Anatomy of a Murder
Boris Zhitkov

Anatomy of a Murder

Jonathan Gottschall
Jonathan Gottschall
10 min read

On New Year’s Eve 2021 news of my killing began to circulate on Twitter.

I scrolled through scores of posts before I could stop myself, pausing to read replies and retweets. Some said the killing had been fairly quick and clean—it was an execution, a surgical dismemberment, an assassination, a decapitation. Others said I expired in a messy orgy of gore and pain—I had been bludgeoned or butchered alive, scourged by fire. One tweet said the book reviewer had disemboweled me and then wound my entrails through his sentences like fine art. Tweeters broadly agreed that the killer was merciless, that he had a genius for violence, and that it was fine to savor his wet work because I surely had it coming.

Twitter is bad, but it’s not all bad. One thing it’s good for is humor. Many of my death notices were blackly hilarious. Several tweets noted the review’s extraordinary overkill. “Stop killing him,” one woman pleaded, “he’s already dead.” Another post compared the reviewer to a serial killer who just murders the same guy over and over again. “Hey,” one man wrote as he linked to the New York Times Book Review, “wanna see a dead body?”

Jonathan Gotschall's The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down

There’s a long and ongoing history of book reviewers who seem determined to sneer their victims to death or, failing that, to at least leave them socially and professionally moribund. And there’s an equally long history of writers, even that slugabed Marcel Proust, refusing to take a murderous review lying down. On a rainy winter day in 1897, Proust threw off his covers to fight a pistol duel against a critic who called him “a pretty little society boy who has managed to get himself pregnant with literature.”

Unlike the shaky asthmatic Proust, who took dead aim but missed at 25 paces, I don’t aim to harm my reviewer, whose work I quite admire. I wish only to share something of interest with the reader. My book, The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down is about the dark side of humanity’s storytelling instincts. It asks two questions and answers them in the affirmative. First, what if humanity’s natural psychology of storytelling—the way our brains shape stories, and stories shape our brains—was a master factor behind most of the world’s chaos, violence, and misunderstanding? Putin’s war in Ukraine, which he orchestrated to provide a triumphant chapter in his heavily fictionalized narrative of Russian humiliation and eventual redemption, is a tragic illustration. Second, what if there’s something about the design of stories, and the way they click into our brains, that makes it hard for us to notice when they warp our rationality? Ironically, the review is a textbook case of this failure to notice. The reviewer spins a tale that accidentally demonstrates what he set out to demolish.

When the review appeared, the cultural commentariat was still buzzing about an especially mean profile of Succession actor Jeremy Strong that ran in the December 2021 issue of the New Yorker. But the profile wasn’t quite in the tradition of the murder review. Strong is portrayed as insecure and pathetically self-serious. But we aren’t asked to believe that he’s that bad of a guy, much less somebody who is bad at his job. And so this “review” of Strong’s personality and body of work flooded many readers with empathy not schadenfreude.

They couldn’t help but imagine that sickening moment when Strong nervously clicked a link to find that the profiler had drawn him as a thespian-clown. Who’s the real bad guy in this story, the reader wonders? Is it the try-hard actor whose performances have enriched my life? Or is it the celebrity profiler—a much darker kind of entertainer—practicing the ancient journalistic art of “seduce and betray”?

A careful murder review routs such questions from a reader’s mind. If a reviewer wants to feel virtuous as he curb-stomps a career, and he wants readers to cheer him on, he can’t portray his target as a merely bad writer (lazy, dumb, ill-read, gauche). The target must be a bad writer whose failings point to actual wickedness.

And so my reviewer began by dispensing with effete norms against ad hominem argument to spin a tale of a cartoon heel named Jonathan Gottschall—a fool who sees himself as an intellectual colossus. Gottschall also has an unfortunate mental condition that causes him to shout mad, dangerous things. All history is useless, Gottschall shouts, before going on to hypocritically cite a bunch of history books. Down with the humanities, Gottschall cries, and down with humans too! Up with Zuckerberg! Up with big data and the robot overlords! Down with the wretched of the earth! Up with the big evils of unrestrained capitalism and “power”!

