HomeEnglish LanguageEnglish LiteratureHow our narratives now threaten to devour us

How our narratives now threaten to devour us

Years ago I was invited to give a guest talk on storytelling to university students on a master’s degree in “brand management”. I was surprised by the invitation – I had never much thought of branding and marketing in these terms. But the students I talked to already knew all about Aristotle, beginnings, middles and ends, conflict, epiphanies and narrative theory, having studied how these things work not in modernist short stories or Shakespearean drama, but in a well-known brand of smoothies. There was no need to tell them how powerful stories could be.

But wait a minute: I’ve just started this review in precisely the way Peter Brooks claims, in Seduced by Story, is almost omnipresent – to the point of cliché – in journalistic articles. “Nearly every article now begins, often tediously, with an anecdote leading in to the substance of the subject.” This is symptomatic, according to Brooks, of a more general trend in our culture of “pervasive storying”, a “narrative takeover of reality … in the early twenty-first century, where even public civic discourse supposedly dedicated to reasoned analysis seems to have been taken hostage”.

Although this recent “storification of reality” often seems to eclipse reasoned analysis, Brooks argues that it has its roots in the “narrative turn” taken by “several serious fields of thought” from the 1960s onwards, including history, philosophy, economics, psychology and medicine, as well as his own work in literary criticism and narratology. In that sense Seduced by Story is a kind of dark sequel to his earlier work, and particularly Reading for the Plot (1984). While the earlier book was (in part) a celebration of the power of story, its ability to convey meaning, its staging of desire, the sequel is a warning about that seductive power, a critique of story’s omnipresence in the contemporary world and an exploration of its dangers and limitations: “It was as if a fledgling I had nourished had become a predator devouring reality in the name of story”. Seduced by Story confronts and gradually dissects this predator, casting “a critical eye [on] the implications of the narrative turn in different kinds of storytelling, across different fields of knowledge”.

In the twenty-first century the devouring predator has certainly been discovered and weaponized by capitalism in general and branding in particular: “Story has entered the orbit of … corporate branding”, Brooks writes. “I look at the package containing the cookies I just bought and find it wants to tell me ‘Our Story’. I go to order furniture online and I encounter a tab labelled, again, ‘Our Story’”. Such “mini-narratives [are] everywhere, individual or collective, and, in many cases, dominantly narcissistic and self-serving”. They are used as marketing tools to “foster confidence in the purchaser” and strengthen brand identity for the company. Brooks cites one corporate consultant, Annette Simmons, who argues that “the really important issues of this world are … decided by the story that grabs the most attention”, to the extent that “every problem in the world can be addressed … with better storytelling”, which will ultimately help “to make more money”.

Better storytelling, then, does not necessarily make the listeners or readers better people. While we cling to the age-old assumption that storytelling might be a good in itself – that stories are “improving”, making people more empathetic and wiser – twenty-first-century storytelling might just make some people richer, others poorer. Storytelling is incredibly powerful, as Simmons claims, but this is an amoral power that can be used for good or ill, for profit or loss, in the name of self-interest or selflessness, conservatism or radicalism: “There is nothing inherently worthy or unworthy about narrative”, Brooks states. “It’s the uses it is put to that count.” Narrative has “no special privilege” and is by no means

immunise[d] … from unethical uses. On the contrary, because it is intended as an act of communication, narrative is subject to all the abuses of language itself. Language was given to man in order to lie, said Machiavelli; and the ability of language to use counterfactuals inhabits narrative as well.

