Feedback on the book launch

Neurocognitive interpretations of Australian Literature: Criticism in the Age of Neuroawareness (Routledge, 2021)





A neuroscientist, two novelists and a critic walk into a bar. What happens next? No, they don’t order wine and cheese to chill out in a room lined with books. Rather they discuss neurodivergence, ethics, art, aesthetics, rage and passions, gay fiction, First Nation literatures, sex in text, literary attention, attentional absorption, altered states of consciousness, trauma and pain, cognitive literary studies, brain mechanisms, neuroscience, narrative persuasion, empathy and mirror neurons, neurocreativity, imaginative thinking vs. practical thinking, book attraction and attachment, etc. A great majority of these aspects of Australian fiction and creative writing has been examined thoroughly in Jean-François Vernay's Neurocognitive interpretations of Australian Literature: Criticism in the Age of Neuroawareness (Routledge, 2021) which was launched on Saturday 26 March 2022 (6.30-8.30 pm) in Newtown.

Jean-François Vernay started by acknowledging his major sponsor AFRAN, whose generosity made the Melbourne (hyperlink) and Sydney interdisciplinary events possible by bringing together science and the arts. One of the panelists, Sue Woolfe, author of many works of fiction and nonfiction declared that "the launch of Jean-François Vernay's Neurocognitive interpretations of Australian Literature [...] was an unexpected delight. It was charmingly organized, thoughtfully hosted and well-attended, with inspring intriguing questions from the audience and from Jean-François Vernay, and fascinating answers from Peter Polites, Mark Williams and Jean-François Vernay.” Sue Woolfe published her doctoral dissertation with UWA Press under the title ofThe Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: A Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience (2007) and has expanded her research into neurocreativity ever since. She contributed to a chapter in Jean-François Vernay's The Rise of the Australian Neurohumanities: Conversations Between Neurocognitive Research and Australian Literature (Routledge, 2021). Peter Polites, a novelist from Western Sydney, author of two queer noir novels, Down the Hume and The Pillars which won the 2020 NSW Premier’s Multicultural Literary Award, was our third panelist. Though working on his third novel, God Forgets About the Poor, Peter Polites graciously gave his time to answer questions about rage in The Pillars, which Jean-François Vernay has discussed at length in chapter 7 of Neurocognitive interpretations of Australian Literature. In Peter Polites’s own words, "the launch was fully booked out, in front of a room of people, I learned about the neurocognitive patterns and triggers that happen when fiction is constructed and received. It was a night of learning, discussion and celebration. The event also served the purpose of selling our own works, which any fiction writer is grateful for”. The forth panelist, Professor Mark Williams, who discussed optical illusions on Sunrise (Chanel 7) with David Koch and Nathalie Barr earlier on in the week, was highly accessible in his explanation of brain processes. His clarity of expression certainly accounts for the fact that he has been widely featured in the media including The Guardian, New York Times, The Economist and New Scientist. He is currently writing a book on neuroscience and fiction with Jean-François Vernay, to be published in 2023. Dr. Williams found the event “enormously rewarding. […] Sue Woolfe and Peter Polites were fantastic panelists who gave generous answers and informative answers to the many questions from the delightful audience. Jean-François Vernay ran the event seamlessly and moved the discussion along at a timely pace. The range of guests and the very interactive audience made it a wonderful night.” Each panellist has responded to the questions on their own terms and has enthusiastically engaged with the audience.

The fifty-odd attendees from all walks of life (academics, IT experts, corporate managers, journalists, performers, psychologists, creative writers, you name it) were highly stimulated by the conversations and lots of hands were raised during the ensuing Q and A session. There has been a lot of positive feedback from the audience such as Peter Pecotić defining the launch as “a fascinating event”. According to this documentary film maker and producer, author of feature documentary Countryman, “It’s rare to find a forum that brings together creative and scientific communities in a ‘salon’ format that’s accessible and in a relaxed environment. The discussions were so enlightening, and I hope there will be many more similar events as it’s rare to gain access to such diverse and fascinating minds. The discussions gave me insight, some understanding and a new curiosity into the contemporary psychology and neuroscience of creativity.”Actress and journalist Sage Godrei has also shared her impression of how the night went: “The cosy surrounds invited our undivided attention to the panel who shared their insights during two delightful hours. Being endowed by the knowledge of the panel has primed me suitably for the reading of Jean-Francois Vernay’s two other books”.

A book signing session was organised at the end of the talk, which concluded the launch with readers interested in buying copies of all books discussing brain and literature, including copies of The Seduction of fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)which is being used in creative courses around Australia. The original French edition, Plaidoyer pour un renouveau de l’émotion en littérature, shortlisted for a scholarly prize in Paris in 2013, has since been translated from the French into English and Arabic, and will soon be available in Mandarin.

New projects are in the pipeline: Jean-François Vernay, who has recently successfully passed his habilitation à diriger des recherches (which means that he is now accredited to supervise research in French academia), is organising 3 one-day international mini-conferences in the area of cognitive literary studies with the scientific collaboration of colleagues based in China, in the United States and in Australia. His fiction piece, Forteresses insulaires (Besieged on an island), has just been released by Sans escale publishers in Paris.