The Problem Of Choice

In Uncategorized on January 10, 2014 at 10:00 am

A few months ago, The Atlantic published an article called The Evolutionary Case For Great Fiction. It was pretty packed with information, and the thesis was intriguing: Jennifer Vanderbes, the author, posited that storytelling is an evolutionary trait which, back in the day, increased the chances for survival (and thus procreation) in the early human tribes who practiced it.

Here’s the idea: stories are “low risk surrogate experiences” — they allow us to understand the consequences of certain actions, for good or ill, without actually taking those actions. Not only does this give us options in perilous situations, allowing us to choose optimally for survival, but it provides us with theoretical skill sets. The example Vanderbes uses is a successful hunter, “Ernest”, who tells in detail the story of his hunt, allowing other members of the tribe to absorb the theory of his technique and the environment in which he succeeded.

And there’s math, of a sort, speculative math anyway, to back it up: while the benefits of the storytelling hunter are obvious, even if they weren’t, they could still be helpful. Vanderbes points out that “a variant that produces 1% more offspring than its alternative […] can enter 99.9% of the population in just 4000 generations.” Four thousand generations seems like a lot, but in terms of evolution it’s next to nothing. New evolutionary theory says there were probably a lot of different genetic variations on humanity coexisting in our early evolution; in four thousand generations, the Storytellers could have taken over, and given our current state of being, probably did. Superiority of tools, climate, food sources, and physical condition (due to variations and mutations) all played a part, but so in theory did stories, which is rather lovely on its own.

But Vanderbes also slips something in there without really discussing it, a subtle but clearly intentional addition: Michiko the critic.

Ernest isn’t just telling the story because he wants to. He’s telling it because he’s being judged by Michiko, a “moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories”. Michiko’s approval or disapproval is what sets Ernest and his tribe apart from a second tribe, where John the hunter is also telling a story of his hunt. John’s story isn’t very good, but it’s not just that he’s bad at storytelling. He has no impetus to do well, because John’s tribe has no Michiko. Their stories all pretty much suck and nobody cares, and thus they don’t actually pass on the information which increases those necessary procreational odds by 1%.

Michiko makes this an article not so much about storytelling as about the importance of quality of a story, and also about the choice of story we have in the modern world. We don’t just get stories around a campfire, even mediated ones — we’re bombarded by stories all day long, from novels to news to television, films and podcasts and fanfic. So the question becomes, evolutionarily speaking, which stories give us a top survival advantage?

Which is a little silly, actually, because of course we don’t at this point need stories to survive, not in the way our distant ancestors did. In a spiritual sense, perhaps, but not in a literal “I didn’t see that water buffalo coming” sense. But we still have to decide what stories we allow into our lives, and critics are a part of that decision-making process.

Critics of everything — film and novels, pop culture, art — help us to sort out the “prime” stories. So do editors — as guardians of what makes it to print.

In theory.

In reality, critics dictate according to their own tastes and editors choose based on their own biases. Most English-language newspaper and magazine critics are white men. Editors assume books about girls won’t sell — because girls will read books about girls or boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. (Supposedly.) Rumor has it that cartoons can get cancelled if more girls watch them than boys, because girls “don’t buy toys”. (I don’t know where they’re getting that statistic but most of the girls I knew as kids had action figures and dolls, branded t-shirts and shoes, stickers of She-Ra and Spider-man.)

Which is why critics in the more generic sense are important, but official gatekeepers are problematic. Because anyone willing to make a statement and defend it can be a critic, but a gatekeeper is someone with the fiscal power to control what you experience. Like Walmart. Like all the white dudes in the review industry in the UK.

I have long been a proponent of self-publishing, and of course the big problem with self-publishing is that there’s no way to ensure, if you shop around on lulu.com for example, that you’re going to get a quality work — a work with quality characters and an interesting plot, with good research…with good spelling, let alone proper typesetting. There are blogs out there devoted to reading self-published works, but a lot of them are for-fee and it’s a difficult sea to navigate. For self-pub, word of mouth is the most powerful advertising, because self-pub is already locked out of the dominant culture’s professional reviews.

Michiko is important because she isn’t the head of the tribe, she doesn’t occupy any visible position of power. She’s just the one who’s willing to say what is good and what is not good.

We could use more critics like Michiko.

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