On the Origin of Stories

On the Origin of Stories is a title with a lot to live up to. By echoing Darwin’s masterpiece it evokes the idea of a grand, explanatory theory that is simple but powerful. Brian Boyd certainly has that in mind – a grand explanation of what evolutionary theory has to tell us about art, and in particular narrative.

I don’t think he succeeds.

The thing that I found most frustrating about the Origin of Stories was just how fluffy it was. Page after page I kept looking for some detailed, specific theories beyond the general motherhood application of evolutionary theory in a literary context. It never really felt like I got there.

Boyd does a reasonable job, as far as it goes, of arguing that there’s an evolutionary case for the existence of art. That argument centres on a set of broad ideas around the fact that it’s unlikely so much energy would be expended on something that doesn’t provide an evolutionary advantage, and that because art involves processing information, it can be seen  as a form of play, helping our minds adapt and practice a key skill in a low pressure environment.

That’s an interesting enough argument, as far as it goes; it feels overdone at 200 pages. He also makes some interesting points about attention; that it’s a key social resource, and as beings competing in a social context, we’re motivated to dominate or seek the attention of others, including through art, because of the rewards that brings.

But for all that, it still felt incredibly, frustratingly, fluffy. Boyd never quite pins down what he thinks a narrative might be, or delves into the detail of why narratives typically take a particular shape. As another review noted:

I found this beautifully presented, big book frustrating because the arguments themselves are presented poorly, buried in overwriting and repetition, so that it is difficult to get a clear overview of them. The 400 pages could be condensed and clarified considerably to make those arguments stand out, and the reading less exhausting

He argues at one point that attention, and the competition for it, can explain features of narrative in ways that an information or sense-making hypothesis can’t. It’s just frustrating that in earlier passages he’s argued that we pay attention to stories because of the information they convey.

There are some mildly interesting passages in here – it’s just that they’re not worth the 400+ pages of reading to get to them. Having waded through it all (and by page 250+ I really was skimming to get through it), I’d say you’re best saving your time and reading something else. I’ve been reading a few books on literary theory this year, including those that apply theories from psychology or evolutionary theory to literary criticism, and of those I’d say you’re best off going with Lisa Zunshine’s Why we read fiction. It’s not perfect, but it’s a detailed, reasonably clear application of an interesting theory, in a way that I think genuinely adds something to reading of a piece of fiction.

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