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Our fatal addiction to narrative

Once, stories helped us make sense of reality, argues Peter Brooks – now they have devoured it.

By Alice Robb

Forty years ago the literary theorist Peter Brooks made a name for himself by championing a then-unfashionable argument: we understand ourselves through stories. Narrative, he wrote in his landmark 1984 book Reading for the Plot, is “the principal ordering force” by which we make meaning out of our lives.

Brooks did not anticipate how fully the rest of the world – from politicians and doctors to psychologists, marketers and social media users – would come to agree. In his new book, Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative, which he frames as a kind of mea culpa, the now 84-year-old comparative literature professor writes that he “never envisaged nor hoped for the kind of narrative takeover of reality we appear to be witnessing in the early twenty-first century”. Today, he complains, he cannot even look at a box of biscuits or browse deodorant online without encountering tales of ambitious young entrepreneurs and idealistic families seeking preservative-free personal care products. “It was as if a fledgling I had nourished had become a predator devouring reality in the name of story,” Brooks writes. He’s been stewing on this since the year 2000, when he turned on the TV and saw George W Bush introducing the members of his cabinet by sharing each of their “unique” backstories.

Brooks’s fear is that we are so over-saturated with story that we have become undiscerning consumers, slipping too willingly into the familiar rhythms of plot, even when scepticism – of where information is coming from and of who is delivering it – would be more appropriate. Our constant exposure to narrative, he writes, might even leave us vulnerable to trusting conspiracy theories.

In 18th-century novels authors took pains to explain how they had come to know the story they were telling, often including elaborate forewords in which they claimed to have discovered a manuscript or a trove of letters in an abandoned suitcase, or to be anonymously publishing a dangerous confession. These framing devices – if not always plausible – at least compelled the reader to think critically about the relationship between author and story.

Over time, as the novel gained legitimacy, authors grew comfortable plunging their readers directly into a fictional world, and eventually into a fictional consciousness. But 20th-century modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner kept questions of epistemology at the forefront, incorporating unreliable narrators and implicating “the reader in games of hide-and-seek”. In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! the drama centres on how information is unspooled; the central mystery – of why Henry Sutpen killed his sister’s fiancé – takes on different layers of meaning as character after character enters, each with his own challenge to the family lore. Readers had to stay alert as they teased out the intricate relationships between narrator and author, between teller and tale.

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Brooks is troubled, meanwhile, by the success of Paula Hawkins’s 2015 novel The Girl on the Train, a psychological thriller that, to Brooks’s dismay, violates its own rules by letting one character narrate, in a realistic register, her own experience of dying. Brooks worries that readers’ embrace of the novel in all of its “sloppiness” is symptomatic of a laziness bred by our immersion in story.

Surrounded as we are, it is inevitable that we turn the narrative lens on ourselves, conceiving of the events of our own lives as plot points, components of a hero’s journey. I barely knew who I was when, at 17, I was asked to arrange the facts of my life into a story so compelling that it would win over a college admissions committee; to find some through-line in my choices of after-school activities and high school courses and turn myself into a sympathetic character. I rarely draw on whatever I learned in physics or geometry, but my first exercise in self-branding turned out to be one of the more relevant lessons – helping me prepare to post “stories” about my life on Instagram and, eventually, to write a memoir (contributing to the genre in whose proliferation Brooks finds more evidence of the “dominant narrative paradigm”). At least I have the excuse of being a writer; according to Slate’s Decoder Ring podcast “The Storytelling Craze”, the number of job-seekers identifying as “storytellers” on LinkedIn rose from none in 2011 to half a million in 2017. Meanwhile, everyone on TikTok has “main character energy”.

But, as Brooks (drawing on Kierkegaard) reminds us, we are handicapped as narrators by our ignorance of how the story ends: it is not until the moment of death that life’s “meaning becomes apparent”. Only then – an event that resists reporting – might we finally, fleetingly, understand the significance of various twists and turns. According to Brooks, portraying the death of fictional characters – including their final epiphanies and regrets – is one of the major projects of fiction, from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa to Balzac’s Old Goriot and Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich. (The impulse found cruder expression in popular 17th-century pamphlets, distributed by London prisons, which claimed to capture the thoughts of criminals in the days and hours before their executions. Based on dictation allegedly given to the prison chaplain, the confessions typically featured last-minute proclamations of faith.)

It is not because Brooks has lost his faith in the power of narrative that he wants to resist the “storification of reality”: on the contrary. He is only urging caution. We need stories, he writes, to protect us from the unmanageable “chaos of reality”. And even if he wanted to abolish them, he wouldn’t stand a chance: inventing stories is fundamental, intuitive. Children begin making up fictions around the same time they start to form words. Brooks cites the psychologist Paul Harris, who argues that playing make-believe is a crucial developmental stage, allowing toddlers to explore the world and even exert control over their own imaginative domain. Harris suggests that they derive a type of pleasure similar to that enjoyed by the novel-readers and TV-watchers they may grow up to become: they dwell in a state of “half-belief” – a dream they have willingly tricked themselves into.

It may be evidence of the “hyperinflation of story” that when Brooks asks why “other forms of presentation and understanding have been largely abandoned in favour of telling stories”, I couldn’t think of what those forms might be – until he mentioned logical modes like argument, and lyrical ones like echo and rhyme. I would have liked some elaboration, although the examples he does offer – pointing out, for instance, that 20th-century advertisers competed to write the catchiest jingles, rather than the narrative arcs we now see in commercials – are compelling.

Ultimately, Brooks is less interested in proposing alternatives or in speculating about how we got here – was it the rise of academic attention on narrative? Post-Freudian analysts’ insistence on the therapeutic value of “getting your own story right”? – than in reminding us that fiction is not reality, and life is not a story, that “telling and living are not the same thing”.

Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative
Peter Brooks
New York Review Books, 176pp, £14.99

[See also: The restoration of the coffeehouse]

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