Literary Darwinism, the real Mr. Darcy and Charlie Hebdo tempest

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There is a must read profile of literary Darwinist and mixed martial artist Jonathan Gottschall in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Recounting how his academic career has stalled in the face of his controversial theories that English Departments and, indeed, literature can be saved by using evolution alone as the key to interpretation. Among his supporters quoted in the article are the great Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd and the professor and popular science writer Steven Pinker. The strangest moment in the profile finds Gottschall asking the author: “What sort of things would I have to say to get you to reach across the table and punch me in the face?”

One of the stranger pursuits of scholars is to assume real people are behind fictional characters and then try to identify them. Or, perhaps it is not so odd that scholars engage is such quest but that there tends to be such an interest in the results outside the field of specialists. Strange because it is hard to understand why a mere obscure name hauled up from the past adds much to our understanding of a novel. Yet, the public is interested. So it is no surprise that an author of such fascination to scholars and general readers as Jane Austen has seen numerous efforts to tie her imaginative creations to the people she knew in real life. Here is the latest candidate for the real Mr. Darcy.

The contentious battle over PEN American Center’s decision to give a free speech prize to French magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose staff was massacred last year in a terrorist attack, continues. Upset by what they considered the magazine’s offensive content a number of writers pulled out as table hosts for the organizations annual banquet on Tuesday. Among those who withdrew: Peter Carey, Rachel Kushner and Teju Cole. Today brings news that another group of writers has proudly stepped into replace them including Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, and Alison Bechdel. Gaiman is quoted in New York Times: “The Charlie Hebdo PEN award is for courage. The courage to work after the 2011 firebombing of the offices, the courage to put out their magazine in the face of murder…If we cannot applaud that, then we might as well go home…I’ll be proud to host a table on Tuesday night.”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.

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