May 3, 2012

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our species teems across the globe, most of us still hew strongly to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages, and on screens — murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy stories, true stories and false. We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.
I can’t tell you how happy I was when I found out that The Storytelling Animal existed. The subtitle – How Stories Make Us Human – immediately reminded of an idea towards which I’ve always gravitated: that our tendency to organise our lives around narratives is a fundamental part of what being a human being is all about. I’ve encountered this idea several times in fiction, in the works of favourite authors of mine such as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and in series like Fables or The Unwritten, and I was very excited to see it explored in a work of non-fiction.

In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall explores our relationship with stories in a way that goes beyond what we traditionally think of as the consumption of fiction: after all, “the human imperative to make and consume stories runs even more deeply than literature, dreams, and fantasy. We are soaked to the bone in story.” He explores the role stories play as social glue; as systems that allow us to organize the world; in our childhoods; in politics, sociology and science, etc. To quote from the preface,
The Storytelling Animal is about the way explorers from the sciences and humanities are using new tools, new ways of thinking, to open up the vast terra incognita of Neverland. It’s about the way that stories — from TV commercials to daydreams to the burlesque spectacle of professional wrestling — saturate our lives. It’s about deep patterns in the happy mayhem of children’s make-believe and what they reveal about story’s prehistoric origins. It’s about how fiction subtly shapes our beliefs, behaviors, ethics — how it powerfully modifies culture and history. It’s about the ancient riddle of the psychotically creative night stories we call dreams. It’s about how a set of brain circuits — usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish — force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. It’s also about fiction’s uncertain present and hopeful future. Above all, it’s about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to Neverland? How did we become the storytelling animal?
Sounds exciting, right? I started out really enjoying The Storytelling Animal, but a few chapters in I was hit in the head by a staggering dose of gender essentialism. After rehashing some scientifically repackaged old gender stereotypes, Gottschall actually pulls what Cordelia Fine so brilliantly calls the Modern Day Galileo manoeuvre. He says:
Writing this, I feel a little like the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” Before tying a noose and hanging the titular feline from a tree, the narrator first digs out the cat’s eye with a jackknife. Confessing his crime, he writes, “I blush, I burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity!” The idea that gender has deep biological roots is something almost everyone accepts these days but still avoids saying in polite company. It sounds too much like a limit on human potential, especially on the potential of women to move into positions of cultural equality. But the spectacular changes in women’s lives over the past half century — driven largely by the way that cheap and reliable contraception has given women control of their fertility — should allay our fears.
First of all, I deeply resent the misleading implication that there’s a scientific consensus about the reality of gender essentialism that society keeps trying to censor – as scientists such as Janet Hyde, Anne Fausto-Sterling, Cordelia Fine, Mark Liberman, Carol Tavris, Lise Eliot, Lesley Rogers and others have shown, this is far from the truth.

Secondly, yes, it takes such courage to bring up this suppressed truth in “polite company”. The idea that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus is not completely steeped in popular culture – oh no, not in the least. Pick up a random magazine, watch a sitcom, see advertisements, and you’ll certainly not come across the belief that men and women are so different they might as well belong to different species. Nope. Thank goodness for brave prosecuted harbingers of truth such as Gottschall. My heart absolutely bleeds for them. And yes, our fears about sexism should certainly be allayed by now – not only are women’s reproductive rights completely secure, but gender essentialism doesn’t continue to hurt women – and men – on a daily basis. Nothing at all to worry about here. I realise I’m zooming in on what is ultimately a small aspect of this book, but this kind of thing exhausts me and I have frankly completely run out of patience for it.

Sadly, my misgivings about Gottschall’s approach don’t end here. He relies heavily on evolutionary psychology, a field of study I’ve always had big problems with – not because I don’t care about science, but exactly because I do. I do think there’s something to the ideas presented in The Storytelling Animal, and Gottschall’s exploration of them is often very interesting, but this book is far more speculative than solidly scientific. This is not something I’d have a problem with, if not for the fact that the way these hypotheses are presented suggests otherwise. To quote from the preface again, Gottschall says:
I’m aware that the very idea of bringing science — with its sleek machines, its cold statistics, its unlovely jargon — into Neverland makes many people nervous. Fictions, fantasies, dreams — these are, to the humanistic imagination, a kind of sacred preserve. They are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot — should not — penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or the timeless warfare among selfish genes. The fear is that if you explain the power of Neverland, you may end up explaining it away. As Wordsworth said, you have to murder in order to dissect. But I disagree.
I’m completely with him on this – I don’t for a moment believe there’s no place for science here, or that to dissect our fascination with stories is to destroy it. But we must make sure we don’t get too carried away and present what are no more than interesting speculations as solid, empirically supported facts.

