The jacket blurb sounded promising, with its assertion that "humans live in landscapes of make-believe" (I agree), and its claim that this is "the first unified theory of storytelling." (On that point, I thought the book fell short--Gottschall touched on many intriguing ideas but often trailed off before fully developing them.) Of course I'm reading from the perspective of someone who studies and teaches English for a living, and this book is too thinly researched to be called "literary scholarship." Other types of readers, however, may have a different take. I did have the impression that Gottschall--though he is an English professor--is primarily targeting a non-academic readership to make his case for the centrality of storytelling to human life.
That aspect of the book, I especially like: I'd love to see more academic writers aim toward a broader readership, and I strongly believe we have done much to undermine our own cause by talking primarily amongst ourselves, using overly specialized language, and distancing ourselves (often arrogantly) from other sectors of society. Perhaps one of the most effective ways in which we can push back against our own marginalization is to disseminate what we teach beyond the classroom walls, and Gottschall deserves props for attempting to broaden the discussion in that way. The Storytelling Animal succeeds in pointing out that (a) storytelling is not going away any time soon, and (b) despite rhetoric to the contrary, we don't function as completely utilitarian/economic beings. Our psyches are too complex for that. (For one thing, we'll never be able to stop ourselves from dreaming, and dreams are structured as narratives, however surreal they may be.)
I did have problems with several aspects of this book--Gottschall's reductive gender politics, some superficial analyses, an over-emphasis on fantasy, and some strange inclusions, such as a photo of a porno film set that sheds light on ... absolutely nothing. (I'm not a prude and I wouldn't object if that picture did something to further his argument, but determining its relevance was a stretch.) I wish I could write a more enthusiastic review, since the underlying premise is so compelling. The centrality of story in human life is indeed something we would all do well to understand more deeply and discuss more widely, not just in English departments.
After all, even people who don't see themselves as in any way "literary" are entrenched in storytelling. Take sports, for instance. You've got all the elements of compelling narrative--heroes, villains, obstacles, a specific context (rules of whatever game is being played), back-stories, rivalries, complications, interpersonal drama, standard expectations, surprise twists. Sometimes you get predictable endings; other times you get underdog victories, expectation-shattering injuries, erupting fights, last-minute reversals of fortune. We not only get the "story" that unfolds during the game itself, but the story leading up to the game ("what do we expect to happen?"), the story after the game ("what actually happened?"), the endless pre- and post-game analyses. Story depends on characters and conflict, and sports offers all that in droves--plus the added twist that sports offer true surprise. They're one of the few forms of cultural storytelling in which we don't already know the ending in advance. Seahawks winning the Super Bowl? (Yes!) Oh, the drama of it all! Narrative doesn't get any more compelling than that.
(Usually every post-game interview concludes with some version of the following dialogue: "Q. What happened out there today, Jack?" "A. Well, Frank, the other team scored more points than we did, and whenever that happens, you lose." So yeah, much sports analysis is neither insightful nor particularly necessary--yet even those predictable pre- and post-game dialogues are part of the expected narrative structure. And what would be the point of the "big game" if you didn't have anyone to talk to about it?)
Where Gottschall does succeed, despite my quibbles, is in emphasizing the centrality of storytelling to human life. From the fantasy play and superhero scenarios we engage in as children, to sports, to TV (both reality and scripted), genre fiction, dreams, role-playing games, politics, conspiracy theories, cautionary morality tales, family lore, even the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves (which, paradoxically, often can have the effect of limiting us)--story can't be escaped. And despite our present cultural over-emphasis on all that is quantifiable, measurable, utilitarian and "practical," Gottschall is correct when he points out that storytelling today is more ubiquitous than ever, provided you look past the academic walls and beyond the typical expected places.
In one of his strongest passages, Gottschall argues against those who blame virtual worlds and technology for increasing social isolation: "Virtual worlds," says Gottschall, "are less a cause of that isolation than a response to it." Role-playing games may be a reaction to the "repellent force" of "real life" with its "bleak concrete landscape of big-box stores and fast-food joints," low-paying and meaningless work, and detached neighborhoods devoid of connection and community (195). If "real life" continues to dehumanize us, Gottschall suggests, then "the real threat isn't that story will fade out of human life in the future; it's that story will take it over completely" (198).
He has a point; humans don't just passively accept a dehumanized world. In some quarters it's popular to pan "escapist" stories as substandard, but when too many of us are trapped in circumstances where fantasy escape is our only real option, escapism will flourish. After all, there's only so much crap we can put up with in "real life," and many people are already putting up with way too much of it; why not turn to something that allows you, for a change, to play the vanquishing superhero?
I appreciate Gottschall's broadening of the concept of narrative, and the way he reaches beyond "classical" literature (or even film, which has finally garnered respect in academic circles), to recognize the omnipresence of storytelling. I've long felt that given its centrality, it is odd that English is so often relegated to the metaphorical basement: Isn't the study of language and storytelling really where the study of everything else begins? And in terms of the employability of English majors, shouldn't the skills that we have to offer be highly valued in multiple economic sectors? (And no, I'm not just talking about proofreading, though we can certainly can be useful there as well.) For that reason alone, I appreciate what this book is trying to do.
Yet for all my griping, The Storytelling Animal left me with some crucial questions: How can those of us who understand the centrality of narrative persuade those in power to make the study of English as central to education as it should be? (Here I'm talking about education at all levels.) How can we devise and successfully institute qualitative assessment methods that recognize the limitations of numerical measurement? How can those of us with English (or related) degrees successfully market ourselves in the work force?
Given the current grim situation, with both money and influence concentrated in the hands of a powerful few who have the means to push their agenda on billions of others, how can we take back education for liberatory rather than utilitarian purposes? (See, for example, the role of the Gates Foundation in pushing the Common Core Curriculum onto America's public schools--an approach that conceptualizes job training as the primary purpose of education and, consequently, over-emphasizes the study and production of nonfiction at the expense of fiction and poetry). With multiple, powerful, uber-wealthy forces amassed against those of us who value that which is literary, creative, and qualitative, what we can possibly do?
The Storytelling Animal, despite its limitations, makes the crucial point that storytelling will never disappear. To me, this suggests that an educational approach too dismissive of story's centrality will ultimately fail to engage learners. I agree with Gottschall that our dehumanized environment is likely to drive human beings further into fantasy worlds rather than away from them. We're human, after all (theories to the contrary notwithstanding), and we will do what humans do: make narratives, engage in a quest for meaning. I don't believe we'll stop doing those things. I think the real question is whether all that will happen inside formal educational settings, or primarily elsewhere.
Questions, then, so often lead to other questions: For what reasons should we continue to study the production and analysis of narrative in educational settings? If storytelling will proliferate regardless of whether or not English departments continue to exist, how can we argue successfully for keeping literature alive within the academy? And as teachers, what kind of approach should we use if we want to keep the study and production of storytelling relevant, compelling, and alive?