Blog Post

The Tyranny of Stories

My livelihood depends on fiction. To this end I have published a book arguing for the importance of literature in life. I have posted personal blogs that combine internal reflection with cultural commentary. In short, I see the absolute importance of narrative in life and work. Yet, I also realize that stories can get in the way of understanding life.

Let’s look at the recent Democratic and Republican conventions. These events have become inundated by personal narratives about the candidates. We have come to expect the soppy anecdotes, from tales of perseverance to details of breakfast cereals. Listening to al the hype, you get the impression that you could reach the authentic Obama or Romney, unmediated by their campaigns.

A similar strategy is at work in the broadcast of the Olympic Games. NBC has always felt the need to give a “human” spin to the competitions, as if the contests themselves had not sufficed. We can’t see the running without the slush. (No wonder some Americans travel north for Olympic coverage on the CBC—more sports, more athletics, fewer sketches, fewer American flags.)

This holds true for broadcast news as well. Ever since Dan Rather turned reporting into a soap opera, it is hard to detect the difference between the six-o-clock news and Entertainment Tonight. Open up an article on autism in a magazine and it inevitably begins with the author’s own autistic son. A column on cancer will often be about personal triumph and survival. (Friends and colleagues frequently tell me that editors insist on the personal angle.) It took me some time to realize that this is an American phenomenon.

My experience abroad and my conversations with friends from other countries have led me to conclude that journalists, commentators, and academics elsewhere are not always compelled to include their private sides in all their expositions. They may talk about ideas without having to delve into their chthonic selves.

Reading Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. How Stories Make Us Human reinforced my hypothesis. I picked up the copy as soon as it came out because I wanted further ammunition in my own defense of literature. Here was a book that promised to prove that stories make manifest our humanity.

But the book is illustrative of the narratomania I described earlier. For every insight on the importance of stories, we get many anecdotes, often personal, strung together in a chatty style that is supposed to make reading fun. And you glide along with the ease of a Sunday afternoon sail.

Gottschall’s study manifests a certain direction of American commercial non-fiction, which places emphasis on the private, the superficial, and the anecdotal at the expense of the analytical. You wonder if this preference for narrative is motivated by a fear that the American public is capable of understanding a diagnostic sentence only if it is underwritten by a plot line. You write this way because your agent tells you that Houghton Mifflin will reject a manuscript that is not confessional or at least anecdotal.

(Needless to say not every book falls into this paradigm. Before coming to Gottschall’s volume, I read with pleasure and profit Mark Pagel’s Wired for Culture. Origins of the Human Social Mind. Also published by a commercial press, Norton, this is an engaging and informative explanation of how we are hard-wired for culture. Is it surprising that Pagel is British?)

Ironically for a book that sings the virtues of stories, in Gottschall’s case the narratives more often obscure than illuminate. I am not suggesting here a traditional argument that fiction functions as ideology, preventing us from seeing the truth. I mean it in a literal way that the compulsion to provide personal anecdotes and delightful yarns gets in the way of the analysis itself. Turning everything into a story can be reductive. Sometimes showing is not enough. You have to tell.

Cut the fun out and you get a very thin book. This is a pity because Gottschall’s topic is very serious. He offers a strong case for the universality of stories, that they are a constant feature in human society. And he also argues that they are changing form, depending on the technology. So if people read less, it means that they are getting their stories on the screen, in song, or in their video games.

If narrative is so pervasive, you wonder why you need a book that explains its necessity. This is what gets Gottschall into trouble, namely when he posits an ethical justification for narrative. He claims that stories “make society better by encouraging us to behave ethically.” He then offers unsubstantiated, breath-stealing assertions about the extraordinary influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the anti-slave movement.

Gottschall ends his study with suggestions, much like recommendations about the latest exercise, on the ways narrative can improve your life. “Read fiction and watch it. It will make you more empathetic” and “Revel in the power of stories to change the world.” In short, stories will enhance your life just like the paleo diet can make you more vigorous!

You can make these propositions abut the ethical import of narrative only if you have forgotten that people were listening to “Fidelio” after returning from the crematoria and that the plantation owner read Jane Austen in his parlor. It is too late in our post-naïve age to argue for the ethical justification of literature. To do so seems desperate or uninformed.

My reaction to the breeziness of this advice is: I WISH IT WERE TRUE. I wish that fiction could make us into better human beings, that literature could change the world, that art could fashion a more empathic society. It would make it much easier for us to persuade the governor to fund the arts, the principal to offer literature in elementary school, and the student to read novels outside of the classroom. And we would bid farewell to the tribunal where for centuries we have been pleading for the justification of the arts.

In fact, to argue for the ethical efficacy of literature is to play by the tribunal’s instrumentalist, means-driven, results-obsessed mind-set and to lose. A more plausible way to justify fiction is to through fiction itself. I have argued that it is by maintaining the boundary between reality and invention that we can understand the difference between them. In other words, only from the perch afforded by make-believe can we observe the real world, criticize it, and change it.

In my view, stories are important not because they make us behave morally but because, on the one hand, they encourage us to confront the barrier between the imaginative and actual universe and, on the other, they discourage us from adopting a literalist view of this universe.

For the moment haven’t we had enough stories about an author’s children, about parents with Alzheimer’s, or their addiction to drugs? In the balance between teaching and pleasing, American commercial publishing may have pushed too much on the side of the charming and the congenial. Please risk boring us for a while. Spare us the backstory and give us some ideas.

Gregory Jusdanis teaches Modern Greek literature and culture at The Ohio State University. He is the author of The Poetics of Cavafy: Eroticism, Textuality, History (1987), Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (1991), The Necessary Nation (2001), and Fiction Agonistes: In Defense of Literature (2010).  His book, A Tremendous Thing. Friendship from the Iliad to the Internet, was published in 2014.