Saturday, August 11, 2012

Much Upon A Time . . .

Telling Stories

Much upon a time, I didn't read the book . . . just a book review. One reader who happened upon my blog once castigated me for discussing a book I hadn't read. I make no apologies for that blog entry. I was discussing the review specifically, not the book directly. I can't be bothered to read every book that gets published!

Let me therefore be clear. I'm reading David Eagleman's NYT review, "The Moral of the Story" (August 3, 2012), of Jonathan Gottschall's book, The Storytelling Animal, not because I enjoy the review all that much or because the book sounds all that good, but just because it says some things about storytelling that I'd like to note:
There are several surprises about stories. The first is that we spend a great deal of time in fictional worlds, whether in daydreams, novels, confabulations or life narratives. When all is tallied up, the decades we spend in the realm of fantasy outstrip the time we spend in the real world. As Gottschall puts it, "Neverland is our evolutionary niche, our special habitat."

A second surprise: The dominant themes of story aren't what we might assume them to be. Consider the plotlines found in children's playtime, daydreams and novels. The narratives can't be explained away as escapism to a more blissful reality. If that were their purpose, they would contain more pleasure. Instead, they're horrorscapes. They bubble with conflict and struggle. The plots are missing all the real-life boring bits, and what remains is an unrealistically dense collection of trouble. Trouble, Gottschall argues, is the universal grammar of stories.
That second point isn't surprising at all, though I am somewhat surprised by the first point. Eagleman doesn't explicitly point to any third or further surprises, but maybe he was surprised by this:
[S]tory's role is "intensely moralistic." Stories serve the biological function of encouraging pro-social behavior. Across cultures, stories instruct a version of the following: If we are honest and play by the social rules, we reap the rewards of the protagonist; if we break the rules, we earn the punishment accorded to the bad guy. The theory is that this urge to produce and consume moralistic stories is hard-wired into us, and this helps bind society together. It's a group-level adaptation. As such, stories are as important as genes. They're not time wasters; they're evolutionary innovations.
I wonder if this is true. Maybe not always:
There are exceptions, Gottschall allows, but they only prove the rule.
I wonder what the exceptions are, and how they 'prove' the rule. Anyway, what do I take from this review?
Trouble . . . is the universal grammar of stories.
I knew that already, but the point is memorably phrased . . . though why "grammar" and not "syntax"? Sure, stories often utter a "What-big-teeth-you-have-grandma" line, but that's merely the moralistic sin tax!

Sorry, but I couldn't resist . . .

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At 7:51 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

"Trouble is the universal grammar of stories."

This sounds like a close cousin-- if not a twin-- of the age-old truism that "the essence of drama is conflict."

At 7:57 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right, and such is why I'm unsurprised.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

off topic: You'll probably read about this from other sources, but here's a NY Daily News storyon plagiarism by respected CNN/Time columnist Fareed Zakaria.


At 8:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, I saw that. If he'd only given credit, he'd have had no problem, for he did paraphrase rather than quote, at least for what I saw.

But now that he's been found out, his enemies will be combing his writings for more of the like.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Now that I've checked your link, I see that he did rather worse than I first saw.

Jeffery Hodges

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