The Power of Fiction and The Storytelling Animal

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.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

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

The good guy usually wins

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.

Murder Most Fatal

Every Tuesday in July here on Arran, the Whiting Bay Club of Drama and Music presents in the Village Hall the wonderfully entitled ‘The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen’s Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery’. But as it happens, one hundred and twenty-two years ago today there began a real-life story to match anything by the great Victorian crime novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when a young builder’s clerk from London, Edwin Rose, met a violent death near the summit of Goatfell, Arran’s highest peak. Just over two weeks later, his badly decomposed body was to be found in a stone shelter, where it had been deliberately hidden, his skull shattered and his spine broken.

Goatfell on Arran. Beautiful and dangerous

Rose had been on a walking trip to Scotland with several companions, and was in Rothesay on Bute when he had a chance encounter with John Laurie, a pattern-maker at the Atlas Iron Works in Glasgow’s Springburn. The two men struck up a friendship despite the misgivings of Rose’s friends, and spent the next few days walking on Bute before deciding, on the afternoon of the 15th of July, 1889, to take a ferry to Arran and climb Goatfell, a mountain which remains as popular with walkers today. Easily accessible in both summer and winter, it can be treacherous in bad weather.

The discovery of Rose’s body sparked a manhunt which led to the eventual arrest of Laurie in his home town of Coatbridge. In the subsequent trial, one of the most eagerly followed in Scots legal history, Laurie admitted to robbing the Englishman but denied the charge of murder, claiming that Rose had in fact met two others on the summit and descended with them.

Conan Doyle's famous hero Sherlock Holmes wrestles his arch-enemy Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls. Art by Sidney Paget

The ultimately successful prosecution case rested on circumstantial evidence relating to the nature of Rose’s injuries and behavioural reports, which convinced the jury of Laurie’s murderous intentions. The only suspect had been seen drinking in the Corrie Bar in Brodick at 10pm on the evening of the tragedy and had checked out of his lodgings the next day without paying. Yet there was never any of Rose’s blood found on Laurie’s clothing, and the victim’s cap and walking stick had been found lying in the vicinity of the body. There had been no attempt to hide them.

Laurie was convicted of murdering the 32-year old Rose and handed a death sentence, later commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He protested his innocence until his death 40 years later in what was then known as the ‘lunatic division’ of Perth prison. It remains the longest prison term served in the country to this day. But was there a miscarriage of justice? Was Rose pushed or did he fall? Unlike even the best fictional tales, in this case we will probably never know.

Alice in Multimedialand

You’ve read the book, you may have seen the film. Now read/watch the “vook”. The digitisation of books began with the advent of e-readers like Kindle and Sony, which can hold dozens of books in one hand-held device, but which largely reproduced the format of a traditional, print-based book with occasional illustrations. All of that is about to change, however, as publishers increasingly look to attract new readers with the “vook”, which is effectively a combination or “mash-up” of text, video and web-based media for a more interactive experience. Responses to the new format have so far been very mixed, reminiscent of the old book versus film debates, with advocates of the book arguing that it is always preferable to create your own images than to have someone else create them for you. The advantages of the mult-modal format may be more obvious for non-fiction texts, such as cookery or fitness books,but does it really work for fiction, or in an educational context?

To read more about vooks and the debates surrounding them click on this link to the full article in The New York Times.

One group of people who are thoroughly convinced that multimedia texts are the way ahead are the ciTeach Inanimate Alicereators of Inanimate Alice, a digi-novel in ten episodes, each one of them a self-contained chapter in the life of Alice and her digital friend Brad. The narrative takes Alice as an eight-year-old who lives with her parents in remote Northern China, and brings her through various global adventures to the point where, in her twenties, she is an animator with the biggest games company in the world. Increasing in difficulty and interactivity as the reader progresses, it is claimed that the story appeals to a wide range of readers, and it comes with an impressive educational support pack, free to teachers. Click on the image for more details, and please let them, and me, know what you think.