Will Wilkinson piles on. Okay, he claims that fiction isn’t unambiguously good for you rather than that it’s generally bad for you, but still.
I think it’s undeniably true that story is a powerful instrument of norm inculcation. The question is whether there is something inherent in the nature of stories that lend them a morally progressive bias. If fiction is equally capable of promoting and reinforcing “good” and “bad” moralities, then it would seem to be a neutral force.
Seems to me that people tend to choose fiction that reinforces, rather than challenges, their pet beliefs. I’ll cop to throwing the second Foundation book across the room because I just couldn’t stomach Asimov’s constant fellating of social engineering as a precise science (albeit on top of the fact that it was the same damn story every chapter, something that didn’t turn me off of the first book). I’d be gobsmacked to discover that folks who read Kurt Vonnegut and Gabriel Garcia Marquez would tend to broaden their horizons by picking up a Tom Clancy or OH JOHN RINGO NO novel, just to see what it’s like to read explicitly-conservative pulp. Fiction might be neutral in the D&D World of Greyhawk sense that it’s not biased towards Good or Evil, but it probably serves as a gain knob on ideology, reinforcing existing beliefs and driving them to extremes. Will:
If “Modern Family” is making Americans more sympathetic to gay folk, and it is, that’s because it’s amplifying and accelerating an already existing push for progressive social change. Stories radically out of sync with the status quo morality will not find purchase in our story-loving minds; we reject these with disgust, like rancid pieces of meat.
The “stories are good for you” argument, in addition to wrongly suggesting that stories ought to be good for you, promotes complacency about the cognitive dangers of naive narrative. Writing about politics every day day has made me painfully aware of just how pathetically idiotic the “good-and-smart vs. stupid-or-evil” stories inside of which even some of our smartest commentators seem to be helplessly trapped. Better stories would certainly help. (There’s probably no non-narrative mode of thinking available to us.) But stories as such don’t look so great once we begin to see moral progress — Careful! History has not a plot — as a process of replacing bad stories with slightly less bad ones.