As a former English teacher, I have often argued on the blog and elsewhere that the English curriculum in schools offers a distorted syllabus, in which non-fiction is heavily outweighed by fiction texts – no doubt reflecting the fact that most practitioners have degrees in English Literature – and that there needs to be a re-balancing to reflect more accurately the texts with which we are surrounded in daily life. Time and again however, my attention is drawn to the importance of storytelling and the need to understand ourselves and the world through the medium of story.
In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall of Washington and Jefferson College in the USA, explains how stories shape and define us as human beings, arguing that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems, just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. The theory is that storytelling has evolved, like other behaviours, to ensure our survival.
“The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skilful negotiation of life’s problems. From this point of view, we are attracted to fiction, not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice (sic) reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”
But isn’t fiction our ‘escapism’, you might argue. Surely it’s in fiction, whether it be in a good novel or the latest Dr Who series, that we find our escape from the problems of everyday life? Well yes, and no. According to Gottschall the nature of the stories we tell betrays their true purpose.
“There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in The Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm and Drang. Take a look at the carnage on the fiction bestseller lists – the massacres, murders, and rapes. Look at classic literature: Oedipus stabbing out his eyes in disgust; Medea slaughtering her children; Shakespeare’s stage strewn with runny corpses. Heavy stuff. But even the lighter stuff is organised around problems, and readers are riveted by their concern over how it will all turn out.”
On the morality of stories, or whether stories have a moral purpose, Gottschall is adamant. When addressing the dire warnings of social commentators from Plato onwards that fiction corrodes
morality, especially in the young, his conviction is that they were entirely wrong, and he prefers to accept that, with some exceptions, the most popular story forms are still structured around ‘poetic justice’: the good guy usually does win out in the end.
“As with sacred myths, ordinary stories – from TV shows to fairy tales – steep us all in the same powerful norms and values. They relentlessly stigmatise antisocial behaviour and just as relentlessly celebrate prosocial behaviour. We learn by association that if we are more like protagonists, we will be more apt to reap the typical rewards of protagonists (for instance, love, social advancement, and other happy endings) and less likely to reap the rewards of antagonists (for instance, death and disastrous loss of social standing). Humans live great chunks of their lives inside fictional stories – in worlds where goodness is generally endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished. These patterns don’t just reflect a moralistic bias in human psychology, they seem to reinforce it.”
Developing this theme, Gottschall cites the Dutch scholar Jemeljan Hakemulder, who in his book The Moral Laboratory, reviewed dozens of scientific studies which indicated that fiction has positive effects on the reader’s moral development and sense of empathy. Other studies show that fiction reinforces our belief that life rewards the virtuous and punishes the vicious. Even though this is patently not the case, for a society to function at all it is necessary for people to believe in justice.
The notion of empathy, a core feature of works of fiction, is taken up in this TED talk by Jessica Wise, who argues that the importance of fiction is that it has the power ‘to change a person’s point of view’. I think the short film would make a perfect starter for discussion in any English classroom.