I found something interesting at my bookstore's big blow-out sale: Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. At 700 pages it's a bit much to sit down and read front to back, at least for me, at least at the moment. But in skimming through I happened upon an interesting idea: DNA, Booker says, is nature's way of providing us with blueprints for physical development, and storytelling gives us our blueprints for psychological and social development.
I can buy that. In fact, I buy it a lot more readily than I do some other lit-critty ways of looking at literature. It helps explain some of my ambivalence over morality and literature: on the one hand, I'm disturbed by immoral novels, or more often movies, in which, for example, violence is glorified. On the other I reject the idea that a work of art needs to have a strong and easily identifiable moral.
If a story is a kind of guidebook for human growth, it makes sense that morality is a vital component. But as human society has become so incredibly complex, stories with simple morals make lousy guidebooks.
I hope Booker doesn't make the case that genre fiction, because it adheres so closely to ancient storytelling archetypes, is somehow better and more pure than literary fiction (which, hm, has become its own genre lately, anyway).