In his argument for biopoetics and against the old guard, Brian Boyd begins with what may seem a truism, if not in some English departments: “We love stories, and we will continue to love them. But for more than 30 years. . . university literature departments in the English-speaking world have often done their best to stifle this thoroughly human emotion.” Our desire to form patterns, to weave a net that has a structure we can sense if not always see, is central to our human understanding. We love plots and characters, we love them in gossip and in great literature, in soppy romances and classic drama. We loved them as children in fairy tales and we love them as adults whether we read history or literature.
We love them with a biological passion; I suspect most of us can explain this great universal in sensible ways, but the feeling goes deep. Of course, narratives help us make sense of our own experience, because they are, in some ways, congruent with reality as we know it or believe it or feel it to be.
I don’t think we can overestimate that importance. Our need to do this is important; our ways of doing it can be trivial or profound; but this way of organizing our world is an attempt (one we recognize as incomplete, perhaps wrong, perhaps profoundly right) to make sense of our lives. It is not surprising, of course, that criticism that saw plot as unimportant was criticism that doubted the importance of beauty. Freeing us from our biological desires for order and proportionality, they quite successfully freed us from much desire to read them.
(Our love of narrative, our need for it is one I’ve come back to time and again on this blog: my own need, in a tv series like Perry Mason, or as part of Gunter Grass’s attempt to shape his own. Yes, this is shameful puffery.)