Author Talks: Angus Fletcher on the power of literature

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Angus Fletcher about his new book, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature (Simon & Schuster, March 2021). Fletcher, a practitioner of story science, reviews the blueprints for the most powerful developments in the history of literature and uses science to show how literature can alleviate a range of negative emotions while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What made you want to write this book?

There’s a crisis in the way that literature is taught. Students aren’t engaged, and they don’t want to take literature classes at higher levels. They choose, instead, to go into STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] and other fields. Literature has always been one of the prime sources of creativity and innovation. The more that literature falls out of the curriculum, the less that students embrace it, the less that we have those drivers.

I wrote the book to explain that there’s actually a different way—a more scientific way—to study literature. If we can start to introduce that different way of teaching literature in schools, I think we can start to bring back some of the powerful change that literature has produced in the past and can produce in our future. Wonderworks gives you the blueprints for using your favorite books and films and comic books and memoirs to get more courage, more curiosity, more healing, more growth, and more happiness from the day.

Why try and capture the impact of literature in an almost clinical way?

One of the things that neuroscience teaches us is that our brains are all different. All of us are going to have different responses to literature. In schools, literature is currently taught on a model which comes to us from the early 20th century and which establishes logic as the way that we read literature.

Everyone has had the experience of reading a literary work and mining it for themes or representations and being told that your own individual responses, the characters you like, the emotions you experience, the imaginations it sparks in your head, aren’t what we’re going to talk about in the class. What I want to talk about is how neuroscience allows a more diverse, more inclusive, and more student-centered approach to unlocking literature but in an environment where we can also talk about knowledge and wisdom and other things that aren’t entirely subjective.

Literature heals

What surprised you most in researching this book?

I think the thing that surprised me is how much science and medicine there is backing the power of literature. We’ve all had the experience of reading a poem and feeling better or reading a book and feeling less lonely. Literature can actually be therapeutic with trauma—multiple types of trauma. It can spark creativity, reduce stress and anxiety, can promote personal growth, and there is neuroscience to back all these things. That was the thing that was most surprising to me.

Literature can actually be therapeutic with trauma—multiple types of trauma. It can spark creativity, reduce stress and anxiety, can promote personal growth, and there is neuroscience to back all these things.

On The Godfather

A lot of people are surprised by the fact that I have Mario Puzo’s The Godfather in the book. They’re even more surprised by the way that I read it because I don’t read it thematically. If we were to read it thematically, the way we’re taught to read in school, we would say, “Oh, this is about being a gangster,” or “This is about violence,” and we should interpret it as a kind of sermon or message on being a gangster or on violence.

What I point out is that reading The Godfather actually has the neurological effect of making you less lonely and reducing the adverse effects of loneliness. Where does this come from? It comes from the fact that The Godfather is part of a tradition of literature that goes back to some of our earliest operas that used a technique from music to create a feeling of bonding to the writing. That bonding makes us feel less lonely. You can feel that operatic effect just in reading The Godfather. It feels like an opera. The overall take is that when you read literature, it’s not about the themes. It’s not about the arguments or what the literature seems to be saying, like we’ve all been taught in school. It’s about the psychological effects, and those come from the actions that the work is making as opposed to the things that it’s saying on the surface.

Is your approach taking some of the fun away?

The first thing I would say is, enjoy the literature. Have fun. I’m not trying to tell you that you have to experience literature this way. I’m not here to tell anyone that they have to do anything. I’m simply saying that there’s an opportunity: if you want to get more out of literature, it can give it to you. The way you might think about it is the way you might think about a friendship. We all have friends that we just want to have fun with, but some of those friendships deepen into more meaningful friendships that can change our lives in profound ways. This book is just about how to go beyond the fun into that emotional and psychological change, if you want to go there. If you just want to have fun, that’s OK, too.

To binge or not to binge?

On Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black, and binge watching

One of the things that’s happened with the development of TV and binge watching and these completely addictive shows, as we like to refer to them, is that we just can’t stop ourselves watching them over and over again. People sometimes get concerned and say, “That might be bad for me. I might actually be addicted.” The first thing I want to assure people is you cannot get addicted to literature. The neuroscience is clear about that. You can develop a strong desire or preference for literature, but you cannot get addicted to literature.

The other thing that’s really interesting is a lot of the shows that we associate as binge-watching shows, they’re great opportunities to form friendships. One of the reasons you jump quickly to the next episode is because you’re hungry for the story to continue. If you watch the episodes with other people, then the way you continue the story is by turning to them and having a conversation. That’s why those binge-watching shows can be the source of real connections outside of the imaginary world of TV. That’s why they can connect you to some of the most elusive people in your lives, including your family—all of those people you spend all your hours with but don’t connect with maybe as deeply as you’d like. Sit down, watch an episode of Stranger Things or Orange Is the New Black with them, and see what conversations develop.

What’s the value of storytelling to planning, strategizing, and even innovating?

Stories are the most powerful tools that we humans have ever invented. Every business plan, every new technology, every cultural or political movement gets started with a story about tomorrow. When we think about the power of stories, we often limit it to their powers of communication. We often say, “Oh, that’s the way that I communicate my vision,” or “That’s the way that I convince people to go along with me.” The reason that stories are so powerful as tools of communication is because that’s actually the way that our brains think. That’s one of the great breakthroughs of modern neuroscience—to realize that our brains are primarily narrative. The reason that stories are so powerful is that they plug into the action centers of our brain and literally move us. What that means is that stories are not just wonderful for communication but they’re also the way that we think, we plan, we plot. Those are the beginnings of innovation and creation. A lot of our focus is not on communication but on how we can develop new ways of strategizing, of planning, of pooling together our narrative abilities to change tomorrow.

What that means is that stories are not just wonderful for communication but they’re also the way that we think, we plan, we plot. Those are the beginnings of innovation and creation.

Can literature make us better in business?

My advice to a businessperson would not be to read literature for its lessons. I mean, what do poets know about business? Why would you read a poet to figure out how to run your own 21st-century business? Instead, the reason to read literature is to stimulate the parts of your brain that you want to grow in your business. If you want to grow creativity in your business, it might be a good idea to hand out The Cat in the Hat or Winnie the Pooh to your employees. Simply reading those books would help nurture a culture of imagination. If you want to build products that promote growth or healing or creativity, you should look to books that grow those same qualities.

The other surprising lesson we can learn from literature is that our world is becoming increasingly dominated by AI [artificial intelligence] and by its decision making. Companies are looking more and more to computers to help them imagine the future. There are a couple of problems with that. The first is that AI cannot imagine the future. AI, because of the way computers work, exists in a continuous mathematical present. It is not actually able to predict where things are going; only we humans can do that through our powers of narrative, through our powers of story.

The other problem with AI is that computers think in a way that is different from us. They think in terms of spatial patterns. That’s why the more time you spend with computers and their data, the more your own mind starts to feel like it’s slowly coming apart because it’s basically a field, a web of information, and that’s not how our brains think. Our brains think in simple actions. If you want to develop a single sense of purpose, there’s nothing better that you can do than read the story of someone who shares that purpose. Someone who has the courage or the love or the empathy or the curiosity that you want to imitate in your own company. Find those stories, give those stories to the people in your company, and encourage those noncomputer, entirely human forms of life.

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