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Effects of Fiction on Human Nature

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Fiction and Human Society

Argumentation is a method used primarily in literature in order to systematically support a general conclusion, and this conclusion often centers around a relevant topic in modern society. Most of these topics are also seen as controversial; controversial subjects offer more room for argumentation, both in favor of one opinion and opposition of another. Fiction, for example, is seen as controversial in regards to things such as the subjects it covers, and the way it affects the people in society. Jonathan Gottschall covers the latter in his article, “Why Fiction is Good for You,” offering the idea that fiction, despite all of its negative atmosphere, actually molds us to be better people, increasing our sense of empathy and influencing our interactions with others in a positive way. As with any literal argument, Gottschall’s contains moments in which better information could have been provided, but was overall an adequate approach to conveying his thesis.

Gottschall brings forth the idea that fiction and nonfiction both have their influences on us, but these influences are very different from one another – in that, when reading works of fiction, “…we drop our intellectual guard,” while nonfiction is a genre that we approach with caution, something we read “with our shields up.” Fiction allows comfortable space to be lost in, and often, we as readers are immersed in a good book if the world and its characters are interesting enough to learn more about. While the basis of this logic is understandable, as works of fiction such as The Great Gatsby and Jane Eyre have been known to immerse us in the worlds they create, its stability could increase with the implementation of better evidence. Gottschall mentions that “studies show” discrepancies in how we approach fiction and nonfiction respectively, but gives no specifications or hard evidence regarding these studies. Having an example of such a finding would provide a stronger foundation for this particular point, as well as Gottschall’s thesis in general.

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Following this, Gottschall offers insight into the opposing view regarding fiction; despite his claim that fiction can influence society in a positive way, fictional works themselves are not always positive. In fact, even from the earliest of times, fiction has depicted vices such as rape and drugs, things Gottschall describes as “morally repulsive behavior.” This history of unlawful depictions, as Gottschall claims, has “led critics…to condemn [fiction] for corroding values and corrupting youth.” Like the previous argument, there is a lack of necessary information for stability purposes; Gottschall leaves out any example of a literary critic who focuses on fiction, which is something that can easily strengthen his logic here. The information he does provide is useful – it is helpful to understand the opposing view on a topic, in this case, critics draw a connection between portrayals of vice and sin in fiction to an assumed “corruption” of society’s individuals – but his claim could also be explored more in-depth. While he does mention time consumption as a contribution to the opposing view, it is very brief – this is something that is detrimental to the criticism of fiction, no matter the outlet, as it connects to the gap between the millennial and older generations. Often, those who are older condemn fiction as inherently negative, robbing today’s youth of social interaction, and this is another contribution to the opposing side. Despite the fact that I agree with Gottschall’s insight here, it can benefit from both further exploration as well as an added example.

Gottschall’s first citation to an outside source is to psychologist Raymond Mar, who states that “researchers have…found that reader attitudes shift to [match with] the ideas expressed in a [fictional] narrative.” The effect that fiction has on human nature is most apparent in the results of societal exposure to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.” The former “helped bring about the Civil War,” influencing how people viewed blacks, the novel helping people see that “enslaving [blacks] is a mortal sin.” In terms of the latter, however, “The Birth of a Nation” only “inflamed racist sentiments,” contributing to the resurrection of an “all but defunct KKK.” In this, Gottschall proves that fictional stories, for all their intents and purposes, do have a hand in changing our views, whether it be for better or for worse, and this makes this point strong and stable. Not only does he provide a statement from an outside, professional source, but he also provides both a positive and a negative example to support the idea that fiction has an effect on how we act. This gives readers a further insight to the topic at hand, as his negative example helps to support the aforementioned opposing view.

Gottschall follows incredibly solid logic with a point that can benefit from a stronger foundation; he claims that “…fiction seems to teach us to see the world through rose-lenses,” and this view of the world around us “seems to be an important part of what makes human societies work.” First and foremost, Gottschall implements the phrase “seems” twice when providing this logic, which is not at all a way to offer substantial evidence towards his thesis; to state that something “seems” to be true is to say that something is also “probably” true – this leaves plenty of room for questioning, both towards the point itself as well as the author’s credibility. Despite the aforementioned well-implemented evidence, this particular point is based on assumption, proven in the mere fact that some can see the world in a pessimistic manner and still enjoy fictional work. To describe fictional influence on society as something that is, essentially, up in the air does not do much in favor of Gottschall’s thesis as a whole. Not only does this provide an air of uncertainty, what Gottschall claims fiction “seems to do” is not always the case – in fact, as an avid fiction reader myself, the stories I immerse myself in typically do not influence my view on the world to mold it into something more optimistic, and the same can be said for many others. People can be interested in fiction, reading it heavily, and may still see the world pessimistically, proving a flaw in Gottschall’s logic.

This poor argumentation does not last long, however; as Gottschall draws his argument to a close, he mentions a survey he conducted alongside three colleagues: literary scholar Joseph Carroll, and psychologists John Johnson and Dan Kruger. The purpose of this survey was to “explore the possibility that fiction…may act as a…social glue among humans, binding…individuals together around common values.” Right off the bat, Gottschall provides more hard evidence to support his conclusion, albeit something he participated in personally. As a result of this survey, Gottschall concludes that, “by simulating a world where antisocial behavior is strongly condemned and punished…. Readers learn by association that if they are more like the protagonists, they’ll be more likely to live happily ever after…” – those who were surveyed felt joy when the “good guys” succeeded in their endeavors, and felt “sad or angry” when they were threatened by their enemies. Reading fiction helps to guide more people in the direction of being the “protagonists” in their own stories (that is, their lives), as protagonists in fiction often represent good morals and social behavior, traits that are typically admired in human society. Evidence such as surveys, professional accounts, and expert statements help to provide stability to logic in an argument; without them, claims can seem too subjective, and their credibility, as well as the author’s, can be put into question. Thus, this particular claim is solid, but Gottschall’s personal participation in the survey he cites also weakens the credibility of his evidence. Nonetheless, it is true enough to understand – when people read stories where the good guys reign supreme, gaining rewards for positive efforts and the bad guys get their comeuppance for the crimes they commit, they experience the desire to be a “good guy,” in order to receive those same rewards and avoid negative consequences.

The resulting effects of fiction on human nature is something that has been debated from even the earliest of years to the present day – there are those who insist that fiction is some kind of inherent evil, while there are those who insist fiction is something society can benefit from positively. Both sides can provide compelling arguments, seeing as they offer substantial evidence and do not base their logic on personal assumptions; still, these are things that every writer struggles with. Perfection is impossible to achieve, and Jonathan Gottschall’s argument in favor of fiction is a great example of this. While there are times where his logic is strong and stable, there are also holes in this same logic, often due to assumptions and personal bias serving as a foundation for his argument. Regardless, Gottschall approaches the topic at hand adequately, providing substantial and sufficient information in favor of both his own argument, as well as the opposing viewpoint.

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