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Adam Gopnik vs. Jonathan Gotschall on Stories

As I’ve written before, I’m a skeptical of claims, like Jonathan Gottschall’s, about the power of stories to make us better people. Adam Gopnik of The New Yorkeris skeptical too. Gopnik argues that

Gotschall’s more central claim—that stories increase our empathy, and “make societies work better by encouraging us to behave ethically”—seems too absurd even to argue with. Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.

This seems glib, doesn’t it? It also seems that it might be a good point. 

If stories prime our sympathetic capacities, why aren’t literature professors saints? Moral philosophers aren’t especially moral, but that’s probably because thinking with precision about morality has no obvious connection to moral motivation. I can have excellent ideas about good free-throw-shooting form without being able to accurately shoot free throws myself. But the idea about stories and morality is that stories exercise our moral muscles in a way that makes us readier to sympathetically inhabit the perspective of others. As I mentioned in my previous post, I don’t think this idea takes the situationist evidence seriously enough. The presence or absence of hunger, a sense of hurry, loud noises, or disgusting smells is more likely to affect our behavior than having read a lot of stories. 

Anyway, advanced “mind-reading” skills are just as likely to be used to see further down the game tree, to out-strategize our competitors for stuff or status or consorts or kingdoms. No, scratch that. More likely. Any extra mind-reading capacities we manage to develop are waymore likely to be harnessed to our non-moral motives, simply because most motivation is non-moral, and we use the tools we have at hand.

In any case, behaving morally in the moment has little to do with sympathy and a lot to do with one’s immoral options simply not coming to mind. The norms we internalize edit our options and rank them. Stories are a powerful medium for moral propaganda, and surely have a great deal to with the way in which humans pass along moral culture. But stories can teach us to despise and destroy just as well as they can teach us to love and create. I’d say literature professors are no better than we vulgar plebes because we shouldn’t expect stories, as such, to make us better people. 

Of course, Gottschall won’t like that explanation. Perhaps he’ll answer that literature professors don’t in fact spend more time consuming stories and exercising their moral capacities than do ordinary folk. We’re all reading and watching and hearing stories all the time. That we have lit professors at all just goes to show we’re a story-obsessed culture.

But this line of defense plays into another of Gopnik’s complaints:

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. This is a case, as with women’s fashion, where the subtle, “surface” differences are actually the whole of the subject. 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. 

On Facebook, Gottschall says he tried to reply to Gopnik in the comments at The New Yorker, but it wasn’t working, so he posted his reply on Facebook in the mean time:

You sum up my book as a story “that tells us only that we like all kinds of stories.” Unkind. Unjust. And you dislike my emphasis on universal patterns in storytelling. You think universals are boring, and that—in fiction or women’s fashion—“’surface’ differences are actually the whole of the subject.” This reminds me of William Blake’s, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit—General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.” But Blake was himself being an idiot. Not all merits lie in particulars. Trees are really interesting. But so are forests. The question of why one story outstrips another is interesting. But so is the question of how we became storytelling animals in the first place.”

I agree with Gottschall that the question of how we became storytelling animals is interesting. But if the answer turns out to be something in the neighborhood of the idea that narrative is the medium of human thought — that thinking just is the imposition of narrative order on experience — then, well, that’s not actually a very interesting answer. (This is sort of like asking how consciousness is possible in a material world, and then answering that it’s possible because matter was conscious in the first place!) But I’m not sure Gottschall argues any such thing. Indeed, this seems to be the sort of thing he thinks it’s unfair and unkind of Gopnik to have attributed to him. I guess I need to actually read this book. 


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