Pick up any how-to book for the aspiring author, and somewhere around page three it’ll tell you what stories are all about: They’re all about conflict. They’re all about character. They’re all about characters in conflict or conflict in characters. Whatever.
Point is: depending on who’s doing the talking, stories can be all about a lot of things.
On the other hand, if you ask what it is that stories do, exactly — what purpose they serve — well, that’s a different, uh, story.
Yet even posing that question, even hinting at the possibility that stories might conceivably be drafted into performing some menial, quotidian service, that literature itself might bare an unseemly utilitarian underbelly, is sure to raise the hackles of the art-for-art’s-sake crowd.
So let me put it a bit differently: If you were to observe that there is a certain kind of behavior, a particular form of activity, which humans in every culture, all over the world, have engaged in since time immemorial, wouldn’t you begin to suspect that said activity had some inherent survival value? If not survival in an ultimate, of-the-fittest Darwinian sense (though maybe that, too), then at least in the sense of carving out one’s own ecological niche in an environment whose principal dangers and principal opportunities, are — other human beings?
Well, making up stories is such an activity. It’s been practiced in every corner of the globe, by every culture on earth, for as far back as The Epic of Gilgamesh and doubtless beyond. So I don’t think it’s totally out of line to ask what function the art of story-making might fulfil from an evolutionary perspective.
As to what I think the answer might be, rather than attacking the subject head on, let me try sneaking up on it, by telling you some stories about stories …