Recently, during a commercial break in the episode Frasier I was watching, two commercials playing back to back. First, for United, wanted to tell me an “airline story,” which the ad characterized as science fiction, romance, and adventure, starring 80,000 “hero characters,” otherwise known as employees. The second ad, for ESPNhe argued 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 stunning, gut-wrenching ending.”
There is a growing trend in American culture of what literary theorist Peter Brooks calls “storification.” Since the turn of the millennium, he claims in his new book, Seduced by Story: The Uses and Abuses of Narrative, we have become overly reliant on the conventions of storytelling to make sense of the world around us, leading to a “narrative takeover” that affects nearly every form of communication—including the way doctors interact with patients, the way financial reports are written, and the branding that corporations use to present to consumers. Meanwhile, other modes of expression, interpretation, and understanding, such as analysis and argumentation, fell by the wayside.
The danger of this comes when the public doesn’t understand that many of these stories are created through deliberate choices and omissions. Enron, for example, fooled people because it was “uniquely built on stories—actually fictions…that generated stories of impending great wealth,” Brooks writes. Other recent frauds, such as those perpetrated by Purdue Pharma, NXIVMand Anna Delvey, succeeded because people fell for the fairy tales spun by the perpetrators. In other words, we could all benefit from a lesson in close reading and a dose of skepticism.
Brooks’ extensive body of scholarship, including his seminal 1984 book, Reading for Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, they have helped advance our understanding of how narrative works in literature and in life. As such, he knows that his criticism of the tendency to narrativize is not exactly new. Joan Didion She came to a similar conclusion in her 1979 essay “The White Album,” summed up by the oft-repeated statement, “We tell stories to live.” (Brooks’s version is a bit grimmer: “We have fiction so we don’t die of the abandonment of our condition in the world.”) In times of turmoil, we most desperately seek the familiar markers of narrative: clearly defined heroes and villains, motifs and stakes.
But today there is a powerful narrative force at work that Brooks, 84, understandably ignores. Seduced by the story: internet. In doing so, he not only ill-frames his argument; he misses that the ability to read critically and recognize the way narrative is constructed is even more important now than when the novel, the subject of most of his interest, reigned as one of the most important forms of media. His only mentions of the Internet—a vague acknowledgment that “Twitter and the meme dominate the presentation of reality” and that ours is “the era of fake news and Facebook”—fail to grasp that, especially on the Internet, a closer, analytical reading is essential.
If in the midst of social upheaval 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 shapes our inner lives. In an Conversation for his 2018 film, Eighth gradeabout a 13-year-old girl coming of age onlineBurnham said that when it comes to the Internet, talking heads focus too much on social trends and political threats, rather than the “subtle,” less perceptible changes it produces in individuals. “There’s something internal, something that actually changes our view of ourselves,” he said. “We really spend so much time creating a story for ourselves, and I feel like there’s been a real pressure on people to see our lives as something like a movie.”
Just look at TikTok, where storytelling has become the lingua franca. In the videos in the app, users encourage each other “do it for the plot” or demand theirs “main character energy”– and above all to film the results. One TikTok tutorial shows users how to edit video to make “your life look like a movie.” Storytelling is often used for levity: “I really hate it when people call all the things I’ve been through ‘trauma,'” says one 19-year-old. tongue in cheek clip. “I prefer to call it ‘lore’. But it also provides a language for hard-to-express feelings: videoa forlorn teenager stares into the camera above the text: “I know I’m a supporting 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 stories to live, yes, but we also convert to stories so we can live. In the middle of the formless, endless Internet – which Burnham describing like “a little bit of everything all the time”—the neat language of stories is appealing and helps structure our experiences on and off the Internet. Making yourself readable to others is basically the job of social media. We are challenged to create a brand and cultivate an aesthetic to share inspiring anecdotes on LinkedIn and authenticity of the project on BeReal. On Instagram, “Stories” allow users to broadcast moments and experiences to their followers, and that’s tempting Mashable the article argued, to look at your own again – and to look at your life in the third person, wrapped and refracted by the lens of the camera. “What more do we want,” Burnham asks his 2016 special, Make happy“Rather than lying in bed at the end of the day and just watching your life as a contented spectator?”
Social media depends on storytelling because storytelling is, as Brooks says, “a social act.” This is not inherently bad, but it is vitally important to be aware of the artifice and influence we have on our public lives. As narrators of our own lives, Brooks writes, “We must recognize the inadequacy of our narratives to resolve our own and [others’] problems.” Based on Freudian psychoanalysis, Brooks concludes that storytelling should be a tool we use to better understand ourselves, rather than an end in itself.
Sometimes he brushes off other current ideas. At one point, he quotes the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who argues that in our current postmodern age, the “grand stories”—progress, liberation, salvation, etc.—that once sustained entire societies have lost their power. “We are left with many mini-narratives everywhere,” Brooks adds, “individual or collective and in many cases dominantly narcissistic and self-serving.” The fragmentation of what we perceive as real and true is indeed a pressing problem. What would Brooks make of, for example Atlantic contributor Charlie Warzel’s claim that 2017 was “the year the internet destroyed our shared reality” and paved the way for alternative facts and conspiracy theories? Unclear; Brooks drops the fascinating idea of ”many mini-stories everywhere” (a little bit of everything all the time) as fast as it takes.
Brooks has charted his path—a novel—and is content to stay within it. But many recent events in the novel – more and more frequent “traumatic plot”, and “representative trap” affecting many black writers of fiction increasing concurrency of novels with moral tales—related to how none a story, regardless of medium, can be laden with undue political, representational, or moral weight. Although Brooks briefly worries about “inflated claims about [narrative’s] the ability to solve all personal and social problems’ in the first chapter never appears again in the many rich and rigorous detailed readings that follow.
It’s a shame Brooks doesn’t see how widely applicable 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 put them online. And “telling your own story”—in a novel or a film, a Twitter thread or a TikTok video—is also disproportionately valued, often seen as a “brave” way to create empathy and political change.
In a way, Brooks resists it. In the second chapter Seduced by the story, for example, 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? The question he poses about the works of Faulkner and Diderot felt especially relevant to me as I watched side-by-side ads extolling the virtues of the story. Many of the stories that come to us through our screens require the kind of scrutiny that Brooks holds. A more critical-minded and media-literate people is the only antidote to a culture in thrall to a good story.