At the risk of stating the obvious (not that that has ever stopped me) I think the question posed by the article is not whether we need stories, but whether we need the specific type of complex story told by a novel (this was Franzen’s concern as well, I presume). I don’t think it can be seriously argued that story telling of some kind is an endangered species or even that story telling is in decline. A perhaps more serious question is whether stories are being dumbed down, mass produced, twitterfied, and coated in sugar and fried batter. I’m not sure that a particularly good argument can be made that novels are in danger, either, but this is at least somewhat less silly than worrying that stories will disappear. But, it seems to me that even Franzen is not seriously afraid of novels disappearing, but of complex stories, or, to use the even snootier term, literature, disappearing. Novels seem to my inexpert eye to be doing just fine, as the popularity of everything from Harry Potter to the Twilight novels shows. (of course, those have been turned into movies as well, but the novels did quite well long before any talk of movies came along. I’m not sure if “literature” is doing equally well, but it also seems premature to proclaim its imminent demise. After all, the distinction between literature and “lesser” novels and writings is one that is not only highly subjective, but one that is made long After a book has been written and digested by critics and the public.
I think story telling is hard wired into human DNA. But I’m not sure that any particular story telling medium, including the beloved novel (which is certainly beloved to me) is equally secure, and a continued interest in and production of “great litterature”, however defined, is certainly not a genetic or historical inevitability.
The questions that spring to my mind are 1. Is there something “special” about the way a (literary) novel tells stories as opposed to other media, 2. Would we lose something “important” if we stopped telling stories through (literary) novels and relied exclusively on other media?
I think we would lose something important if novels disappeared or if novel writers stopped striving to write something that would deserve the admittedly somewhat snooty label of literature.
Unlike the author here, I am not convinced that the essence of novels, or even literature, is propaganda for the importance of the self as an entity. and I would not laud the death of the complex novel as a blow against the tyranny of the self. Certainly, I think the novels of western culture have largely been written with the assumption (often unconsciously, i think) that the individual self, and a strong sense of self-hood, is important. Whether this is inherent in the novel as a medium, or simply a byproduct of the west’s prevalent values (which ar e a product of all kinds of things) is harder to say.
But I think complex stories, as opposed to simple fables or you tube clips, give us something other than a strong sense of self-hood. Quite simply, I think they give us, or at least encourage the development of, the ability to understand, appreciate, and make sense of complexity, nuance, and ambiguity. We could cultivate those things in other ways, but the novel seems like a medium that is particularly well suited to that task.