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  • The Pleasures of Fiction
  • Denis Dutton

Human Beings Expend staggering amounts of time and resources on creating and experiencing art and entertainment—music, dancing, and static visual arts. Of all of the arts, however, it is the category of fictional story-telling that across the globe today is the most intense focus of what amounts to a virtual human addiction. A recent government study in Britain showed that if you add together annual attendances in plays and cinema with hours watching television drama, the average Briton spends roughly 6% of all waking life watching dramatic performances. And that figure does not even include books and magazines: further vast numbers of hours spent reading short stories, bodice-rippers, mysteries, and thrillers, as well as so-called serious fictions, old and new.

The origins of this obsession with comic and dramatic fictions are lost in remote prehistory, as lost as the origins of language itself. But like language, we know the obsession with fiction is universal: stories told, read, and dramatically or poetically performed are independently invented in all known cultures, literate or not, having advanced technologies or not. Wherever printing arrives, it is used to reproduce fictions. Whenever television appears in the world, soap operas soon show up on the schedule. Both the forms that fiction takes and the ideas, types of characters, and kinds of conflict that make up its content can be shown to be strikingly similar across cultures. It has specialist practitioners—rhapsodes, novelists, playwrights, actors—and is governed both informally with stylistic conventions and sometimes formally—for example, by censorship laws. A love of fiction is as universal as governance, marriage, jokes, religion, and the incest taboo. [End Page 453]

The question for any general aesthetics is: Why? Joseph Carroll is a literary theorist who has applied his probing mind over the last decade to the origins, nature, and functions of literary experience. His new collection of essays and reviews, Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature (Routledge, $85.00 boards, $23.95 paper) looks at literature and literary theory through the lens of evolutionary psychology. At the same time, Carroll's eye is that of an extremely perceptive literary critic. In fact, I would judge him to be one of the most acute and knowledgeable readers of fiction I've ever encountered. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that he is sometimes dubious, or even scathing, about evolutionary explanations of literature that have been offered up by writers whose grasp of psychology exceeds, in his opinion, their command of high literature. His complaints, however, are not to the fundamental notion that evolution by natural and sexual selection have made human beings into the story-loving animals they have become: his adjustments are intended to increase the accuracy and usefulness of Darwin's revolution. However critical he is of evolutionary psychologists, Carroll remains a Darwinian through and through.

Carroll holds that the only way to attain a general theory of literature is through an account of human nature that builds from the ground up, from the most basic conditions for the evolution of the human species. A Darwinian literary theory first needs a Darwinian psychology. Once we have a basic Darwinian psychology in place, we can see that the narrative proclivities of human beings, far from being an incidental by-product of the evolved mind, are central to some of its most human functions. The structures of basic motives and dispositions are what would be appropriate for a species, as Carroll describes it, that "is highly social and mildly polygynous, that displays concealed ovulation, continuous female receptivity, and postmenopausal life expectancy corresponding to a uniquely extended period of childhood development, that has extraordinary aptitudes for technology, that has developed language and the capacity for peering into the minds of its conspecifics, and that displays a unique disposition for fabricating and consuming aesthetic and imaginative artifacts." Such a list alone, he contends, would make it impossible to imagine a blank-slate view of the mind, in which the mind evolves in a vacuum, goes onto produce culture, which then gives back to the mind all content and structure.

Some of the mental processes that grow from...


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