Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Book Reviews

Narrative Corruptions

How stories can be used to obscure reality.

Mike St. Thomas

Peter and the Wolf (detail), 1985, by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988); private collection, photo © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images; estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/Artestar.

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” Graham Greene’s oft-quoted opening to The End of the Affair hints at the contradictions that will drive his entire novel. Does actively choosing a beginning impose upon it an artificial significance? Or is it possible that in some way the significance of the moment was already there?

Meaning, in a story, is inseparable from the workings of its plot—so Peter Brooks has argued for the last half-century. Now Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale, Brooks, in his eighties, is perhaps the preeminent scholar of narratology. His 1984 study of how stories work, Reading for the Plot, challenged the notion, then prevalent in literary criticism, that something as basic as the functioning of a plot was “too obvious to bear discussion.” Brooks’s scholarship propelled a “narrative turn” that occurred across several academic fields in subsequent years.

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.

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