By the end of this kind of character study, the reader is queasy with despair, thinking, If only there was a champion—a person shrewd enough to see through the villain’s mask of reasonable affability yet brave enough to face him down.

Enter the reviewer. Eyes steely. Pen ready. For the price of a Sunday paper he provides the cathartic, community-bonding ritual of sketching up a strawman, then x’ing him out.

Readers devoured the review then rushed to social media to say it was the “nastiest,” “meanest,” “most eviscerating” critique they’d ever read. They said so not in a spirit of rebuke, but of admiration and gratitude. Then they milled around for a while, pointing and laughing and kicking the corpse.

If asked, most people would say they dislike violence, even if they think it is sometimes necessary. More incredibly, most people would even believe themselves while saying it. But under the right circumstances, violence is one of our dearest delights. In particular, we have a taste for violence in our storytelling—in our films, video games, literature, news, and popular histories.

This all seems at odds with wisdom about storytelling that is repeated ad nauseam by English professors, artists, thought leaders, and research scientists: stories are precious because they excite powerful empathy. As I explain in my deceased book, these paeans to story-generated empathy are exactly half true. They take account of the warm feelings of understanding and connection that stories can generate while genuinely seeming not to notice that a contrary energy is circulating fast and hard through the stories we love, and it wouldn’t be far wrong to call this energy hate.

In the very act of generating empathy for protagonists and victims, storytellers simultaneously produce an extreme dulling of empathy that allows us to revel in the suffering of villains. If you are unlucky enough to be cast as the bad guy of a history, a novel, a political narrative, or even a review of your own book, the idea that stories should be celebrated as empathetic will hit you as pretty obtuse. To the contrary, it will seem that a main effect of storytelling is fabricating justifications for visiting agonies upon enemies, whether in the form of physical or social chastisement.

I realize that I’m a storyteller too, trying to turn the reviewer’s assault into an actual contest between rival narratives. Wars for control of a narrative are often exhausting and pyrrhic. But the present dispute doesn’t hinge on fine shades of meaning and subtleties of judgement. We can judge who’s telling the truer tale through recourse to something the reviewer and I both claim to value: evidence.

The reviewer begins by ridiculing me as a narcissistic Quixote who is so complacent in his fantasies of personal genius that he can’t be bothered to do real research. As proof, he points to a scene from the conclusion of my book where, after doing my version of scholarship—quickly flipping through some psychology textbook indices—I triumphantly conclude that I am the first person to ever approach my subject, the science of how stories work.

It’s hard to see how the reviewer could believe this, having read to the end of a book that is heavily peppered with citations to story science conducted by other people. And it’s equally hard to see how he can see any evidence here of authorial self-glorification. The scene in question is a wholly inoffensive lament of the way research in the science of storytelling, very little of it conducted by me, has been neglected by the mainstream of psychology. Moreover, the scene is a prelude not to claims that I’ve solved the mysteries of storytelling, but to an expression of humility: we know far too little about how stories work on our minds, and we need more researchers to pitch in.

The Story Paradox argues that human brains are the same everywhere on Earth, and they naturally gravitate to the same types of stories. I describe a universal grammar of storytelling—a basic, simple structure that most stories around the world helplessly conform to. The reviewer completely ignores my actual description of this pattern while falsely reducing it to the following phrase, “everything gets worse until it gets better.”

So the reviewer has me arguing, incredibly, that all stories end brightly everywhere in the world. He then goes on to prove me wrong by citing some stories that don’t. QED! The reviewer is grossly mischaracterizing not only my work, but that of a different researcher I quote in the book. Here’s the passage the reviewer mangles: “After subjecting summaries of 112,000 fiction plots to statistical analysis, the data scientist David Robinson reached the following pithy conclusion: ‘If we had to summarize the average story that humans tell, it would go something like, Things get worse and worse until at the last minute they get better’ (his emphasis).”

The reviewer manages not to notice the crucial word “average” even though Robinson has emphasized it. Triumphantly citing some counterexamples to refute an average tendency in fiction stories, as the reviewer does, is no different than naming some very tall women to refute the claim that men are on average taller.

