwine in unusual, fractal, and unpredictable ways is true. We need to track, understand, and evaluate those ways better. Psychoanalytic criticism gives us a set of tools to do so.

Characters’ underlying drives can’t be ignored. Nor can what readers find most rewarding in fiction be ignored. When in doubt, ask what is at stake regarding sex, death, or both. It would be a mistake to create a reductive algorithm that merely says, “everything a character does is related to their biological reproduction or their survival.” It would also be a mistake to think that every character interprets the drive to survive and reproduce in the same way, or that evolutionary biology itself has a single, underlying set of rules: its own rules are under constant interrogation as new evidence emerges to support or refute existing claims. But the answers that emerge from asking questions about why characters are so tuned in to the sexuality of others goes beyond economic exchange, mate value, and culture, and into what a given character thinks a set of rules will do to his or her own chances at reproducing and thriving.

To use Emma again, the characters in that universally or almost universally believe that marriage is in their best interests and therefore the best interests of those around them. They do not question the value of the institution, as later writers will do; by the time we come to George Eliot and Flaubert, novelists have begun to do so in earnest (as Tony Tanner points out Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression). By now, novels are asking questions about what happens to relationships when marriage is an option, not a given, and when virtually any life course is open to people as far as sexuality is concerned. If you write a contemporary novel that deals solely with the momentous decisions around who a woman will marry (as in Jane Austen), you won’t be engaging the world in which contemporary Western characters live. You’re dealing with sex, but not in a way that resonates with the social fabric for most people. The drive (“reproduce successfully”) remains even if the means have changed. Whether you’re analyzing or writing novels, you better pay attention.

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