Will Neuroscience Kill the Novel?

BrainbookTo stick with the theme, Austin Allen responds to some of the ever-thoughtful Marco Roth's contentions, over at Big Think:

All fiction has, at its heart, the enigma of character. Its most basic pleasures involve analyzing how human beings act, speculating as to what motivates their actions, and, ultimately, judging those actions. What happens if science largely co-opts the first two projects, and undermines the legitimacy of the third?

In a 2009 n + 1 article called “Rise of the Neuronovel,” Marco Roth called neuroscience a “specter…haunting the contemporary novel.” Roth charts the two-decade-long surge of neurological references in the work of such authors as Jonathan Lethem, Richard Powers, and Ian McEwan. The trend has given us a slew of neurologically abnormal characters, and even a neurosurgeon narrator in McEwan’s Saturday. It's also brought an increase in sentences like these:“‘Oh,’ I said, my palms beginning to sweat as random sensuality carbonated up to my cortex.”

Roth skillfully argues that the neuronovel has begun supplanting the psychological novel. Characters (and authors) who once thought in terms of neurosesand libidos now speak of glial cells and synapses and serotonin levels. Dr. Perowne in Saturday is the modern analogue for psychologist Dick Diver inTender Is the Night: both come to us as ambassadors from the latest science of mind. And yet where Freud’s discipline always carried a strong whiff of myth, neuroscience is orders of magnitude more complex and precise. Roth’s conclusion is that we now confront “the loss of the self,” and that “the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel’s diminishing purview.”

Poignant as this is, I think it overstates the case. The novel will survive, though some of the current vocabulary surrounding it—critical and metaphysical—probably won’t.