Recently, during a commercial break on the episode of Frasier I watched, two commercials ran back to back. The first, for United, wanted to tell me “an airline story” that the commercial characterized as sci-fi, romance, and adventure, with 80,000 “hero characters” also known as employees. The second ad for ESPN argued that college football has everything that “makes a great story”: drama, action, “an opening that sucks you in, a middle that doesn’t let you go, and an overwhelming, nerve-wracking ending.”
There is a growing trend in American culture toward what literary theorist Peter Brooks calls “storification.” Since the turn of the millennium he has argued in his new book Seduced by History: The Use and Abuse of Narrativeswe have relied too heavily on storytelling conventions to make sense of the world around us, leading to a “narrative takeover of reality” that is affecting almost every form of communication – including the way doctors interacting with patients, how financial reports are written, and the branding that companies use to present themselves to consumers. In the meantime, other modes of expression, interpretation and understanding, such as analysis and argumentation, have fallen by the wayside.
The danger arises when the public fails to understand that many of these stories are constructed through deliberate choices and omissions. Enron, for example, fooled people because it was “uniquely built on stories—fictions, in fact…that spawned tales of great fortunes to come,” Brooks writes. Other more recent scams, such as those by Purdue Pharma, NXIVM, and Anna Delvey, have thrived because people fell for stories the perpetrators spun. In other words, we could all benefit from a lesson in careful reading and a dose of skepticism.
Brooks’ extensive scholarly work, including his 1984 founding book, Reading for Action: Design and Intent in Narrative, has helped improve our understanding of how narrative works in literature and in life. As such, he knows that his critique of the tendency to narrate is not exactly new. Joan Didion came to a similar conclusion in her 1979 essay The White Album, summed up in the oft-repeated dictum, “We tell stories to live.” (Brook’s version is a little darker: “We have fictions so we don’t die of desolation in the world.”) In times of turmoil, we desperately search for the familiar hallmarks of storytelling: well-defined heroes and villains, motifs, and stakes .
But today there’s a powerful narrative force at work that Brooks, 84, understandably doesn’t take into account Seduced by history: the Internet. Not only does he poorly paraphrase his argument; he misses that the ability to read critically and see how a narrative is constructed is even more important today than it was when the novel, the subject of his greatest interest, reigned as one of the most prominent forms of media. His only mentions of the internet — vague admissions that “Twitter and the meme are dominating the portrayal of reality” and that we are in an “era of fake news and Facebook” — fail to recognize that more attentive, analytical reading is essential on the internet in particular.
In the midst of social upheaval, if we use stories to make sense of our world, then on the internet we use stories to make sense of ourselves. Filmmaker Bo Burnham, who grew up with and on the internet, is one of the sharpest chroniclers of how digital media shape our inner lives. In an interview for his 2018 film, Eighth class, about a 13-year-old girl coming of age online, Burnham said when it comes to the internet, the talking heads focus too much on social trends and political threats, rather than the “subtle,” less noticeable changes it’s making caused in individuals. “There’s something inside, something that actually changes how we view ourselves,” he said. “We really do spend so much time building stories for ourselves, and I can tell from people that there was a real pressure to see your life as something like a movie.”
Just look at TikTok, where storytelling has become the lingua franca. In videos within the app, users encourage each other to “do it for the story” or claim their “main character energy” — and, crucially, film the results. A TikTok tutorial shows users how to edit a video to “make your life seem like a movie”. Story language is often used for levity: “I really hate it 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 hard-to-articulate feelings: In another video, a lost teenager stares at the camera over the text: “I know I’m a minor character, it’s no use other than sit and wait for my next scene.”
Here, and in most other corners of the internet, narrative taxonomy reigns supreme. We tell stories to live, yes, but we also transform in stories to live. Amidst the shapeless, endless internet – which Burnham describes as “always a little bit of everything” – the story’s clean language appeals and helps structure our experiences online and offline. Making yourself readable for others is essentially the task of social media. We are encouraged to create a brand and nurture an aesthetic, share inspirational anecdotes on LinkedIn and project authenticity on BeReal. On Instagram, “stories” allow users to post moments and experiences to their followers, and it’s tempting to have one meshable Article argues to take a fresh look at your own life – to see your life in the third person, packaged and refracted through a camera lens. “What more do we want,” asks Burnham in his 2016 special, Make happy“Than lying in our bed at the end of the day and just watching our lives as satisfied spectators?”
Social media depends on storytelling because storytelling is, in Brooks’ words, “a social act.” That’s not bad in and of itself, but it’s important to be aware of the artificiality and the twist we put on our lives in the public eye. As narrators of our own lives, Brooks writes, “We must recognize the inadequacy of our narratives in order to solve our own problems [others’] Problems.” Drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis, Brooks concludes that storytelling should be a tool to help us better understand ourselves, not a goal in and of itself.
Occasionally he stumbles upon other contemporary ideas. At one point, he quotes the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who argues that in our current postmodern era, the “grand narratives” – progress, liberation, redemption, etc. – that once sustained entire societies have lost their power. “We are left with many mini-narratives everywhere,” adds Brooks, “individual or collective, and in many cases dominantly narcissistic and self-serving.” The fragmentation of what we perceive to be real and true is indeed an urgent problem. What would Brooks think of that, for example Atlantic author Charlie Warzel’s claim that 2017 was “the year the internet destroyed our shared reality,” setting the stage for alternative facts and conspiracy theories? Not clear; Brooks drops the intriguing idea of ”lots of mini-narratives everywhere” (always a little bit of everything) as fast as he imagines.
Brooks has outlined his track – the novel – and is content to remain within it. But many recent developments in the novel—the increasingly common “trauma plot,” the “representational trap” that many Black novelists fall into, the increasing blending of novels with morality stories—relates to the how any History, regardless of the medium, can be loaded with undue political, representational, or moral weight. Although Brooks briefly worries about “overstated claims.” [narrative’s] Ability to solve all personal and social problems” in the first chapter, it never occurs again in the many rich and rigorous close readings that follow.
Too bad Brooks doesn’t see how far-reaching his argument is. Today, stories have become ubiquitous, thanks in part to the internet’s democratization of storytelling – anyone can write or film their experiences and post them online. And “telling your story” — in a novel or film, a Twitter thread, or a TikTok video — is also disproportionately valorized and often seen as a “bold” way to generate empathy and political change.
Brooks, in his own way, resists it. In the second chapter of Seduced by historyFor example, he discusses what he calls the “epistemology of storytelling” – in other words, how do we know where a narrator’s knowledge comes from, or what his or her potential agenda might be? The question he asks about the works of Faulkner and Diderot struck me as particularly relevant after seeing the successive advertisements extolling the merits of the story. The many narratives that reach us through our screens require the kind of scrutiny Brooks advocates. A more critically minded and media savvy populace is the only antidote to a culture obsessed with a good story.