And so, the reviewer marches on to the end in a parade of error, misreading, and scornful insinuation. The review amounts, in the end, to an artifact of misinformation penned by a leading voice on the perils of the same.

A small minority of Twitter users disapproved of the review. For example, Brookings Institution economist Richard Reeves wrote that the review was “so breathtakingly malicious that it vacates itself of all authority. It makes you wonder what's really afoot; what, if you like, the real story is here...”

This brings us to a crucial question in an investigation of any killing: what was the ultimate motive? A clue emerges when the reviewer takes umbrage to my endorsement of two books by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now. The reviewer is provoked to scrawl out a miniature murder-review of Pinker’s work, depicting him as a mad-scientist type composing a fairytale of human progress by cherry-picking data “with red-fingered fervor.” Why would Pinker do such a thing? It seems that Pinker, who would have us believe he’s a political lefty, actually yearns to gut the welfare state and reengineer society down brutalist libertarian lines. (Fact check: the two books in question draw on the best large data sets available and Pinker explicitly lists social safety nets among humanity’s greatest moral achievements.)

At the bottom of the reviewer’s contempt is an allergy to two traits Pinker and I share. We both seek to bring a scientific mindset to traditional humanities questions, and we both feel obliged to question the ideological excesses not only of the right wing, but also of the intellectual left.

When it comes to the first trait, the reviewer has only joined the rump end of a long line of big dons who’ve made themselves hysterical over incursions of profane science on sacred humanities ground. The reviewer’s solution to this problem, reminiscent of F. R. Leavis’s infamous blitz against C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, is to place himself athwart the path of disciplinary change yelling “Stop!”

When it comes to the second trait, I triggered the reviewer by criticizing an increasingly ruthless intolerance for nonconformist views in higher education, and by admitting that I wasn’t even a tiny bit afraid of savaging the political Right or even making mockery of ISIS.

“What has troubled my sleep,” I wrote, “is the prospect of saying anything even mildly heretical regarding the Left’s sacred narratives. Like all contemporary writers, I’m aware that I’m always one loose move away from sparking my own auto-da-fé, knowing that it will be my liberal friends—not fanatic right-wingers—who will come running to the fire, shaking their cans of gas.” Of the review’s many absurdities, perhaps the greatest is the way the reviewer belittles these concerns even as he strikes a match.

To be clear, I don’t think the reviewer told lies. If he meant to deceive readers he would have done so with a lot more care, without putting his own reputation for accuracy and trustworthy judgement at risk. What’s happening in the review is more concerning than deception.

The Story Paradox explores the human tendency to live inside morality tales where “we” are the good guys and people in the other tribe (religious, racial, political, intellectual) are bad, and all data is tortured until it produces the conclusion that harsh punishment is ethically essential. The review’s distortions, as well as its relentless meanness, are a fine illustration of the way narratives of moralistic indignation reliably degrade our capacities for reasonable and charitable judgement. That someone as smart as the reviewer can read a book bristling with warnings about the pitfalls of narrative psychology, and still blunder into the biggest traps, leaves me feeling pessimistic indeed.

I’ll of course spare you a point-by-point rebuttal of the review both because it would bore you and because it would be mostly beside the point. In the end, the reviewer wasn’t aiming for a rigorous assessment of a book. He was aiming to entertain readers with a small festival of literate carnage. But its closest parallel wasn’t the public beheadings or disembowelments of heretics and criminals that many tweets referenced, it was a public shaming where a malefactor is stripped and ritualistically abused, all while being pelted with rubbish and insults by a delighted crowd. When comparing the review to a killing, Twitter users were obviously analogizing to a murder of a person’s reputation, of his social standing, and of his dreams and future prospects. They were describing the kind of performative social violence that doesn’t actually kill a guy, but still leaves him considerably less alive than he was the day before.

CORRECTION: A previous edition of this piece incorrectly stated that Jeremy Strong's interviewer in the New Yorker was a college acquaintance. While they went to the same college, they were not well-acquainted.

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Jonathan Gottschall

Jonathan Gotschall is a Distinguished Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. His past books include The Storytelling Animal and The Professor in the Cage.