Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative

From a New York Times review by Jennifer Szalai of the book by Peter Brooks titled “Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative”:

Imagine taking in an orphaned baby bird, giving it food and shelter so that it could grow, and then one day it swoops down and attacks the family hamster.

Peter Brooks says he experienced something similar in December 2000, when George W. Bush, then the president-elect, presented the members of his cabinet to the American public. Brooks had spent his career arguing for the importance of narrative and storytelling; his book “Reading for the Plot” (1984) was already considered a classic of literary criticism. But hearing Bush talk mistily about how each of his appointees “has got their own story that is so unique, stories that really explain what America can and should be about,” Brooks found himself, well, losing the plot.

“It was as if a fledgling I had nourished had become a predator,” he writes in his intriguing new book, “Seduced by Story.” (It’s worth saying that Brooks, despite the dramatic and somewhat self-aggrandizing metaphor, wasn’t the only one doing this nourishing.) Brooks and his fellow “narratologists” never entertained “the kind of narrative takeover of reality we appear to be witnessing in the early 21st century, where even public civil discourse supposedly dedicated to reasoned analysis seems to have been taken hostage.” Yet there was Bush, introducing his new cabinet in the most sentimental terms (“a great American story”; “I love his story”), suggesting an “understanding of reality” that “was wholly narrative.”

This “storification of reality” or “hyperinflation of story” is so widespread that Brooks says he can’t even open a package of cookies without encountering some corporate pablum announcing itself as “Our Story.” Such an example may seem trivial, but he argues that our “mindless valorization of storytelling” makes us more susceptible to those with more malevolent intentions — “inertly accepting the notion that all is story, and that the best story wins.”

But what does Brooks mean by “story” — which would in turn have some bearing on what he means by “best”? Clearly there’s a world of difference between “The Backstory” offered by Tom’s of Maine (“By 1975, we’d introduced the first natural toothpaste on the U.S. market”) and, say, a story by Lydia Davis or Jorge Luis Borges. An astonishing 17 percent of Americans say they believe the QAnon “narrative” that “a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media”: Does the startling popularity of this lurid falsehood mean that it’s one of the “best” stories? And why are stories in the form of conspiracy theories proliferating at the same time that the number of books Americans are reading is dwindling?

Brooks doesn’t quite attack such knotty questions head on, but “Seduced by Story” sidles close to them, suggesting that we can resist bad narratives propagated by bad actors only if we train our “critical and analytical intelligence” to distinguish between a truly good story and a damaging one. A story that inveigles people into submitting to an absolutist explanation of everything is a myth. This is story as opiate: tempting but destructive. In Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” which was published in 1940, a postscript dated 1947 describes how “reality yielded” to the orderly legend of an imaginary world: “Enchanted by its rigor, humanity forgets over and again that it is a rigor of chess masters, not of angels.”

So Brooks sets out to show how stories work, mostly showing us how fiction works — or doesn’t work, at least in the case of Paula Hawkins’s thriller “The Girl on the Train,” which leaves Brooks feeling “offended” by a death scene that violates the novel’s own premises. He says this isn’t a matter of narrative cunning but of “sloppiness.” A novel is of course “free to set its own rules, but the reader will need to be taught these,” he writes.

The novels that Brooks prefers are those that teach us how to read them, that open up possibilities instead of trapping us in a shoddy contrivance with heavy-handed manipulation. He shows how Charlotte Brontë’s “Villette” is a precursor to the fiction of Proust and Faulkner — with an “elusive, unstable” narrator who “makes uncertainty and instability the very principle of story and storytelling, and of self-knowledge.” Drawing on the work of the psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott, Brooks says that reading fiction is like child’s play; a child engaged in a game of make-believe is simultaneously holding “belief in the fiction and awareness of reality.”

But fiction is powerful, and can rattle our settled assumptions about who we are and our place in the world — a point made by both defenses of the novel and critiques of it. Yes, Brooks says, we can lose our “moral compass,” but this isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. A moral compass can get stuck. The idea of human rights used to be unfathomable; Brooks draws on the work of the historian Lynn Hunt to argue that reading novels may have helped people reorient themselves and expand their circle of concern: “When we assimilate fictional lives to our own and start to view the world through other eyes, so much the better, we may decide,” he writes.

Brooks is a nimble and elegant writer, letting his argument unfold, showing us how fiction can do two seemingly incommensurate things at once: It allows us to get “caught up” in the world that it creates, while it also stimulates our capacities for “understanding and reflection.” He ends with a chapter on the decidedly nonfictional realm of the law, where stories are often viewed as “suspiciously emotional” — too likely to be irrelevant or prejudicial — when in fact the law relies more on storytelling than even its most august arbiters would like to admit.

“Seduced by Story” turns out not to be the condemnation of narrative that I thought would follow from Brooks’s complaints in its early pages, but rather a potent defense of attentive reading and its real-world applications. Literary criticism, here to save the day! This may be a sneakily self-serving story on his (and my) part, but that shouldn’t make it any less true.

Jennifer Szalai is the nonfiction book critic for The Times.

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