The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 1, No. 3

Letter to the Reader

by Daniel Menaker

With Freud reviled and Marx in total retreat, Darwin is the last remaining monolith of nineteenth-century influence on our millennial worldview. He's everywhere you look--he's the bone that Daniel Dennett and Stephen Jay Gould are fighting over in The New York Review of Books; his intellectually pivotal Galapagos have been revisited by David Denby in the pages of The New Yorker; his natural-selection thesis holds a certain ruthless metaphorical sway in economic theory; his ideas continue to provide the foundation--here shaky, there pretty solid-seeming--for entire areas of scientific research, intellectual speculation, and moral philosophy. Books about him stud the lists of academic presses and trade publishers; and right-wing religious groups, in stunningly deep denial, continue their crusade to prevent public schools from teaching his theories, one of the towering achievements of the human mind.
      Not to be outdone by people who actually know what they're talking about or by other people who want to ignore the people who know what they're talking about, I'd like to propose an evolutionary explanation of fiction. Start with memory and consciousness. If an organism can recall the complex circumstances of past events, it can anticipate their reoccurrence in the future and modify its behavior accordingly-- build a house to keep itself warm in the winter, put up a scarecrow, clip coupons, etc. Natural selection will favor its perdurance, at least until and unless it outsmarts itself into extinction. If this organism can speak or write, as only one organism can, it can impart its knowledge to its fellows, and this communication is always storytelling, whether it takes the form of quantum equations, a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie, or Great Expectations. The last, as a novel, conveys no immediately practical information, but rather dramatizes psychological insights--that are drawn from its author's experiences--into human character and behavior. In its distinctive voice, subtle observations, and invention of a narrative tailor-made to convey certain profound ideas and feelings, the novel helps us to understand ourselves and others. Like all art, it creates community for our species, and at its best gives us a portion of what we need if we are ever to meet the central challenge of human nature, which is to reconcile our astonishing intellect and our bestial inclinations. It gives us wisdom, compassion, self-awareness, forgiveness. It gives us civilization.
      If a work of fiction has nothing new to say or show--nothing that extends our understanding--and if it doesn't make the structure and originality of one human sensibility available to others, it's not very good at doing its species-sustaining job. Going further, fiction that celebrates darkness and destruction without the redemption of new insight is at best a useless excrescence and at worst a kind of dangerous pollution. Dramatic narrative--and all aesthetic invention worth its salt--seems to me to serve a biocultural purpose as well as affording great delight. Fiction is utile, as surely as are incisors, nonreproductive sexuality, and bipedalism. So I herewith label what you have in your hand and Charles Dickens, and all other good fictioneers, triumphs of evolutionary adaptation, living examples of positive cultural Darwinism, and in their own way as awesome as the opposable thumb.