Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite writers at the New Yorker, recently published online a negative review of Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, The Storytelling Animal. I haven’t read Gottschall’s book and I don’t know anything more about it than what Gopnik reveals, so I won’t defend it. However, though characteristically insightful and well written, Gopnik makes a few troubling points that I thought I’d comment on.
The crux of Gottschall’s book seems to be that storytelling makes people more empathetic and thus was selected for in human evolution. Gopnik writes,
Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.
But this claim, itself hardly momentous, then opens onto something sadly like a forced march of the platitudes: We all like stories. When we don’t have a story we make one up—that’s why the juxtapositions of film editing work. People usually like stories to have ‘morals’ at the end. Religions are so successful because they tell moralish stories, though, to be sure, some of their stories are nice and some are not nice at all. Different people like different kinds of morals in their stories. Hitler loved the heroic stories of Wagner, for instance. That was too bad. (‘The musical stories that Hitler most loved did not make him a better person,’ Gottschall writes.) On the other hand, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an influential story about the evils of slavery. That was good.
For Gopnik, the theory is merely boring. He treats the claim that humans are natural storytellers as a shallow and uninteresting claim. The statement may be obvious, but the explanation of why this should be would is far from clear, given the quantity of time and resources that people throw being entertained. To him, the interesting question is what makes certain stories good and others bad. He writes,
The interesting questions about stories, which have, as they say, excited the interests of readers for millennia, are not about what makes a taste for them “universal,” but what makes the good ones so different from the dull ones, and whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story.
Questions about those small differences seem not to have occurred to Gottschall. There is not a single reference in Gottschall’s book to such students of the mechanics of storytelling as William Empson, Samuel Johnson, Lionel Trilling, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, or Randall Jarrell, all of whom brooded long and hard upon stories and their subjects.
However, why should we care even about the good stories. Isolating which foods are good and bad for us tells us little about why it is that we must eat. The questions are of course related, but there is certainly a distinction. Continue reading