In the best part of the book, Gottschall cites the work of Jaron Lanier to explain how social media algorithms reinforce our worst tendencies. Wrong though Gottschall might be about a “universal grammar” of stories, he is certainly right that social media encourages narratives where we feel innocent and find others to be inhuman. But he cannot draw the crucial conclusion that a story needs a human storyteller, since he needs all utterances from ancient Bible verses to digital metaverses to be “story” in the same sense. He accepts that novels make us empathetic (an argument pioneered by the historian Lynn Hunt). But he cannot bring himself to say that reading “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is better than falling down a social media rabbit hole.
Gottschall chooses quantity over quality, tabulating surveys about novels rather than reading them himself. He cannot quite see that what the internet creates is an endless psychological experiment and not a story. By allowing the tools of big data and psychology to guide him, Gottschall blinds himself to this essential point about our contemporary reading experience. He is not wrong that social media algorithms draw us into unreflective narcissism. What he misses is that it is precisely psychology and big data, his own allies, that supply the digital commercial and political weapons that trap us in stories where we are always on the good side. Gottschall warns us of such stories and rightly so. But in his analysis of their multiplication and intensification he has confused the villain with the hero. In conflating human storytelling with automated manipulation, he has gone over to the side of the machines, without realizing that he has done so.
Gottschall ignores the basic difference between believing a story and becoming a storyteller. When he tries his hand at fiction, we see the problem. He gives us a short scene that (to many readers, at least) will seem to be about a young woman trying to escape a menacing attacker. “I’m the god of her little world,” Gottschall writes, creepily, before assuring us, more creepily, that he is a benevolent god. The story will be different when not narrated from a place of complacent omnipotence, for example if it is told from the perspective of the woman. It will also be different if told as nonfiction.
Gottschall’s view about our nonfictional world is that “almost everything is getting better and few things are getting worse.” It is hard to see how he can judge the past against the present, given his dismissal of both history and journalism. He relies upon Steven Pinker’s “data” on the issue of violence, though there is no such thing. Pinker cited others; his peculiar choices are usefully examined in “The Darker Angels of Our Nature.” In the fields I know something about, Pinker cherry-picked with red-fingered fervor; his best numbers on modern death tolls come from a source so obviously ideological that I was ashamed to cite it in high school debate. Like Gottschall, Pinker is a friend of contradiction. He supported his story of progress in part by pointing to rising I.Q.s at a time when I.Q.s were in fact in decline. He began his book by noting that the modern welfare states are the most peaceful polities in history, and concluded it by embracing a libertarianism that would lead to their dissolution. Pinker was telling us a story; it is a story Gottschall likes, and thus it is ennobled as “data.”
The most important development in American storytelling, ignored by Gottschall, is the collapse of local news. Most of our country is a news desert. It is very difficult for people, lacking the essential facts about their own lives, to begin to tell their own stories. Investigative reporting is not, contra Gottschall, just a part of some generic narrative of negativity. It provides people with a basis for their civic existence. Millions of little stories defend against one big story. But the millions of little stories need foundations in institutions. Gottschall has nothing to say about what it would take for Americans to become agents in, and tellers of, their own stories. He wants us to listen to one another, no matter how nonsensical our stories might be, but has no idea how to make what we say more reasonable.
Part of Gottschall’s tale of himself is that his views will offend the powerful. Yet his own account of the world does nothing to challenge the status quo. He treats political conflict only as culture war, a view that is more than comfortable for those in power. His most feared enemy, he says, are left-wing colleagues; he portrays their thinking as entirely about culture. One would think, reading him, that left and right had nothing to do with economic equality and inequality, a subject Gottschall ignores.