Useful Fictions


Useful Fictions

Evolution, Anxiety, and the Origins of Literature

Michael Austin

Frontiers of Narrative Series

192 pages
2 illustrations, 1 table


January 2011


$45.00 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

January 2011


$45.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion observed in The White Album. Why is this? Michael Austin asks, in Useful Fictions. Why, in particular, are human beings, whose very survival depends on obtaining true information, so drawn to fictional narratives? After all, virtually every human culture reveres some form of storytelling. Might there be an evolutionary reason behind our species’ need for stories?
Drawing on evolutionary biology, anthropology, narrative theory, cognitive psychology, game theory, and evolutionary aesthetics, Austin develops the concept of a “useful fiction,” a simple narrative that serves an adaptive function unrelated to its factual one. In his work we see how these useful fictions play a key role in neutralizing the overwhelming anxiety that humans can experience as their minds gather and process information. Rudimentary narratives constructed for this purpose, Austin suggests, provided a cognitive scaffold that might have become the basis for our well-documented love of fictional stories. Written in clear, jargon-free prose and employing abundant literary examples—from the Bible to One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and Don Quixote to No Exit—Austin’s work offers a new way of understanding the relationship between fiction and evolutionary processes—and, perhaps, the very origins of literature.

Author Bio

Michael Austin is the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas. He is the author of Reading the World: Ideas that Matter and the editor of A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams.


"Rich in relevant allusions to scientific research and literary art, Austin's book demonstrates that the evolutionary utility of fiction, more than its truth or beauty, supports the universal attraction of humans to literature."—C.J. Bell, Choice

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Big Question
1. Scheherazade's Stories and Pangloss's Nose
2. Stories for Thinking
3. The Influence of Anxiety
4. Information Anxiety
5. The Problem of Other People
6. Sex, Lies, and Phenotypes
7. Deceiving Ourselves and Others
Works Cited


2011 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

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