The Storytelling Animal
Jonathan Gottschall is getting a lot of mileage from the recent publication of his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. In this piece he addresses the issue of whether fiction in all its forms—TV shows and commercials, religious beliefs, and social commentary as well as novels, drama and poetry—benefits or harms society. He draws on new research findings to conclude:
But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.
The research he cites suggests that fiction has the power to influence the thinking of individuals and of whole societies. “Beyond the local battles of the culture wars, virtually all storytelling, regardless of genre, increases society’s fund of empathy and reinforces an ethic of decency that is deeper than politics.” Recent research findings suggest “that entering fiction’s simulated social worlds enhances our ability to connect with actual human beings.” Furthermore, Gottschall says, generally in fiction “goodness is endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished.”
Questions about the effects of fiction lead up to what Gottschall calls one big question: “Why are humans storytelling animals at all?” The reason may be that “Traditional tales, from hero epics to sacred myths, perform the essential work of defining group identity and reinforcing cultural values.” He concludes:
Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.
In answer to Gottschall, Will Wilkinson declares himself skeptical of the assertion that fiction is morally uplifting:
I don’t mind if fiction is instructive or edifying. It’s hard to see how time spent inhabiting fictional worlds and fictional minds can fail to expand our powers of sympathetic imagination. I don’t mind if fiction does that, nor do I mind if there’s some profit in it for readers/viewers and their social relations. But if a story is entertaining or stimulating or gripping or beautiful, that’s good enough.
I had intended to summarize Wilkinson’s refutation of Gottschall’s position, but I had difficulty following the logic of the argument here. I don’t want to misrepresent Wilkinson, so I’ll leave you to work your own way through his reasoning.
Let me just offer Wilkinson’s conclusion:
The “stories are good for you” argument, in addition to wrongly suggesting that stories ought to be good for you, promotes complacency about the cognitive dangers of naive narrative. Writing about politics every day has made me painfully aware of just how pathetically idiotic the “good-and-smart vs. stupid-or-evil” stories inside of which even some of our smartest commentators seem to be helplessly trapped. Better stories would certainly help. (There’s probably no non-narrative mode of thinking available to us.) But stories as such don’t look so great once we begin to see moral progress — Careful! History has not a plot — as a process of replacing bad stories with slightly less bad ones.
On the Bucket List Society’s blog Erik says that, now that he’s out of college, his aim in reading “is wisdom– knowing how best to act in any situation.” Nonfiction comprises most of the reading he undertakes for this purpose, and he has developed 4 directives that help him get the most from that reading:
- A book is only as good as what you remember from it
- Actually reading is more important than reading fast
- Don’t be afraid to burn books
- Read books to become better at non-books
He explains each of these commandments in more detail, but the one I found most interesting is #1. In order to remember more of what he reads, Erik advocates marking books up: using the highlighting function on his Kindle and writing in the margins of paper books. But in addition—and here’s the really intersting part—he keeps what he calls a commonplacedoc:
What’s a commonplace doc? A commonplace book is something I heard of when I first start getting into reading. Apparently, in the renaissance and enlightenment, a learned man would carry with him a small notebook for recording thoughts, quotes, passages, and small practical notes like transactions or to-do lists. This struck me as really pretty extraordinary. In one little book, you might have inspiration and wisdom from dozens of sources– all the things you found most meaningful and useful to you. Being able to review those with regularity would be a privilege!
I keep the 21st century equivalent of a commonplace book– a Google doc of quotes from a variety of books and other sources. Every time I finish a book, I open it up and type out what I want to take with me from that book.
But what’s even more useful is every six months, I take the document, format it for a small paperback book, and print it for ten bucks on Lulu.com, a website that does one-off book publishing.
Now I keep a database file with notes on what I read, and I also keep an Excel spreadsheet of particularly important quotations, which sounds similar to his commonplacedoc. But it never occurred to me to have a book of those passages printed commercially. Take a look at the photo and see if you might want to take a page out of his book.
Erik has his commonplace book, and Pamela Paul has her book of books, described in this essay. She began recording her list of books to help her remember the important details of the books she read (Erik’s commandment #1 above). Over the years BoB, the book of books, turned into a record of where she had been when reading particular books and how some books related to others on her list. BoB became so important to her that:
Were my house to burst suddenly into flames, I would bypass the laptop and photo albums and even, God forgive me, my children’s artwork in order to rescue Bob, the record of every book I’ve read or didn’t finish reading since the summer of 1988.
See the photo of page 1 of BoB at the beginning of Paul’s essay.
On Entertainment Weekly Stephan Lee offers a modest proposal for a reality show about writing a book:
The prospect of a writing show is sometimes talked about but rarely taken seriously, because writing a book is hard, solitary work, and it would seem nothing could be more boring than watching someone do it. Even shows about writing music and writing movies, which have way more visual and cross-promotional potential than a show about writing books, have fizzled. As someone who loves writers as much as the fiction they create, I’d add a show about up-and-coming authors to my DVR if it’s done in a fun way. Here’s a ridiculously detailed pitch — half joking, half serious — for a fiction-writing competition I’d totally watch. Proposed title: Great American Author. Though a network would probably change it to The Next Best-Seller.
Yet despite the inherent difficulty, Lee has the whole scenario mapped out in detail. Enjoy.