Writing on the New Yorker’s new literary blog, Page-Turner, Adam Gopnik picks apart several of the central claims in Johnathan Gottschall’s new book, The Storytelling Animal. Gottschall’s text attempts to answer an intriguing question: Do entertaining stories make us more ethical?
I found Gopnik’s objections more or less compelling, but this paragraph managed to bring a wry smile of recognition to my face:
“And if these claims seem almost too large to argue, the more central claim—that stories increase our empathy, and “make societies work better by encouraging us to behave ethically”—seems too absurd even to argue with. Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.”