Seduced by Story: The use and abuse of narrative
New York Review Books, US$17.95 pb, 176 pp
One of the more addictive podcasts I heard in 2022 was BBC Radio 4’s The Coming Storm, a history of the QAnon conspiracy theory and its connection to the attack on the US Capitol in January 2021. In a late episode, host Gabriel Gatehouse ponders the disturbing implications of his topic for how we think about narratives, and about the role narratives play in all our lives. ‘In a democracy,’ he says, ‘the winner is not always the one who has the best ideas. The winner is the one who tells the best story – and QAnon, this tale of a looming battle between good and evil, that’s the stuff of myths and legends.’
It is not news that stories matter – for identities, knowledges, and cultures as much as for politics. The Coming Storm’s great insight will therefore strike many of us as partly trivial. Still, Gatehouse’s worry points to a growing consensus that we inhabit historically fractured narrative worlds, where the varied tales we hear and tell may be growing increasingly, even violently, incommensurable. Right or wrong, this view exemplifies what the critic and novelist Peter Brooks terms the ‘narrativist position’ in contemporary thought, a dominant tendency to understand life and culture as not just reflected in stories but constituted by them. Where this tendency comes from, and whatever are its merits, are the subjects of Brooks’s compelling, if ultimately frustrating, new book.
Brooks begins Seduced by Story: The use and abuse of narrative with two premises. The first is that from popular art to political propaganda to corporate branding and everywhere in between, story and storytelling have become public culture’s prevailing energies. Brooks sees this development as ‘the storification of reality’, and he recounts awakening to it while listening to George W. Bush introduce the members of his first Cabinet. ‘Each person has got their own story that is so unique,’ pronounced the new president of his appointees, ‘stories that really explain what America can and should be about.’ At once numbingly bland and alarmingly ideological, this is the sort of calculatedly fuzzy ‘storying’ that troubles Brooks and that, he convincingly shows, should trouble the rest of us as well.