Irradiated by LabRat
The gist of his point is that the act of consuming fiction is essentially the act of absorbing and accepting someone else’s narrative, in a form in which its biases and errors of construction and perception go down much more easily than had the same person simply asserted them to you as fact. At one point he describes it as an “unpatched security hole” in our cognition.
With respect, I disagree. If the human taste for fiction and narrative is an unpatched security hole in our thinking, our taste for sports is an unpatched security hole in our bodies. Sports cause us no end of problems- they expose us to physical danger unnecessarily, wear down our bodies more than normal life would, and cause us to divide into little rival tribes. Every game of sandlot baseball is an opportunity for someone to lose some teeth or get concussed or break a limb. Across the animal kingdom, studies of play have shown that it exposes those who engage in it to much more physical risk than they gain in reward in the form of practice or physical development.
But, almost no one questions the benefit or healthiness of physical play, even to the point where we really probably should. It’s self-evident that physical play builds coordination, encourages self-directed exercise, and that children aren’t quite right and really can’t stay on an even mental keel without it. It exposes us to risk and injury, but even if we can’t quite quantify it, the benefit is more than worth it to the point where we engage in national navel-gazing in how we can manage to encourage more of it in children and adults alike.
One of the most interesting theories I’ve seen on the subject of humans and their art- including fiction- is that art is actually a form of cognitive play. All small children, no matter their culture, will draw and color if given an implement that will make marks, and all of them enjoy storytelling and story games. The author’s assertion is that these activities are as much a part of our development into mentally normal humans as crawling and running around is important to developing our motor skills, and I think he makes a very strong case. (The details of said case are worth actually buying the book, though I had a lot more use for the first half than the second.)
Storytelling is specific exercise for a specific cognitive skill, one that develops late: abstract reasoning. In order to create a story, you need to create multiple purely abstract concepts and string them together in a way that makes sense and communicates something interesting enough to be worth paying attention to. Speculative fiction in particular is an exercise in changing a few variables of the known universe and then taking the results to as logical and interesting a conclusion as the author can imagine. A strong storyteller must specialize both in social skills (making the audience empathize with the abstractions and believe the premises of the created world), abstract logic, theory of mind (creating characters with believable motivations), and many other human cognitive specialties. It’s as much exercise for our particular kind of mind as Parkour is exercise for our particular physical specialties.
Blunt isn’t wrong about the dangers of absorbing someone else’s worldview uncritically in story format, but if we’re both right that leads to an interesting conclusion: literary education as valuable beyond the simple study of fiction. Given that English lit classes teach students to analyze fiction, pull it apart, identify its aims, values, and goals, examine it in context of the time and place it was produced and the life and worldview of its author, it’s essentially a self-defense course in fiction. Once you can ably dissect it, you can see its seams and pick out the author’s worldview from your own more reflexively. Once you understand how to pick out themes, ideas, and decide how well (or badly) it’s been developed, you can more easily examine a narrative’s premises as well as its desired conclusions.
If we are both correct, it’s a strong argument for required liberal arts education.