Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides discuss “why we tell stories” at World Science Festival 2012

From left, Jonathan Gottschall, Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey Eugenides
On June 2, award-winning novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides joined a panel of three scientists to address the question “Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative” at this year's World Science Festival in New York City. The panel’s moderator, Jay Allison, who produces a popular venue for contemporary storytelling, The Moth Radio Hour, on NPR, described the session’s ambitious agenda: “Why do we have a primal urge to tell stories? Do they help us survive? Do they serve an evolutionary role? What happens in the brain when we tell stories?”

Much of the discussion focused on what storytelling’s role may have played in human evolution. Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, profiled the curious place fiction holds in this context:
It’s no mystery why people would want facts about the real world: who’s sleeping with whom, where the food is—gossip is a natural appetite and a powerful one. It makes sense. But why would we want facts about people who we full well know don’t exist, and events that don’t either. Why would we spend our money, spend our time pursuing those things? That’s just an extraordinary puzzle.
Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto and author of three novels, devised an experiment to compare the performance of people who mostly read fiction to those who mostly read nonfiction. He asked participants to characterize what emotions they detected—fear, anxiety, desire—in thirty-six pictures of just the eyes of different people. The fiction readers performed decidely better than the nonfiction readers. Oatley’s conclusion: the “more stories—fiction—you read, the better you are at understanding people.”

At one point Oates questioned whether the panel was viewing storytelling too positively. “There are very negative kinds of storytelling. Paranoid schizophrenics have their stories. Sometimes they publish books, like Mein Kampf. And many people are taken in by them.” But Bloom pointed out that one of the most surprising findings independently arrived at in the research of all three scientists was the prevalent appeal of “the sad and the scary,” even at a young age:
The defining feature of many stories is that they involve bad things. Jonathan [Gottschall] sums it up in his wonderful book [The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human]: The core element that they share is trouble. You would expect kids rationally to avoid their worst fears, but they confront them. They dive into them. One solution to the puzzle which Keith has emphasized is that stories serve as a form of safe practice. There are horrible things in the world that we need to deal with. Just like play is often viewed by ethologists as practicing for the future, we practice in our imaginations. Maybe it makes us better prepared to deal with horrible things.
Listening to Eugenides read a passage from The Virgin Suicides prompted Oates to recall one of her motivations for writing:
One of the motives for creating art is a feeling of homesickness, that you’ve lost something. That’s very powerful and haunting and you can’t quite get to it in your conscious life. Through your imagination you’re inhabiting this invisible and palpable place. That’s one of the reasons why people write—that’s why I write--out of loneliness and homesickness you’re evoking this lost world.
The ninety-minute discussion covered much of what moderator Allison outlined—including scans of what a brain looks like when a person is reading Chekhov. Eugenides summed up many of the thoughts expressed during the evening in his closing comment:
I think it’s persuasive that stories exist to impose a meaning in a meaningless world, or a world we could fear is meaningless, regardless of the content of the story. The fact that there seems to be an order, and some sort of organization in the story is what we get from the story. It’s kind of our nutrition. As literature goes on, writers begin to distrust the simplicity of the stories that were written before and they have to start writing the little train that tried but couldn’t because all the other stories were about the train that could. . . . 
I just happen to be reading an Alice Munro story last night called “Cortes Island.” It’s about a young woman who’s kind of becoming a writer. She’s in a marriage that’s perfectly acceptable and new, but there are hints that it’s not going to be great in her life and she’s begun to read a lot and write and she gets interrupted now and then in her reading and the line is something like: “she would be interrupted at the point of astonishment the book had brought her to, the giddiness of gulped riches.” I’m often asked why I read. It’s sort of that astonishment that books bring me to and “the giddiness of gulped riches” that I get from reading. That’s going to have to be there in a hundred years in whatever form stories take or how they are delivered.
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now (includes “Family” by Joyce Carol Oates); At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing (includes “Rape and the Boxing Ring” by Joyce Carol Oates)

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