TEXT review

Psycholiterary analysis: Let me not to the marriage of emotion and intellect admit impediments

review by Nataša Kampmark


Jean-François Vernay
The Seduction of Fiction: A Plea for Putting Emotions Back into Literary Interpretation
Palgrave Macmillan, Springer International Publishing AG Switzerland 2016 
978-3-319-39453-4 (eBook) 
Pb 124pp EUR54,99


As part of the Palgrave Studies in Affect Theory and Literary Criticism series, Jean-François Vernay’s ‘plea for putting emotions back into literary interpretation’ is a critical investigation into theory and practice of literary criticism with the aim of finding new directions which ‘would do justice to the values of literature’ (viiii). The original edition of this book was published by Complicités in Paris, in 2013, under the title: Plaidoyer pour un renouveau de l’émotion en literature. Having diagnosed the field as suffering from ‘intellectual asphyxia’ (xxi), Vernay argues that a path to healing leads through a rehabilitation of emotions. Vigorously opposing the Cartesian polarization of body and mind whilst building on advances of neurobiology which have shown that emotions assist cognition, Vernay proposes a psycholiterary approach which integrates psychology and literary analysis.

In an attempt to rescue literature from dehumanisation and desensitisation inflicted by objectifying interpretations which demand an interrogation of the text, an act of reading is envisaged by Vernay as one of seduction whereby ‘the pleasure of the text’ (12) is communicated to the reader with the aim of fostering a love of reading. Accepting Roland Barthes’s view that desire lies at the heart of conception, reception and interpretation of literature, Vernay terms the writer ‘a professional seducer’ (xxiii) whose fiction brings ‘mental pleasure’ (24) to readers. This centrality of desire to the literary process leads Vernay to investigate a symbiotic relationship of psychoanalysis and literature and their shared interest in the power of language, the readable subject, affects, and the mind. As both psychoanalysis and literature strive to improve the understanding of the human mind by delving beneath the surface, the inter-implication between Freudianism and fiction reveals itself best in the act of scopophilia where the analyst’s and critic’s tendencies to invade intimacy are indivisible from the analysand’s and writer’s tendencies to display intimacy.

Not wanting to neglect the pleasure of the text nor theoretical reflection on it, Vernay offers an approach which endeavours to reconcile emotion and intellect, the professional reader with the non-professional, and literature with the sciences. Being one of multidisciplinary approaches, psycholiterary analysis recognises the value of the unconscious, supporting the subjectivity of literary interpretation and urging critics to write in the first person while investigating the aesthetic pleasure of fiction. It draws parallels with operational concepts of the psyche, attempting to ascertain the impact of the affects in the inner workings of both writer and reader. Philosophy and cognitive sciences coalesce in this approach, working together towards a better understanding of the dynamics of the mind.

Vernay assumes the role of a psycholiterary critic while explicating his approach. Thus, he not only writes in the first person but discloses the pleasure he derives from a diverse set of texts from writers, social theorists and philosophers as eclectic as Jean Baudrillard, Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Hans Robert Jauss, Plato, Clément Rosset, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Gaston Bachelard, Alain Badiou, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jacques Rancière, and Paul Ricoeur. These may be personal favourite giants on whose shoulders Vernay chose to stand on in his attempt to break new grounds in literary criticism, but any dedicated student of literature would greatly benefit from the texts of these theorists. Herein lies another value of Vernay’s book: it gives a succinct review of twentieth-century philosophical and literary critical thinking. Moreover, as noted by Carolyne Lee, the book’s translator from French into English, it is the ‘synergy of … French/European and English/American/Australian traditions of scholarly criticism, that … endows [the book] with so much potential for intercultural insight’ (xiii).

From chapter to chapter, Vernay presents gradually constructed and logically built arguments, weaving together different strands of his multidisciplinary approach. Establishing the professional reader (literary critic, teacher, student etc.) as his target audience in Chapter 1, Vernay throws a life line to literary criticism which is drowning in metadiscourse in Chapter 2. ‘Conceived as an added value to a literary work’, argues Vernay, criticism ‘must contain neither wordiness … nor paraphrase’ (14). After confirming the importance of context for the creation of a literary work in Chapter 3, the two following chapters elaborate on the central metaphor of seduction, revealing a symbiotic relationship between psychoanalysis and literature which consists no longer of ‘the application of psychoanalysis to literature, but rather, of their interimplication’ (33). Chapters 6 to 8 focus on the interplay of fact and fiction, real and imagined, and the issue of truth in literature, story-telling and myth-making, concluding that fictional texts are outside truth valuations because they are products of the novelist’s imagination. For Vernay, the novel is a site of ‘the fictional pact, in which the writer deceives and the reader willingly accepts the deception by suspension of disbelief’ (53). Finally, in the form of the psycholiterary approach to fiction which ‘articulates the osmosis occurring between the author’s psyche and the reader’s’ (61), the concluding chapter offers the answer to the question of how the exploits of fictional characters can trigger genuine compassion in readers.

As a review of key discussions about three main points of literary triangle consisting of the writer, text and reader, the book is highly recommended to both students and teachers of literature.



Nataša Kampmark lectures in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University. She is the author of Tri lica australijkse proze [Three Faces of Australian Fiction] (2004) and the co-editor and translator of Priče iz bezvremene zemlje [Tales from the Timeless Land] (2012).


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford