What is this book about?
Only humans tell stories. Story sets us apart. For humans, story is like gravity: a field of force that surrounds us and influences all of our movements. But, like gravity, story is so omnipresent that we are hardly aware of how it shapes our lives. I wanted to know what science could tell us about humanity’s strange, ardent love affair with story.
But don’t you worry that science could ruin the love affair, by explaining the magic away?
I get this question a lot. The answer is “No! A thousand times, no!” Science adds to wonder it doesn’t dissolve it. Scientists almost always report that the more they discover about their subject, the more lovely and mysterious it becomes. That’s certainly what I found in my own research. The whole experience left me in awe of our species—of this truly odd primate that places story (and other forms of art) at the very center of its existence.
You say that storytelling is puzzling from an evolutionary perspective. Why?
Can we run a fast thought experiment? Throw your mind back into the mists of prehistory. Imagine that there are just two human tribes living side by side in an African valley. One tribe will gradually die off, and the other will inherit the earth. One tribe is called the Practical People and one is called the Story People. These tribes are alike in almost every way. They hunt. They gather. They seek out mates. They foster their young, and so on. Here’s the only difference: When the Story People go back to the village to concoct crazy tales about fake people and fake events—the Practical People just keep on working. And when they just can’t work anymore, the Practical People don’t waste time and energy on stories: they collapse and rest. Of course, we know how this story ends. The Story People prevailed. We are the Story People. If those strictly practical people ever existed, they don’t anymore. But if we hadn’t known this from the start, wouldn’t most of us have bet that the Practical People would win out? The fact that they didn’t is the evolutionary riddle of fiction.
Are stories the same around the world or do they change a lot as we move through history and across cultures?
There are differences, of course. The swaggering heroes of Homer’s Iliad would wreak havoc in the drawing rooms of a Jane Austen novel. But dig down past the cultural differences and you find something truly amazing: stories from the classics to tribal folk tales to modern best sellers are all based on the same underlying structure. (And, even more amazingly, this same basic structure governs the pretend worlds of dreams and children’s make believe.) So one of the big question the book asks is not only “why do people tell stories?” but “why are our stories this way, instead of all the other ways they could logically be?”
What inspired you to write this book?
I was speeding down the highway on a gorgeous Autumn day, cheerfully spinning through the FM dial, and a country music song came on. My normal response to this sort of catastrophe is to turn the channel as quickly as possible. But that day, for some reason, I decided to listen. In “Stealing Cinderella,” Chuck Wicks sings about a young man asking for his sweetheart’s hand in marriage. The girl’s father makes the young man wait in the living room, where he notices photos of his sweetheart as a child, “She was playing Cinderella/ She was riding her first bike/Bouncing on the bed and looking for a pillow fight/ Running through the sprinkler/ With a big popsicle grin/ Dancing with her dad, looking up at him…” And the young man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious from the father: he is stealing Cinderella. Before the song was over I was crying so hard that I had to pull off the road. I sat there for a long time feeling sad about my own daughters growing up to abandon me. But I was also marveling at how quickly Wicks’s small, musical story had melted me into sheer helplessness. I wrote the book partly in an effort to understand what happened to me that day.
Well, speaking of that, children come up a lot in this book, including your own children.
Yes, I spent a lot of time observing my two daughters (in this I took my cue from Darwin, who was a doting father, but not shy about collecting observational data on his large brood). I got lucky. My girls happened to be 4 and 7 during the main period that I was working on my book. This is the golden period of children’s pretend play. And I was able to observe them spontaneously creating these fantastic wonderworlds, with these elaborate and dangerous plots. I noticed that my girls spent almost all of their awake time in various kinds of make believe. And I was invited to enter those worlds myself, to play the roles of princes and Ken Dolls and monsters. I learned a lot about the nature of story from my girls. Story and other forms of art are often seen as products of culture. But this is one-sided. Story blooms naturally in a child—it is as effortless and reflexive as breathing.
What surprised you the most in your research?
Well, first off, I was continually surprised by what I found; the research was so much fun. But I guess I was most shocked by the discovery that humans aren’t really earthlings. Above all, we are citizens of an omni-dimensional virtual world called Storyland. Of course, our bodies are always fixed at a particular time and place on planet earth, but our minds are always free to voyage in Storyland. And they do. They voyage through stories for most of the day into the night. It’s wrong to think of story as a mere frill in human life. We live most of our lives in various kinds of story. Story—as much as upright posture, tool use, language, or intelligence–is what makes us human.
Is storytelling bigger than novels, films, and TV shows?
Much bigger. We are storytelling animals because story infiltrates just about everything we do. First, there are categories of entertainment that are essentially storytelling in drag: song, story-centric video games, the faux non-fiction of reality shows, the slapstick soap operas of professional wrestling, stand-up comedy, urban legends, and more. Daydreams, night dreams, and children’s pretend play are all provinces of Storyland. The world’s religions are based on the believer’s imaginative interface with sacred stories. Our own minds are wired for storytelling: there are circuits in the left brain that filter through the rush of data for story patterns—which is great, except that the left-brain tends to make stories up if it can’t find them. And there’s a lot of research in psychology showing that we all, like lying memoirists, sculpt life stories that make us the striving heroes of our own little epics. I could go on.
You say dreams are a form of storytelling?
Yes, they are. Dreams are, like children’s make believe, a natural and reflexive form of storytelling. Researchers conventionally define dreams as “intense sensorimotor hallucinations with a narrative structure.” Dreams are, in effect, night stories: they focus on a protagonist—usually the dreamer–who struggles to achieve desires. Researchers can’t even talk about dreams without dragging in the basic vocabulary of English 101: plot, theme, character, scene, setting, point of view, perspective. The most conservative estimates suggest that we dream in a vivid, story-like way for more than six solid years out of a seventy year lifespan. So dreams are definitely part of the evolutionary riddle of storytelling.
Are there bad things about the human addiction to story?
Absolutely. We are suckers for story. Lab studies show that when we are deeply absorbed in a story, we lose our skepticism and we can be made to feel and believe just about anything the storyteller wants. In arousing us emotionally, fiction is better at getting us to change our beliefs than non-fiction writing that is designed to persuade through evidence. So when we enter storyland we are easy to mold and manipulate. The book includes examples of how storytellers have used this power to change the world for the better and for the worse. Also, our species evolved in an environment where story was relatively scarce. If you wanted to hear a story you had to get another person to tell you one. Nowadays we are deluged with story, and a lot of it is trash. Pigging out on junk food may give you diabetes. Could pigging out on junk story (romance novels, Jersey Shore) lead to a kind of mental diabetes epidemic?
You say story “makes us human,” but aren’t we reading less and less? Isn’t the novel dying? Isn’t story fading out of human life?
First off, people have been prematurely writing the novel’s obituary for a century now. But in the United States we publish a novel per hour, and some of these novels (think the Harry Potter books or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) sell by the ton. Story isn’t fading away. The opposite is happening. In the digital age, people are reading less fiction, but this is because they’ve found new ways to jam extra story into their lives—on average we watch five hours of TV per day, listen to hours of songs, and spend more and more time in story-centric video games. I think we are seeing, in video games, the birth of a what will become the 21st century’s dominant form of storytelling. The fantasy lands of online games like The World of Warcraft attract tens of millions of players, who spend an average of 20-30 hours per week adventuring in interactive story. Players describe the experience of these games as “being inside a novel as it is being written.” In upcoming decades, as computing power increases exponentially, these virtual worlds are going to become so attractive that we will be increasingly reluctant to unplug. So the real danger isn’t that story will disappear from our lives. It is that story will take it over completely.
What is your favorite fiction story?
Oh, this is a hard one! I guess I’d say Homer’s Iliad (I wrote my first book about it), followed perhaps by Tolstoy’s War and Peace. As for contemporary work, I really admire Cormac McCarthy’s novels; The Road just leveled me. I sort of staggered around for a few days after I finished it, with the deeply ambiguous final line echoing in my ears: “In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man, and they hummed of mystery.” In the same way, I hope The Storytelling Animal teaches readers something, but I also hope it will also fill their heads with the hum of new mysteries.