Human Nature and Other Nonsense


When writers talk about what good stories should do, they almost inevitably conclude something like, “Good stories say something about what it means to be human.”

The words vary little. Stories should “tells us what it means to be human,” or “describe the human condition.” Stories “are, in the end, always about humans.”


What does that even mean? There is such a thing as human nature, even a constant core of human nature that has remained for thousands of years. You can approach any story, from any time period, by looking for what you have in common with the people in it. There will always be something. It certainly helps engage you with a story if you can identify with its characters. But to say a story is “about” human nature is usually a cop-out. Stories are about differences built on top of similarities.

It outlaws science fiction

I’ve always disliked this claim, because I used to want to write science fiction, and what I wanted most was to write about what it might be like not to be human. I read all of Asimov’s robot stories, and watched every episode of Star Trek with Data in it, in the hope that one of them might try to understand what it would be liketo be a robot. I read science fiction hoping to find conceptions of what other, nonhuman life forms might exist. I was generally disappointed. The robot stories were almost inevitably about what it meant to be human, and the best that writers could do to envision non-human intelligent life was to ask “what if there were three sexes?”, “what if people could change sexes?”, or “what if people were like insects?” They never came up with anything as strange as wolves, or even as strange as the Japanese.

It’s escapist bullshit

I have another reason for disliking it: It’s escapist bullshit. I wrote before that the distinctive characteristic of classic fantasy is that it posits a world where the moral rules that we want to believe are universally true, really are universally true.

Fans of “literary” fiction scoff at fantasy’s “escapism” and “childishness” for encouraging people to believe in beautiful lies. Yet those same people pile in on top of each other in their rush to claim that stories bring all people of all races and creeds and cultures together, because there is a universal human nature joining us all together, and literature, the art of mining and purifying that eau de l’homme,  will lead us into a future of universal peace and love.

Escapism much?

It forces you to miss the point of stories

We don’t put on Greek tragedies much, or read 18th-century English novels, because we don’t care about what their audiences cared about, and can’t and don’t want to relate to those people.

To the ancient Greeks, killing, enslaving, and raping people wasn’t just not bad, it was the essence of cool. He who killed, enslaved, and raped the most people was the greatest hero. But there was a competing morality, one which was essential to the Greek city-state: Personal honor. Greek poems and plays were often attempts to refine this concept of personal honor, and show when it was and was not appropriate, and when it took priority over other things, even killing, enslaving, and raping. They were also very concerned with fate and the roles of the Gods in the lives of men.

We can imagine ourselves suffering from what happened to Oedipus Rex, but the story has lost much of its meaning because its obsession with fate versus free will is not relevant to us. To try to read Greek drama as expressions of human universals is a desperate attempt to restore a relevance that has passed.

When I read excerpts from a bunch of popular 18th-century English novels for a speech tags experiment, I was repulsed by their obsession with religious rules. As we’re talking about what good fiction should do, I should be careful generalizing  from novels that struck me as very bad. But whatever issues people had on their minds in England in the 18th century, they examined through the blinders of a strict and pious Christianity. It was embedded in them deeper than their conscious thoughts; it was part of their nature.

I’ve seen people praise Voltaire’s Candide as the perfect satiric novel, but personally I find it boring when it isn’t stomach-churning. It isn’t funny anymore, because the central idea it makes fun of, the idea that we’re living in the best of all possible worlds, is dead. Candide is flogging a dead horse. You can’t bring Candide back to life by working up sympathy for its poor abused characters; in fact, that will just make the novel even more sickening. We no longer have the necessary callousness to really laugh heartily at the suffering in Candide.

The stories of past eras are sometimes like the story of a rabbi concerned about whether it’s permissible to use an elevator on the Sabbath. I can imagine an enjoyable story about the funny foibles of human nature that could lead someone to worry about operating an elevator on the Sabbath. But that doesn’t mean that it is wrong to write a story that is actually about whether it is a sin to press an elevator button on the Sabbath. We will miss most of what the author intended if we insist that the story can’t be about what the author meant for it to be about.

(Don’t whine about the intentional fallacy here. If we deliberately rule out the interpretation that the author intended, we’re going to miss stuff.)

We can imagine ourselves in their shoes. We can see, in a good work of fiction, how we ourselves might have come to feel the same feelings. That isn’t because the stories are about what we all have in common, any more than the fact that we can recognize, in a good story, the operation of the same laws of physics that we enjoy. A character in a story must have motivations that are possible for a human, in the same way that a rock in a story must fall in ways that are possible for rocks. That doesn’t mean that the story is about the universal psychology of humans any more than it’s about the physics of rocks.

Henry James wrote about the difficulties in navigating between the rules of the upper class in England and in America in the 19th century. That is what many of his novels were about. We can still read them, kind of, but they don’t mean as much to us.

Novels aren’t just written about the universality of human nature. A “great literary novel” is more likely to be written about how human behavior is currently changing. To claim that novels are about “the human experience”, rather than about the particular things important to a particular culture at a particular time, is to pretend that literature is timeless and eternal, or at least that your novel is more eternal than you are.

If you write a novel set in the 16th century, with a main character who thinks and acts as people did in the 16th century, you will not sell it. Your editor will make you rewrite it so that the main character thinks like someone from the 20th or 21st century. You can get away with producing a Shakespeare play because Shakespeare was not concerned with the issues that give us trouble today, issues on which the opinions of his characters would repel us, and so he didn’t write about them. You, writing in the 21st century, would find yourself drawn to issues like sexism, racism, class mobility, and equal opportunity, and your characters’ views on these things would horrify your readers.

It is an insult to humanity

I have one final, overriding reason for disliking the claim that literature is about the human experience. It’s deeply insulting to human achievements and culture. The claim that all humans from all cultures are the same, deep down, is the claim that nothing we do matters.

Humans have 10,000 years of cultural achievements. I can’t say that it is all progress. There are pluses and minuses to all cultural components. But the things that we struggle with and argue about, like justice, the distribution of wealth, the purpose of government, our attitude towards women and gays and old people and animals, and the relative claims of individual freedom versus social cohesion — I like to believe that these things matter. They change us. Back in the 19th century, instead of believing in the brotherhood of man, people believed in progress. Whether or not they were right, we can at least recognize that they believed humans could become better than they had been. The idea that there is a universal human nature, and the idea that it makes sense to talk about human progress, are incompatible.

I don’t know about progress, but I believe in the ingenuity and capability of humans to re-create themselves, to mold their societies and themselves into something new. Literature is one of the key tools they have to do this. This is the final reason that I’m not overly fond of reducing all literature to “the human experience”.

As I said, we can still find things that almost all humans have had in common (though not as many as one might have found three thousand years ago) and those things will be in any good story. Those things are the backdrop to a story. Stories are about differences. Saying all stories are about human nature is like saying that shadows are about sunlight, or that playing with Legos is about Lego blocks. It’s true, in a way, but it misses part of the picture.


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