Of course, lying is fundamental to many of our culture’s principal modes of narrative. By definition the novel – our culture’s “dominant form” of storytelling for Brooks – is counterfactual. There is a key difference, though, between a novel’s fiction and a brand’s, politician’s or lawyer’s lie: that is, a novel brings attention to its own fictionality, while the others do not. They have to efface any counterfactuality, pretending to their audiences that their stories are the whole truth and nothing but the truth. By contrast, a reader reads a novel – even a nineteenth-century realist novel – with a sort of double consciousness, somehow both suspending disbelief and being aware that what they are reading is fiction, both immersed in the “novelistic illusion” and standing outside it. Just as a child playing “make-believe” or “let’s pretend” is “capable of holding simultaneously belief in the fiction and awareness of reality”, so an adult reader brings a “willing suspension of disbelief” to the novel “not … from naiveté or stupidity but because that is part of the intellectual and emotional pleasure of reading … Even though you know it to be fiction you need to submit to its simulations of the real”. For Brooks it is precisely this double consciousness on the part of the reader that makes the novel so valuable. It means that novels exist in the playful world of “half-belief”, a “space in which the human mind can deal with reality, speak of it, reshape it imaginatively, ask ‘what if’ questions about it”.

Serious problems arise, Brooks argues, when half belief becomes full belief – when readers lose sight of the fictionality of fiction. “One must use fictions always with the awareness of their fictionality”, he warns. “They are ‘as if’ constructions of reality that we need, that we have to use creatively in order not to die of the chaos of reality – but they are not reality itself.” In Seduced by Story Brooks explores various fields – including psychoanalysis, legal practice and modern political discourse – in which the distinction between narrative and “reality” has been eroded, or even collapsed. He warns us that: “the universe is not our stories about the universe, even if those stories are all we have. Swamped in story as we seem to be, we may lose the distinction between the two, asserting the dominion of our constructed realities over the real thing”.

When this happens – when constructed fictions are mistaken for the chaos of reality, when the “as if” or “let’s pretend” aspects of storytelling are concealed, when the “truthful lie” is confounded with monolithic truthfulness – then playfulness ossifies into myth. As Bertolt Brecht might have expected, to be seduced entirely by story is politically and ethically dangerous:

if you start believing in [fictions] … literally, these cease to be fictions and devolve into myth, which claims explanatory status and demands belief, whether it be in the “master race” or in the resurrection of the body. Fiction is playful precisely in its refusal to accept belief systems, its insistence on the “as if”.

As Brooks’s examples imply, such explanatory myths can have far-reaching real-world effects. “The weight of the … stories … that are propagated and accepted as true and necessary myths, may kill us yet”, he writes. This is the dangerous and even murderous power of the kind of storytelling that effaces its own fictionality:

We do not need to look far back in history to see what happens when certain fictions gain the status of dominant and all-explaining myths. Especially, perhaps, those myths that arise from resentment, from the sense of social exclusion or powerlessness. The unscrupulous seekers after power … promote … myths that enable their takeover and their exercise of totalitarian power … Lawful regimes crumble before the too-good story. Populations become largely submissive.

It is in this context that a critical faculty – the ability to understand and critique narrative – is of vital importance. In the face of potentially murderous myths taken as truth, we need, Brooks says, “a more attentive and critical attitude” toward the stories that surround us. Herein, according to Brooks, lies the true “usefulness” of humanities subjects in general, and literary study in particular – that they can help to understand, analyse and, if necessary, challenge dominant stories. While “we live at a time when the knowledge generated by humanities … is often publicly devalued, or even derided” in favour of “instrumental” knowledge that “gives you direct leverage on the world”, Brooks believes that the kind of “critique provided by the tools of literary analysis is … no less important”. It can “provide public tools of resistance to bogus and totalising world explanations” and “the means to dismantle the noxious myths of our time”. It can give rise to a “powerful critical response” that can “dismantle and contest … claims to totalistic explanatory force” on the part of certain dominant myths.

Above all, such a critique can expose these stories’ hidden fictionality, their “deceptive reality effect[s]” that are all too often “taken for reality itself”. Myths “need to be seen for what they are: constructed fictions, not revealed truths.” A critical attitude can achieve this, engendering a response to myths – whether those of nation states, religions or smoothies – that involves the same double consciousness or “half-belief” that readers bring to novels. For Peter Brooks all receivers of stories should aspire to the playful condition of novel readers. And perhaps his book should be read in the same way – as both partly true and a brilliant jeu d’esprit. He certainly tells a good story.

Jonathan Taylor teaches creative writing at the University of Leicester. His books include Laughter, Literature, Violence, 1840–1930, 2019, and the novel Melissa, 2015

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Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
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