Another aspect of The Storytelling Animal I had a problem with was the way Gottschall’s appreciation for story sometimes came at the expense of art forms that aren’t narrative based. For example, he says of the Modernists:
Gertrude Stein praised herself, along with writers like Joyce and Marcel Proust, for writing fiction in which “nothing much happens… For our purposes, events have no importance.” Nothing much happens, and aside from English professors, no one much wants to read them. Yes, experimental fictions like Finnegans Wake are still in print, but they are mainly sold either to cultured autodidacts dutifully grinding their way through the literary canon, or to college students who are forced to pretend that they have read them.
As readers of this blog will know, I personally tend to favour narrative-based fiction, but the suggestion that to read Finnegans Wake couldn’t possibly be a rewarding experience still makes me very uncomfortable. No, I’m not likely to ever read it, but I know people who have and who didn’t do so out of duty. And as much as I love story, there are novels that I love for their use of language or for the new possibilities they opened in fiction. We can appreciate all these different aspects of literature without having to dismiss some to champion others.

To end on a more positive note, I very much appreciated Gottschall’s optimism about the future of story, particularly at a time when many pronounce the death of fiction. Yes, the way we tell and consume stories might change in the future, but Gottschall believes (much as I do) that stories are going to stick around anyhow.

In sum, some aspects of The Storytelling Animal were unconvincing, but Gottschall is an engaging writer and presents interesting ideas about why stories loom so large in our lives. Recommended with reservations.

Bits I liked:
Our hunger for meaningful patterns translates into a hunger for story. As the video game designer and writer James Wallis puts it, “Human beings like stories. Our brains have a natural affinity not only for enjoying narratives and learning from them but also for creating them. In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story.” There are a lot of neat studies that make Wallis’s point, showing how we automatically extract stories from the information we receive, and how — if there is no story there — we are only too happy to invent one.

The characters in fiction are just wiggles of ink on paper (or chemical stains on celluloid). They are ink people. They live in ink houses inside ink towns. They work at ink jobs. They have inky problems. They sweat ink and cry ink, and when they are cut, they bleed ink. And yet ink people press effortlessly through the porous membrane separating their inky world from ours. They move through our flesh-and-blood world and wield real power in it. As we have seen, this is spectacularly true of sacred fictions. The ink people of scripture have a real, live presence in our world. They shape our behaviours and our customs, and in so doing, they transform societies and histories.

So whenever you hear that the novel is dead, translate as follows: “I don’t like all of those hot-selling novels that are filling up the bestseller lists — so they don’t count.”
But what if the novel were actually to die or just dwindle into true cultural irrelevance? Would that signal the decline of story? For a bookman like me, the end of the novel would be a very sad thing. But, as David Shields himself stresses, it would not be the end of story. The novel is not an eternal literary form. While the novel has ancient precursors, it rose as a dominating force only in the eighteenth century. We were creatures of story before we had novels, and we will be creatures of story if sawed-off attention spans or technological advances ever render the novel obsolete. Story evolves. Like a biological organism, it continuously adapts itself to the demands of its environment.
(Have you read this book too? Let me know and I’ll be happy to link to you.)

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a review copy of this book via NetGalley.


  1. Too bad this ended up being so uneven. I'd seen it and had hoped it would be really good. Oh well.

  2. Yes, I had such high hopes too! Of course, it's possible that others will enjoy it more than I did, but I can't imagine you in particular being happy with the jibes at the Modernists and at people who read them for pleasure.

  3. I'm sort of surprised that there weren't moments when you just threw this book across the room! Or perhaps there were. ;) I'm glad that you were rewarded with some good bits since you suffered through the obnoxious ones!

    *sending loads and loads of hugs* Just because.

  4. Wow the premise of this one sounds amazing. I feel like even if certain parts didn't work, it would still be worth a browse.

  5. Joan Didion said we tell ourselves stories in order to live somewhere in The White Album. Just popped into my head right away while reading this.

