Needing Fiction Like Water
Brian Boyd, a distinguished professor of English at the University of Auckland, defends fiction in his new book On the Origin of Stories, which offers an overview and defense of Darwinian literary criticism, though Boyd prefers the term “evocriticism”. Why do human beings spend so much time telling each other invented stories, untruths that everybody involved knows to be untrue? The ability to use stories to communicate accurate information about the real world has some obvious usefulness in this department, but what possible need could be served by made-up yarns about impossible things like talking animals and flying carpets? Boyd’s explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction — like all art — is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation. In the second half of the book, Boyd applies his idea of “evocriticism” to two exemplary works: the Odyssey and Dr Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who.