After a successful string of books largely aimed at academia, Jonathan Gottschall is hoping for something new—a popular hit.
His latest, The Storytelling Animal, is a lively exploration into the very nature of stories and why they seem so central to the human psyche. We recently found the Washington and Jefferson College educator operating even further outside his comfort zone while assembling a book trailer for The Storytelling Animal on his desktop computer. “I’m just kind of screwing around here with absolutely no technical skills,” he says. “I’ve never done a trade book before.” Here, an excited Gottschall talks about the future of stories and how the process of writing a book about storytelling actually turned him into a storyteller.
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You’ve had tremendous success thus far as a highly regarded academic, why seek a different audience?
I had become fairly frustrated working really hard on my academic books and feeling like, “What did I do that for? Nobody read it.” The audience is so small. The marketplace for trade books is overcrowded, but I think in a lot of ways it’s even more overcrowded for academic books. There are people churning out work, churning out research partly to build resumes and to get tenure and things like that. And so it’s massively overcrowded, it’s hard to get any readership. I really wanted readers. To me, the whole point of writing is to be read. So, I was very keen on the opportunity to reach more people.
What did you have to change to attain that goal?
I had to teach myself to write differently. I had been writing in a sort of dense, academic jargon for 15 to 20 years, and I had to unlearn that—or at least try to. I had to think like a storyteller. The book is about storytelling, and I was aware all the way through that for this to be a successful book, I had to tell good stories. I had to think like a fiction writer. I had to think about things that would grip an audience, rivet an audience and make them want to find out what happens next.
And that was fun. With academic books, there’s not a high premium on entertainment, you know? It was fun for me to straddle that line between someone who is trying to teach something, trying to convey a body of knowledge, but also, really competing for that entertainment budget. I hope I did a decent job of it. And I hope to get better at it in the future.
Where did you look for inspiration?
I started reading other people’s books pretty carefully—books by Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer—books that popularize science. The most successful books in this genre, the ones that I really like, are heavily loaded up with story, with anecdote. It’s not enough, you cannot rivet readers’ attention, you cannot interest them unless you’re able to [tell a story]. I mean, you can continue the scientific point, but it has to be done through storytelling.
That was the big thing I learned, and it helped me reinforce the message of my book. It helped me realize that I’m writing this book about storytelling, but I’m also a storyteller. I needed to tell stories that drove home my messages. That was my guiding principle.
In The Storytelling Animal you talk about the impact a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on society. Is there anything out there now that might be considered comparable?
I think it would be harder to make a definitive case. You could make sort of a speculative case. I would say books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Roots had as strong an impact as anything else on modifying people’s hearts and minds about race relations. I don’t know for sure if books like Twilight and Harry Potter and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo are having social effects or modifying the culture.
Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage” and the Hindu model of the universe is best understood as one big stage play. What do you think they’re both getting at?
We’re all storytellers. We’re all actors. I think there’s a sense in which our own lives are boldly fictionalized. In my book, I talk about the storytelling machinery of the brain, the way that the brain is a story machine. Its job, in many ways, is to look out on the world and find story patterns. And if it can’t find those story patterns, those patterns of cause and effect with logical, rational relationships, it has this annoying and somewhat disturbing tendency to try to invent patterns or impose patterns that are not there.
There is also the sense that we are the masterworks, or the masterpieces of our own storytelling minds. Our memories are constrained a lot less by reality than most of us would like to think. And we’re pretty bad at accessing our personal qualities. Our sense of self in many ways is a figment of our own yearning imaginations.
Is storytelling evolving?
Story is always changing. But wherever you go, deep down storytelling is always the same—the character has a problem. Story equals character, plus predicament, plus the attempt to get out of that predicament. That’s what story is. We do see a lot of change right now and a lot of anxiety about what’s going on in the world of story, but my thesis is that story is not going away. It’s part of who we are. We’re not going to start walking around on four legs, and we’re not going to give up story.