Thursday, November 20, 2014

Story Hacks

In this month's LOCUS, Cory Doctorow discusses storytelling as a "fuggly (funky plus ugly) hack":

Stories Are a Fuggly Hack

He's talking about the way narrative art "hacks" the empathy-generating part of our brains to induce us to feel emotions for made-up characters. Stories trick "the parts of our brains that keep track of other people and try to model them, the seats of our empathy. . . into treating the adventures of imaginary people as though they were real."

The main point of Doctorow's essay is to express his admiration for "much more abstract media, that seemingly manage to jump straight to the feels: painting, photography, poetry, sculpture, music." He wonders why artists in these media often insist on foregrounding the "storytelling" dimension of their art. From his perspective, it's really cool to have the talent for tricking the brain into feeling those emotions without immersing the audience in a narrative—"making someone feel something without all that tedious making-stuff-up is a hell of an accomplishment." To the artists in those other media, he says, "if you’re one of those people who can move people without all the stage business of Once Upon a Time, I envy you."

I find this reaction a bit problematic. To me, a story doesn't evoke emotion for the sake of the emotion itself. The emotion, as I see it, has the purpose of making the narrative world feel real, not vice versa. Narratives exist to enable us to see reality through the viewpoint of the Other, whether human or something else, animal, vegetable, mineral, or alien. The passions stirred by a story serve as a sign that it's working, not as the goal in themselves. C. S. Lewis celebrates this process as a way of liberating us from the limitations of our individual consciousness. Narrative art does expand our capacity for empathy, but for the sake of the empathy itself, not primarily for the purpose of generating emotions through that process. For example, I'm currently reading THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tartt. I find it deeply absorbing and emotionally moving, but the feelings it evokes serve mainly to intensify my interest in the narrator and his story, which I would never have picked up on my own on the basis of the plot summary. (I started the novel because it was recommended by my sister.) I continue reading for the sake of immersion in the imaginary reality of young protagonist Theo's world, not for the sake of the feelings themselves.

Also, I must admit that I don't react to non-storytelling art the way Doctorow does. Any emotional response I feel to painting, sculpture, or instrumental music tends to consist of an aesthetic "wow, cool" reaction, not a surge of empathic feelings. For sadness, joy, suspense, terror, etc., I need words. If a piece of music moves me to tears, it's because I associate it with lyrics I remember from previous hearings.

So, while I agree with Doctorow that storytelling performs an important function in "hacking" the brain's empathic circuits, I believe it does so in a way and for a purpose that only narrative can do. Or am I misreading him? What do you all think of his remarks?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment