The Partial Spectator: What Makes Stories Interesting

Robin Hanson has some thought-provoking posts up about storytelling.  He points to some research involving an evolutionary explanation for why certain stories appeal to us, why we recoil from certain kinds of antagonists, and why certain heroes lift our spirits.  Most of the research sees the function of storytelling as a form of coalition building.  Like religion, it’s a kind of glue for the social order.  Cooperators are rewarded.  Defectors are punished.  I’d have to agree with Hanson, though, that these explanations tend to overlook some of the benefits that accrue to individuals who use stories, and the media in which they’re told, to score status points for themselves.  Like the antagonists mentioned in this wonderful paper on Victorian literature, storytellers and story-lovers may use literature as a tool to gain power, prestige, wealth, and even social dominance. (See Tyler Cowen).

The epjournal paper on Victorian literature announces some interesting conclusions:

Agonistic structure in these novels displays a systematic contrast between desirable and undesirable traits in characters. Protagonists exemplify traits that evoke admiration and liking in readers, and antagonists exemplify traits that evoke anger, fear, contempt, and disgust. Antagonists virtually personify Social Dominance—the self-interested pursuit of wealth, prestige, and power. In these novels, those ambitions are sharply segregated from prosocial and culturally acquisitive dispositions. Antagonists are not only selfish and unfriendly but also undisciplined, emotionally unstable, and intellectually dull. Protagonists, in contrast, display motive dispositions and personality traits that exemplify strong personal development and healthy social adjustment. Protagonists are agreeable, conscientious, emotionally stable, and open to experience. Protagonists clearly represent the apex of the positive values implicit in agonistic structure. Both male and female protagonists score high on the motive factor Constructive Effort, a factor that combines prosocial and culturally acquisitive dispositions.

I do not wish to dispute their findings. But I do have a bone to pick with the authors’ conclusions.  They use a moral score card to evaluate characters according to what goals a character pursues. They construct a list of motives and goals, principally devised by consulting the biological imperatives discussed in evolutionary psychology. In pursuing these goals, the authors found morally repugnant characters tend to be obsessed by wealth, prestige and power, whereas heroes tend to strive for socially constructive goals like aiding others, obtaining education, and forming friendships. What I find suspicious is that these findings support Jonothan Haidt’s description of a liberal moral sensibility. A liberal morality, you’ll remember, has a very high sensitivity along two dimensions: avoiding harm to others and promoting fairness. So I take these findings less as evidence for the moral importance of biological imperatives (such as coalition building), but more as evidence to support Haidt’s description of the liberal sensibility.  In other words, liberal readers tend to like characters who are both concerned with preventing harm and driven by a sense of fairness. 

So what’s the problem? Well, it could be that these novels merely reinforce the liberal sensibility. Those readers attuned to the moral concerns of the Victorian novel–mainly to its repudiation of social dominance–will tend resonate with the moral tone of the characters represented in the story. But I want to hazard a guess that another set of novels, those novels tuned to a different moral frequency–perhaps those involving authority and sanctity–will have different effects on its readers. On another frequency: look how disgusting most left-wingers find Ayn Rand. 

The smoke has cleared in most literature and philosophy departments. We are now returning to an age when intellectuals pontificate on the moral importance of literature. But their interest in literature as moral philosophy only betrays their own bias for the liberal sensibility. Exhibit A–James Wood in How Fiction Works

Since Plato and Aristotle, fictional and dramatic narrative has provoked two large, recurring discussions: one is centered on the questions of mimesis and the real (what should fiction represent?), and the other on the question of sympathy, and how fictional narrative exercises it.  Gradually these two discussions merge, and one finds that from, say Samuel Johnson on, it is commonplace that sympathetic identification is in some way dependent on fiction’s true mimesis: to see a world and its fictional people truthfully may expand our capacity for sympathy in the actual world. 

This post has grown too long. But suffice it to say that only a liberal sensibility would cast the novel as tool for evoking the sense of sympathy. In fact, the novel has many other moral uses. I suspect more than helping project us into the suffering of others, it also helps us to respect certain authorities, feel a sense of the sacred, and provide us with a tradition.

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