Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative
New York Review Books, NY, NY, 2022
176 pp. Paper, $17.95
Narratology, the science of story and storytelling, is both a recent and a very ancient discipline (no self-respecting modern narratologist would dare to skip a reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, for example). In recent times, however, it seems to have fallen prey to its own success, inside and outside the academia. Everybody is doing narratology, with or without the use of its theoretical and methodological prerequisites, while there also exists a widespread confusion between the terms “narrative” and “meaning”, which for “pure” narratologists does not make much sense. More in general, story as well as storytelling are considered perfectly “natural” forms and practices, which do not seem in need of further discussion or explanation.
One of the founding fathers of modern narratology, Peter Brooks has always prioritized the rhetorical and hermeneutical dimension of the discipline: why people read (or listen, watch…) is key, and the same goes for how their desire to follow the plot establishes a permanent negotiation with the formal and thematic arrangement of the text or other, nonverbal media. The focus is always on the effect, the one intended as well as the one achieved, and the keyword of Brooks’s narratology is undoubtedly “power”: the power exerted by the story (and conversely the lack of power of stories that don’t succeed in triggering a strong response). Hence the quote of Game of Thrones that opens the book: “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it” (p. 3).
This quotation is anything but neutral. It perfectly illustrates the darker side of story and storytelling, which refers to narrative as an instrument of manipulation, if not enslavement. Stories entertain and inform us; they help develop our cognitive abilities as well as our sense of empathy (specialists of didactics join hands with theory of mind scholars to argue that we cannot progress as thinking and emotional human beings without a narrative toolbox). But the flip side of their attractiveness is that they subtly force us, when well-made and efficiently communicated, to believe something that can perfectly be false, not only by inviting us to consciously suspend our disbelief, but by making us accept as real and thus unchallengeable what is just a… narrative.
Brooks’s insistence on the negative aspects of narrative is not new at all. Since Greek Antiquity, there has been an absolutely dichotomy between philosophy and sophistry, and since then the warnings against the false seductions of beautiful words supportive of obnoxious argumentation have been a staple of Western thinking, also in the field of narrative. Storytelling, today, is often the negative term used to criticize all kind of political marketing that replaces rational arguments by individual narrative testimonies. At first sight, Seduced by Story simply continues this line of thinking, and nothing more. The work presents and discusses for a broad audience the main elements studied by all narratologists: the difference between author and narrator, the relationship between reader and character, the specific temporal logic of storytelling (where things are told not as the result of what came before, but in function of what still has to be told). In all these discussions, Brooks systematically foregrounds what is for him the essential reason of our reading, namely the possibility to explore and experience other ways of seeing and thus living the world. The “power” of stories, in this (positive) take on narrative, is then synonym of “empowerment”: Readers are given the possibility to gain new insights and to put a distance between themselves and what they take for granted without asking questions on what they accept as reliable or truthful. Brooks’s examples are borrowed from the field of verbal (oral as well as written) storytelling, but not all of them are literary. The author has a special (for US readers perhaps less special?) interest in legal storytelling and the permanent reinterpretation of the “meaning” of the foundational principles of the American Constitution.
It is probably because he addresses a very general audience and because he is more interested in a discussion on the public reception of stories than in terminological sophistication that the uniqueness of Brooks’s study does not immediately come to the fore. Yet its novelty is undeniable. Although the author never claims to produce a new turn in narratology, one finds here some far-reaching proposals. The most important of them concerns the position Brooks takes in the debates on fake news and post-truth, that is the conscious confusion between fact and the fiction, and consequently the disbelief in the very possibility of making distinctions between truth and lie, in daily life as well as in science (and even more in the cases where daily life and science directly meet). Narrative, then, is often used as a way to criticize truth and to argue that every truth comes down to “just a story”, told by “just one person,” etc.
Brooks obviously acknowledges the necessity of maintaining a sharp distinction between fact and fiction, but for him this opposition is not the best way to scrutinize the power of stories. Stories can tell the truth as they can tell something completely else (it should be clear that for Brooks there’s nothing wrong with telling fictions, on the contrary), and it is not the absence or presence of narrative tools and patterns that turns something into either fact of fiction. What matters instead is the way in which these narrative mechanisms are used, and this use cannot be studied via the mere analysis of how a story is made: One also needs to examine how stories work, that is which effect they produce. When stories generate a response that stops to be critical and self-critical, then they produce what Brooks calls “myths,” a myth being a story whose content and meaning we take so much for granted that we are no longer aware of the fact that we are not facing the things themselves but a certain way of presenting them. Rather than arguing in terms of fact versus faction, we should argue in terms of story versus myth. We should also understand, Brooks repeatedly stresses, that the latter distinction is not only determined by the features of the story itself or the intention behind it, but also by our own understanding and position. Myths are not necessarily stories that are based on fictions; rather, stories become myths when we forsake our critical understanding and believe without further discussion what the story is telling us.
For Brooks, the agenda of narratology is therefore not (only) literary and aesthetic. It is political. By making a conscious and never-ceasing use of the cognitive and emotional capacities of our mind as triggered and reinforced by the manifold ways of storytelling, we are invited to grasp not only that certain myths are the result of misread stories, but that it is in our power to put things back on their feet, turning myths back again into the narratives they were. A democratic and open society needs stories, not to debunk them as silly and useless fictions, but to appropriate them as a frame to question too easily accepted evidences.