Monday, December 08, 2014

Narrative is important for fiction, but bad for reality

Exodus, Christmas and other mythic narratives

I’ve been reading a lot about “narrative” in news and social media lately. Not as in literature, as in a story arc, but narrative applied to public discourse about current events. The narrative of global warming, for example, is now being derided by climate change deniers.

In other words, “narrative” is a story that we use as a context to understand the world around us.

The prospect of using a narrative appeals to a writer like me. Stories are my bread and wine. And a narrative, a consistent story arc, is essential to a work of fiction. A narrative is particularly important to genre fiction, as it helps provide background information: the underpaid detective who lives on his own because his work prevents him from having a family life; the distant love interest who spurns attachment because of a past trauma; boy-meets-girl; the odd couple; revenge. There are only seven plots, said the ancient Greeks, and every story follows one, or more of these basic seven narratives.

But I’m going to put it to you today, oh my wonderful and valued readers, that narrative as a way to understand the real world around us is caustic. Destructive.

Some common narratives today

I realize that I have grown up accepting a lot of narratives. The Christmas story, for one. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born on December 25 in a manger in Bethlehem. It’s a powerful story, one that drives so much of our culture and activity. But it has its flaws. Historians who have looked at the story rationally point out that lambs are born in spring, not in the winter, for example.

Still, it’s a powerful narrative—obviously.

The Exodus narrative is the foundational story of the Hebrew people and to a large extent of the modern state of Israel. It’s another powerful narrative: God led the Hebrews out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

According to the Bible, hundreds of thousands of Jews, along with all their livestock, left Egypt somewhere around 3,000 years ago, and after 40 years settled in Canaan, the Promised Land, after being pursued by Pharoah.

Except that there is absolutely NO architectural or other corroborating evidence of such a monumental event. It’s a nice story, though.

Caustic narratives

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD—all soldiers returning from Afghanistan, or Iraq, or any conflict, are permanently psychologically damaged. For a distressingly large number, this is true, but it’s not universal.

Get tough on crime—governments in the US and in Canada like to use this one. According to the narrative, lax criminal law enforcement, luxurious prisons and short jail sentences only encourage crime, while long sentences and jails that are not desirable places to be will discourage criminals from committing crimes. Except that experience has demonstrated the opposite. If society’s goal is to reduce crime, then programs that teach poor people skills and provide jobs, food and mental health care have proven to be much more effective than being tough on crime.

Tax cuts—none of their proponents call it “trickle down economics” anymore, but the idea is the same: cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest people will make them spend more, and thus create jobs for the working and middle classes. Except this has never been demonstrated to happen. If you remember, in the 2008 economic crisis, the banks, those epitomes of the capitalist philosophy, demanded and got government intervention to prevent their failing. The crisis and the TARP were examples of Keynsian, interventionist economic policy at work, and the repudiation of Milton Friedman’s hands-off ideas.

Narratives are great for fiction, for novels. But they’re counterproductive as a way to look at the real world. Instead of looking for a narrative, why don't we look at the world the way it really is? Look for facts, look for actual causes and effects. 

How is narrative a problem? Let's consider one narrative that most people (not all) have abandoned: that humanity was created in one special moment and did not evolve from an earlier, different species of animal. A century and a half ago, the idea of evolution was largely rejected because it did not fit into the narrative most people had accepted because they'd been taught it as children by adults they respected. To accept the idea of evolution, the authorities and teachers said, was to disrespect those authorities.

And yet, many years later, we have (mostly) accepted the fact of evolution, and those institutions that strove against the idea, the churches and schools and authorities, are still with us. Yes, they've changed; some have weakened, others have become stronger.  

But adhering to a narrative causes us to ignore facts that don't fit into it, and encourages choices that cause harm.

Yes, narrative is important. But it's important to construct the narrative to fit reality, and when we learn new things, to change the narrative. 

Narrative is a story, and as all writers know, the story can always change.


  1. I'm not sure how I feel about this. I've never thought about narrative outside of fiction writing. I do feel it is important to take anything we read or hear and test it against what we know to be truth. Search for evidence to support it and make a determination for ourselves, after all that is how most come to have beliefs and convictions of their own. By hearing, testing and deciding. Thank you for giving me something to challenge my thinking on this subject.

  2. A very interesting and thought-provoking entry and one, I deem, needs more time to digest within my struggling mind. I understand your concept about narrative and how it applies to the real world and fiction. Definitely something for me to mull over and is food for thought. Perhaps I will see a story of fiction in the realities of today's narratives.

  3. "But adhering to a narrative causes us to ignore facts that don't fit into it, and encourages choices that cause harm.
    "Yes, narrative is important. But it's important to construct the narrative to fit reality, and when we learn new things, to change the narrative."

    I completely agree with your post, Scott. Reality is the story as it unfolds, and placing a narrative over it to make it into a neat package disallows for the ever-changing nature of news. Though we are storytelling animals, narrative as applied on news stories only causes problems in the long run.

  4. Well obviously however a group wants to spin their "story" - that is what becomes the narrative (if they're lucky, and people latch onto it)... And also people in today's culture don't pay attention to actual facts, unless they are spoon fed to them. If they have to read or research past the headline, we are pretty much outta luck... Sucks, but it's true. LOL!!!

  5. Anonymous3:19 PM

    I think the real problem is we concentrate on the wrong part of the narrative we've always known. For instance, I might tell my husband a story about something that happened to me. I concentrate on the main event and the emotions of everyone involved. I'm not great at remembering the details of the event. He'll ask a question, and I'll answer, "That's not important. The important thing is this..." And that's what I think we need to take from the narratives in the scripture. What was so important about this story, that it was included in the Bible. Sometimes we fixate on the details and miss the big picture. It's like that joke about the three blind men describing and elephant.

  6. Great post, but I do disagree. We were made for story. We live stories. The reason stories appeal to us, is we all live stories - we choose a story to follow. The difference in reality, is these stories involve variables out of our control, there are facts, there are events, yes.

    The story about solving crime by teaching proper skills is a great example - you're teaching people a different story, to see themselves differently. You're empowering people to live a different way. To choose a different story for themselves, rather than the one of crime. You can empower people to live stories, equip them, encourage them.

    Story is powerful. Of course, we can't ignore facts and realities. But they are parts of our stories, and we build stories around them - and sometimes, we can shape them.