Narrative Corruptions

Review by Mike St. Thomas: “…The world outside academia has grown preoccupied with narrative recently. Despite the rise of Big Data (or perhaps because of it), we are more keenly aware of how we use stories to explain what happens in the world, wield political power, and understand ourselves. And we are discovering that these stories can be used for good or ill. From the resurgence of nationalism on the right to the rise of identity politics on the left, the stories we tell about ourselves matter a great deal. As marketing guru Annette Simmons puts it, “Whoever tells the best story wins.” The result has been, in part, the current polarization in American life. An obvious example is the persistence of the false narrative of a stolen election, but at a deeper level, more than ever we now seem inclined—conditioned, even—to judge everything with an up or down vote.

Brooks is less than thrilled about these developments. “It was as if a fledgling I had nourished had become a predator devouring reality in the name of story,” he writes at the outset of Seduced by Story, in a clear attempt to distance himself from what he sees as the abuses of narrative in the years since Reading for the Plot was published. Though his lament contains a strain of academic pearl-clutching, Brooks’s concern is warranted. A narrative is, by nature, a hermeneutic circle—the elements of a plot gaining significance through their relation to each other—and its ever-closing loop threatening to blind its audience to the real.

Though in his new book Brooks does not back down from the claims of his old, he argues that while stories may be unavoidable, they need to be examined and critiqued constantly. A banal thesis, perhaps, but still true. After a preliminary chapter that addresses corporate storytelling and the removal of Confederate monuments, he revisits terrain covered in Reading for the Plot by examining how narratives work, using examples from Victorian-era novelists such as Honoré de Balzac, Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Within Seduced by Story are the seeds of a more trenchant claim about the ultimate purpose of storytelling—and about how our narratives have become corrupted. Brooks recalls a musical advertising slogan from his youth: “If you’ve got the time / We’ve got the beer. Miller Beer.” Jingles like this were pithy, memorable, and quite effective at communicating a quality of the product, or, more likely, at appealing to a specific emotion of the listener…(More)”.

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