During a commercial break in a recent episode Frasier I was watching two advertisements back to back. First, for United, I wanted to tell “the story of an airline” starring 80,000 “heroic characters,” otherwise known as employees, which the ad characterized as sci-fi, romance, and adventure. A second ad for ESPN claimed that college football has everything that “makes a great story”: drama, action, “an opening that pulls you in, a middle that won’t let you go, and a mind-blowing, nail-biting ending.”
There is a growing trend in American culture that literary theorist Peter Brooks calls “narrativeization.” Since the turn of the millennium, he claims in his new book: Fooled by Narrative: The Uses and Abuses of Narrative, we have become overly reliant on the conventions of storytelling to make sense of the world around us, which affects almost all forms of communication, including how doctors interact with patients, how financial statements are written, and the branding that corporations use to present themselves to consumers. Meanwhile, other methods of expression, interpretation and understanding, such as analysis and argument, have fallen by the wayside.
The danger of this is that the public does not realize that many of these stories are constructed through deliberate choices and omissions. Brooks writes that Enron, for example, deceived people because it was built on “stories—fiction, in fact…that created stories of impending great wealth.” Other recent scams, such as those pulled off by Purdue Pharma, NXIVM and Anna Delvey, have also succeeded because people fell for the tales spun by the criminals. In other words, we could all benefit from a lesson in close reading and a dose of skepticism.
Brooks’ extensive scholarship, including his seminal 1984 book, Reading for Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, helped us understand how narrative functions in literature and life. So he knows that his criticism of his narrative bent is not entirely new. Joan Didion came to a similar conclusion in her 1979 essay The White Album, concluding with the oft-repeated phrase, “We tell ourselves stories to live.” (Brooks’s version is a bit darker: “We have fictions to keep us from dying of the wretchedness of our situation in the world.”) In times of trouble, we most desperately seek the familiar hallmarks of a story: clearly defined heroes and villains. , motifs and stakes.
But there’s a powerful narrative force that Brooks, 84, doesn’t consider today. He was fooled by the story: internet. In doing so, he does not merely limit his argument badly; he misses that the ability to read critically and recognize the way a narrative is constructed is more important now than it was when the novel, his focus, reigned as one of the preeminent forms of media. His only mentions of the internet – “Twitter and memes dominate the presentation of reality” and that ours is an age of “fake news and Facebook” – fail to acknowledge the vague acknowledgment that the internet, in particular, has a more careful, analytical reading. is important.
If we use stories to make sense of our world in times of social upheaval, we use stories to make sense of ourselves on the internet. Bo Burnham, a filmmaker who grew up on the Internet, is one of the sharpest chroniclers of how digital media shapes our inner lives. In an interview for the film he made in 2018, Eighth gradeAbout the 13-year-old girl coming of age on the Internet, Burnham said that when it comes to the Internet, speakers tend to focus too much on social trends and political threats, rather than the “subtle” changes it creates in individuals. . “There’s something internal, something that actually changes the way we see ourselves,” he said. “We really spend a lot of time creating a story for ourselves, and I feel with people there’s a real pressure to look at one’s life as a movie.”
Check out TikTok, where storytelling has become the lingua franca. In videos on the app, users encourage each other to “do it for the plot” or claim “main character energy” and, most importantly, film the results. A TikTok tutorial shows users how to edit a video to “make your life look like a movie.” Story-speak is often used for naivete: “I hate when people call everything I’ve been through ‘trauma,'” says a 19-year-old in a tongue-in-cheek clip. “I prefer to call it ‘lore.'” But it also provides language for feelings that are hard to express: In another video, a lonely teenager stares into the camera above the text: “I know I’m a side character, I have no purpose but to SIT and wait for my next scene.”
Here, and in most other corners of the internet, narrative taxonomy prevails. We tell ourselves stories to survive, yes, but we also turn included stories to live by. In the midst of a formless, endless web—which Burnham describes as “always a little bit of everything”—the neat language of storytelling is compelling, helping to structure our experiences online and offline. Making ourselves readable to others is, in fact, the mandate of social media. We are encouraged to build a brand and develop an aesthetic, share inspiring anecdotes on LinkedIn, and project authenticity on BeReal. Stories on Instagram allow users to broadcast their moments and experiences to their followers, and it’s charming, one Mashable To watch your own life again—to see your life as a third-person packaged and hacked through a camera lens, the article argued. “What more do we want,” asks Burnham in a 2016 feature article. Make it happy“Rather than lying in bed at the end of the day and watching our lives as a contented spectator?”
Social media depends on stories because telling stories is, in Brooks’ words, “a social act.” It’s not inherently bad, but it’s important to be aware of the artificiality and spin we put on our lives in public. As narrators of our own lives, Brooks writes, “we must acknowledge the inadequacy of our stories in order to resolve them. [others’] problems”. Drawing from Freudian psychoanalysis, Brooks concludes that storytelling is not an end in itself, but a tool we use to better understand ourselves.
He occasionally opposes other opinions. At one point, he quotes the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, who argued that in our current postmodern era, the “grand narratives” that once sustained entire societies—progress, liberation, liberation, etc. he claims to have lost his power. “We’re left with a lot of mini-narratives everywhere,” adds Brooks, “individual or collective, and in many cases overwhelmingly narcissistic and self-serving.” The fragmentation of what we perceive as real and true is indeed a pressing concern. What would Brooks do, for example Atlantic author Charlie Worzel’s claim that 2017 was “the year the internet destroyed our shared reality,” setting the stage for alternative facts and conspiracy theories? It is not clear; Brooks calls “lots of mini-narratives all over the place” (always a little bit of everything) quickly as presented.
Brooks has defined his line – the novel – and is happy to stay there. But how do many of the recent developments in the novel—the increasingly common “trauma plot,” the “representation trap” befalling many black fiction writers, the novel’s increasing entanglement with morality tales—relate to these events? in any the story, regardless of the medium, may be loaded with undue political, representational, or moral weight. Although Brooks is concerned about exaggerated claims about the brief [narrative’s] the ability to solve all personal and social problems” in the first chapter, it never comes up again in the rich and serious close readings that follow.
It’s a shame that Brooks doesn’t see how widely applicable his argument is. Today, stories are ubiquitous, thanks in part to the internet’s democratization of storytelling—anyone can record or film their experiences and post them online. “Telling the story” in a novel or film, Twitter thread or TikTok video has also been disproportionately valued and often seen as a “brave” way to create empathy and political change.
Brooks counters this in his own way. In the second chapter He was fooled by the storyfor example, he discusses what he calls the “epistemology of narrative”—in other words, how do we know where the narrator’s knowledge comes from or what his potential agenda might be? His question about the works of Faulkner and Diderot was particularly relevant to me as I watched the back-to-back advertisements extolling the virtues of the story. The multiple narratives that reach us through our screens require the kind of inquiry that Brooks advocates. A more critical-minded and media-literate population is the only antidote to a culture captive to a good fairy tale.