Neutralizing anxiety with narrative

I enjoyed Michael Austin’s Useful Fictions: Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature much more than I thought I would. It’s an excellent introduction to the field of cognitive literary studies, which is a bit trendy right now, and as with all new theories has it’s rabid proponents and frothing detractors, even more so because it’s fuel for the ongoing battles over the social and hard sciences and their uses and abuses by the humanities. I’m particularly taken by Austin’s focus on anxiety and how narratives create and alleviate anxiety and the potential evolutionary reasons for this. This book is a difficult one to excerpt, but I think I’ve found a passage that works for my purposes because I do want to impart a bit of the flavor of the prose and the argument:

I have discussed a number of neutralizing strategies in this chapter. When a narrative lacks detail, we augment it. When a narrative over-burdens us with detail, we edit it down to a manageable story line.  And when a narrative that we consider true conflicts with another narrative that we consider true, we create a third narrative capable of resolving the contradiction. These acts of narrative creation are not governed by any selection pressure in favor of accuracy or truth. All that matters is that they neutralize anxiety effectively. Usually a neat, simplistic fiction will do a better job resolving tension than the truth, which is often messy, complicated, and devoid of closure. Like Robinson Crusoe, we commonly gravitate toward narratives that we can understand, that have a definite linear structure, that resolve all of the issues they raise, and that make us feel better when we are through. This often describes our fictional narratives, but it rarely describes the world we live in. (78-79)

This all may seem to take the magic out of storytelling. But I think it’s just the opposite — I think it (and the book as a whole) shows how integral narrative is to the development of humanity and that fact that it (the evolving via culture of the evolutionary uses of narrative) has led to the complex, beautiful, varied narrative forms and genres currently available to artists is kinda awesome.

4 thoughts on “Neutralizing anxiety with narrative”

  1. Interesting. I know there are authors out there (such as Dave Wolverton) who use the concept of generating and then resolving tension within the reader as a compositional principle. Perhaps I ought to read Austin’s book someday, if only to see whether I think it might be worth recommending to others…

  2. Jonathan beat me to it, but as I read the above passage, all I could think was-this is the same stuff Dave taught. (albeit Dave is even plainer)
    He related that he first came to this conclusion when he noticed that his writing prof (who in class despised genre fiction) was a romance junkie, and admitted that she only read them to unwind.
    This started his thinking on the values of genre and how we feel about what we read~thus reducing anxiety.

  3. I just picked it up from my university’s library, and will definitely be reading it soon. I’m working on a Ph.D. in Spanish lit, and a lot of what I like to do is use science as a tool for understanding memory and its relationship with narrative fiction. My current vague theory is that we have evolved storytelling as a byproduct of the way episodic memory works (or at least they’re intimately related), and I think that this book will be really useful for me as I continue to work out my ideas.

    Thanks for putting this out there.

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