Friday, October 18, 2013

Gossip in Literature

I am currently reading Gad Saad's The Consuming Instinct -- a book about applying the insights of evolutionary psychology to economics, but in which we can find a great deal on literature. Indeed, Saad's book is a very good source for those wishing to use the insights of evolutionary psychology to analyze literature.

For example, in discussing gossip, he uses soap operas and gossip magazines and T.V. shows as examples. Consider his observation that
In a content analysis of gripping stories, as reported on the front page of newspapers and spanning more than three hundred years and five continents (North America, Europe, Oceania, Asia, and Africa), many themes were manifestations of one of the four Darwinian meta-drives, including stories about courtships (mating), family dynamics (kin selection), human attacks (survival), and heroic acts of bravery (reciprocal altruism). The frequency rankings of the various types of headlined stories were invariant to cultural settings and to particular epochs. This suggests that the stories we most want to read are universally defined, as they are precisely those that have had great import in our evolutionary past. (167)

A few things to note in this passage. The four Darwinian meta-drives are not just the stories we seek out in newspapers -- they are the kinds of stories we create and seek out in our literature as well. Postmodernist complaints aside, hero stories aren't going anywhere.

Saad also points out that
Several content analyses of soap operas have uncovered recurring universal themes in this television genre including sexual infidelity (with the requisite paternity uncertainty), power struggles, sibling rivalries, parenting challenges, love and romance, bonds of friendships, and a wide range of interpersonal betrayals and deceptions, to name a few. All of these map quite clearly onto the Darwinian meta-pursuits discussed earlier. (167-8)

I suppose many literary analysts won't care to hear that soap operas and high literature share the same themes, but insofar as each are stories designed to keep the attention of human beings, such overlaps are to be expected. But it is what he says about gossip that really got my attention:
Gossip is a central facet of soap operas. The storylines within soap operas move forward in large part via the gossiping that takes place within the shows. (168)

This is true not only of soap operas, but I suspect of a great many dramas. The issue is certainly not that gossip hasn't been looked at in literature. It has. There are even books on it. But gossip in literature from an evolutionary psychological standpoint? Perhaps we need a little Robin Dunbar meets William Shakespeare.

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