Special issue of EJAS on The American Neuronovel
EJAS (European Journal of American Studies) is accepting submissions for a special issue on the American neuronovel to be released in April 2021.
The word “neuronovel” was coined by American critic Marco Roth in a famous 2009 article, “The Rise of the Neuronovel.” According to Roth, in contemporary Anglo-American fiction “the novel of consciousness or the psychological or confessional novel—the novel, at any rate, about the workings of a mind—has transformed itself into the neurological novel, wherein the mind becomes the brain.” To illustrate his statement, he then quotes a long list of examples:
"Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love (de Clérambault’s syndrome, complete with an appended case history by a fictional “presiding psychiatrist” and a useful bibliography), Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette’s syndrome), Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism), Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker (facial agnosia, Capgras syndrome), McEwan again with Saturday (Huntington’s disease, as diagnosed by the neurosurgeon protagonist), Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras syndrome again) by a medical school graduate, Rivka Galchen, and John Wray’s Lowboy (paranoid schizophrenia)." (Roth)
Roth is not just famous for coining the word but also for decrying the development of this new type of fiction by way of comparison with the genre’s predecessors, particularly the stream of consciousness writers of the Modernist period like J. Joyce, V. Woolf and W. Faulkner. In an earlier essay, Gary Johnson makes a somewhat similar, albeit less negative, statement and sheds light on the novelists’ motivations for turning to neuronovels:
"While my focus in this essay will be on the works of Lodge and Powers, a growing list of narrative works including Powers’s recent The Echo Maker, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and A. S. Byatt’s A Whistling Woman, follows suit in foregrounding the emerging fields of neuroscience and neurobiology. These works, I propose, constitute an emerging subgenre of literature that can provide us with a glimpse of how authors are responding to scientific advances concerning the nature of human consciousness." (Johnson 170-171)
Andrew Gaedtke both clarifies the definition and sheds further light on the novelists’ motivations:
"This category of fiction is distinguished by its sustained adaptation and assessment of recent work in cognitive sciences […]. While significant progress has been made in mapping particular cognitive operations within the architecture of the brain, the movement from objective, neural networks to the subjective experience of consciousness remains a persistent problem for cognitive science, one that has been taken up repeatedly by writers such as McEwan, Lodge, Richard Powers and others." (Gaedtke 184-185)
However, consciousness is not truly a new subject for literature. Until the middle decades of the twentieth century, the representation of subjective interiority relied on modernist stream of consciousness and literary impressionism, drawing inspiration from Freudian psychoanalysis. But consciousness “has returned as a legitimate topic for scientific investigation” since “cognitive scientists have begun to combine computational-functionalist models of the mind with phenomenological approaches” (Gaedtke 185). The 1990s was also declared the “Decade of the Brain” by George H. W. Bush, thus fostering interest and funding in brain research (Burn 168). “The developments made it […] culturally imperative for novelists to turn to the representation of psychic interiority in order to determine how, under this new regime of brain science, consciousness has been reconstructed” (Gaedtke 185). The neuronovel, therefore, stages the debates that have structured cognitive sciences for several decades. “Neuronovels revisit the representation of consciousness in response to developments in brain research” (Tougaw, 2015 339).
Not everybody agrees, however, that “the addition of brains” requires “the exclusion of minds […] If neuronovels share a common element, it’s an interest in brain research for the sake of generating new ideas about how consciousness might be narrated and understood. In this sense neuronovels are cultural responses to neuroscience, expanding the domain of critical debates about the brain” (Tougaw, 2015 339).
Neuronovels have another major characteristic: they include extensive generic and stylistic experimentation. Gaedtke writes that “contemporary fiction has turned toward cognitive science to renew its techniques for representing consciousness” (196). Neuronarratives (Johnson) or “syndrome novels” (Lustig and Peacock)—as neuronovels are also called—have not just renewed the techniques for representing consciousness but also experimented with generic and stylistic conventions. While “neuronovels come in many forms,” Tougaw adds,
"[they] reflect and challenge cultural assumptions about neurological difference; experiment with literary conventions to foreground the bewildering complexity of relations between brain, body and world; and challenge the equation of consciousness and interiority, suggesting that conscious experience is dynamic and relational, emerging through interactions between an organism (or protagonist) and its environment […]." (Tougaw, 2015 339-340)
Francisco Ortega and Fernando Vidal express a similar view and point out what they call the “ambivalence” of neuronovels: “The ambivalence resides in the fact that the apparent assertion of cerebral solipsism coexists with a more contextual and phenomenological view about the essence of the human.” For them, neuronovels “stage and […] question cerebral solipsism” (Ortega and Vidal 343) as they focus on characters’ interactions with their environment and social relations.
The neuronovel has turned into an experimental laboratory for new interactions between literature, (neuro)science and philosophy. General articles on the neuronovel, on the interaction between neurology/literature and philosophy, or between neuroscience and psychoanalysis in neuronovels, on formal experimentation in the neuronovel, and case studies of specific neuronovels are equally welcome.
You are invited to submit a 300-word proposal, and a brief biography, before
15 December 2019 to
Pascale Antolin, Professor of American Literature, Bordeaux Montaigne University (France).
Final essays will be due by 15 June 2020. Please refer to EJAS “Instructions for contributors”
Burn, Sephen J. “The Neuronovel.” American Literature in Transition 2000-2010. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2018. 165-177.
Eagle, Chris. Literature, Speech Disorders and Disability. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Gaedtke, Andrew. “Cognitive Investigations: The Problems of Qualia and Style in the Contemporary Neuronovel.” Novel, Vol. 45, n°2, Summer 2012: 184-201.
Johnson, Gary. “Consciousness as Content: Neuronarratives and the Redemption of Fiction.” Mosaic 41: 169-184.
Lustig, T. J. and James Peacock. Diseases and Disorders in Contemporary Fiction. London: Routledge, 2013.
Lodge, David. Consciousness and the Novel. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002.
Ortega, Francisco and Fernando Vidal. “Brains in Literature/Literature in the Brain.” Poetics Today, Vol. 34, n° 3, Fall 2013: 327-359.
Roth, Marco. “The Rise of the Neuronovel.” n + 1. Issue 8: Recessional. Fall 2009. https://nplusonemag.com/issue-8/essays/the-rise-of-the-neuronovel/
Tougaw, Jason. The Elusive Brain: Literary Experiments in the Age of Neuroscience. New Haven: University of Yale Press, 2018.
---. “Touching Brains.” Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 61, n° 2, Summer 2015: 335-358.