    And I guess I'm happy to know that as an English professor I have an excuse to read Joyce and Proust - I've never read a complete work by either...maybe I'm not really an English professor. :)

  6. I get where he's coming from when with the plot-driven novel, but he's really making a broad sweeping statement to imply that books like Finnigan's Wake aren't of literary value.

    I do agree with him, though, that gender has deep roots in reality, something which society tries to ignore by treating women as if they're just men with breasts. And society's idea of women "having control over their fertility" I find to be a kind of slavery, but that is another topic entirely.

    It sounds a very interesting read, and I do agree with his primary thesis that stories will never, ever die.

  7. Uhg, it sounds like this guy has some serious stereotypes going on. Does he address Scheherazade and the 1000 Arabian Nights at all?

  8. So we are all autodidacts, are we? lol I'll have to remember that term....

    I would be curious to see how they attempt to bring science to storytelling, because it seems to me that storytelling is one step up from survival - we survive, and the first thing we do is gather around the fire and tell stories! Stories to remember ourselves by, poems, history, songs, everything shapes us, you and the author are right, but how would we quantify such an ability? And why would he drag men vs women into this? as if women aren't guardians of the family lineage and history, as if the tales told growing up (and mostly in the nursery in those days) weren't by nannies, grandmothers, etc....the stories that really shape us, that we spend the rest of our lives seeing the world through.

    I would be curious to see if he relates telling story/narrative as a way to creatively impose ourselves on the world - that it's the intersection of the human self and the world in that moment.

    I enjoy this kind of review where you say what you struggled with as well as what you enjoyed, Nymeth.

  9. Oops, I had to stop reading your review because I agreed to a blog tour and I don't want to talk myself out of reading it!

  10. Debi: Well, first of all I was reading it on my e-reader and didn't want to throw THAT :P But seriously, despite my lack of patience for gender essentialism these days I didn't hate it or anything.

    Brenna: Yes, I think so. I'd like to hear your thoughts on it!

    Trisha: One of these days someone will come to take you away to some corrective camp for wayward professors ;)

    Christie: Oh, I definitely agree gender is real - seeing it as a social construct rather than as biological destiny doesnt' mean I deny its reality. I wouldn't devote so much mental space and energy to reading about and discussing gender issues otherwise. You're also right that there's a disturbing social tendency to pretend men are the universal standard of humanity, but I don't think the only way to avoid this is to embrace erroneous biological explanations of gender. There's an excellent quote from Carol Tavris' The Mismeasure of Woman that explains my views on this really well:

    "To deny that men and women differ in their basic natures, personality traits, and abilities, as I have done in the previous two chapters, is not to deny that men and women differ at all. Of course they do. They differ in the life experiences that befall them. They differ in the work they do, at home and at “work”. They differ in reproductive processes. They differ, most of all, in power, income, and other resources. By ignoring these real differences in men’s and women’s lives and bodies, people who take the normalcy of men for granted have fallen prey to a third error: generalising from the experiences and even the physiology of men to all humanity on the grounds that everyone is like men—and usually a narrow band of middle-class white men, at that."

    Tasha: Sadly no; that would have been a good metaphor to explore!

    Susan: I don't think that the fact that storytelling is separate from basic survival (although that premise could be argued with; we'd need to define "survival" very clearly first :P) means it's outside the realm of science - I think there's room for science in pretty much every human activity. But yes, it isn't necessarily a simple thing to study empirically. Gottschall offers some suggestions I found interesting, but they're all still in the very early stages.

    Kelly: I didn't know there was a blog tour coming - very curious to see what everyone thinks.

  11. Although my blog doesn't reflect this these days I have probably read far more non-narrative driven fiction in my life that narrative and plot driven fiction. And not only at the university but for mayn other reasons and I did enjoy it very much. Writing what he wrote is sloppy thinking. The same goes for the gender essentialism part.
    I find it sad because the book does sound very interesting.

  12. Despite those problems it still sounds like an interesting read.

  13. Caroline: Yes, exactly.

    Fence: It was interesting, and I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from reading it. As I was saying above, others readers may very well like it much more than I did.

  14. have you read Story Species(2001) by Joseph Gold.

  15. Anon, I haven't but I'll definitely seek it out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  16. I always feel like a book like this just begs to be read and discussed with a group. Sorry to hear you didn't love it after such a promising premise but it sounds like you reacted to it quite a bit which I always think makes for a good read too.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.