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This Narrated Life: The Limits of Storytelling

Read Sunday, 11 May 2014

We are living, it seems, in ‘the golden age of storytelling’, where the seductive power of narrative is king. But is there a downside to privileging narrative above all else? Can our emphasis on crafting good stories sometimes come at the expense of good thinking? And what of (often messy) truth – can it suffer when we’re chasing neat narratives? Maria Tumarkin questions the limits of storytelling.

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Joan Didion wrote ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’, and so often has the idea that humanity runs on stories been asserted of late that it has come to resemble a self-evident truth until, in next to no time it seems, we have started talking in excited voices about humans being hardwired for stories: except if we keep reading Didion, she goes on to note ‘we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five’. And then ‘we interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.’ Which is to say, the telling of stories is a human compulsion that can make our view of the world less despairing and defensive, can make life itself more bearable. No mean feat – a feat fit to save our sanities – yet still storytelling, the kind of storytelling Didion writes about, does not in itself or by itself take us closer to the truths of our lives with anything like the inevitability that gets ascribed to it these days. Saying we need to tell stories because we are human, is not quite the same as saying we are human because we need to tell stories.

Okay, so the hyperbole, so the ten kinds of hoo-hah … Big deal. I am not sure if it is a big deal or if it is not. And of course philosopher Alasdaire MacIntyre called us storytelling animals already in 1981, and before MacIntyre there was Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By and before them Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and before him (and after him) came the folklorists, the formalists, the anthropologists and philosophers, some famous, others forgotten, peeling back for us exactly how and how much stories, myths, fables, fairytales make the world go round. Didion’s ‘we tell ourselves stories’ was written in 1979. And we can backtrack further, forever, indefinitely – to, say, ‘we spend our years as a tale that is told’ (Psalm 90:9) or to oral storytelling traditions, many of them enduring to this day, and the congress-sized libraries and public squares they carry within them. 

And another expression has been cropping up lately: ‘the golden age of storytelling’. That’s us apparently. We are living it.

What is happening now, if something is in fact happening, has to do with the new, particular idea of what stories can do for us. It has to do with the way stories are being pressed into the service of some yet-to-be-fully-glimpsed zeitgeistian thing. And so we see live storytelling events springing up everywhere, like nobody’s business, and millions of people, myself included, savouring first-person narrative by way of radio on This American Life (‘The power of story is pretty animal,’ says Ira Glass, the show’s host and executive producer.) This may have started as an American thing but it’s no longer that. In Australia, Radio National broadcasts storytelling slams, and storytelling nights draw crowds in every city. Right across the Anglophone world, professional storytellers preside over the openings of corporate gatherings and arts festivals, and business gurus proclaim the ability to tell a story about your aspirations or your brand to be the most indispensable business skill of our times. ‘An unnarrated life is not worth living,’ is how the philosopher Richard Kearney puts it, and it starts to sound more and more natural. And another expression has been cropping up lately: ‘the golden age of storytelling’. That’s us apparently. We are living it.

Just the other day I took my son and his friend to our local cinema. The cinema – the Classic, in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick – is one of the things that makes me want to stay where we are. It has been in the same spot doing the same thing for more than a hundred years (no trivial claim for a cultural institution). Screening at the start of every session, the cinema’s promo shows archival footage of injured World War I soldiers being wheeled through the building’s seemingly unchanged front doors. I’d seen the promo many times and always found it smart and affecting. Only this latest time did I notice the tagline: ‘100 Years of Storytelling’. I noticed it because my son and his friend read the line out loud to each other and scrunched up their faces – they, months out from their seventh birthdays, thought it rather ridiculous. I kind of agreed. Were there no other words to describe what cinema has been doing for the past century?


Last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, the first under artistic director Jemma Birrell, announced storytelling as its overarching theme. Instantly the festival smelled not of books but of scoops, excitement, danger even. The much-complimented advertising campaign, with its slogan ‘Have We Got a Story for You’, signalled that this was to be no ordinary talkfest. Delivering the opening address before an audience of eight hundred and fifty festival-goers was an intense Welshman with syllables that hang and hammer. Daniel Morden is a professional storyteller, twenty-odd years on the beat, who can go from Homer to Haitian fables in a breath, such is his range. ‘We live our lives as a narrative,’ was how Morden began. ‘We remember and anticipate in narrative – hate, love, hope, despair, doubt and learn from it. We even create narratives while we sleep.’

On Morden went: we make sense of ourselves and the world through stories. We process our experiences through stories. We acquire morality and develop compassion through stories. There are no new stories, only old stories in new clothes. Speaking of clothes, truth walks our world ‘dressed in the clothes of story’, because people cannot bear the naked truth.

Morden was great (judging by the podcast). I particularly liked him saying that the process of telling stories is, for him, a process of chasing them as they change shape and become stories about something else. ‘If a story stops changing, if I catch it, I have to stop telling it.’ Lovely. What bothered me was a kind of implied awe in the air (even on the podcast). There, after all, stood Morden, practising his ancient, sublime art – and his audience, you just knew, was expected to undergo some near-ecstatic experience as they rediscovered, in the face of stories, their sense of childlike wonder and, along with wonder, a sort of fundamental affinity with the people of all times and cultures. George Dawes Green started the mega-popular The Moth – champions of live, public storytelling – in his bedroom. He has described the act of telling real-life, first-person stories in front of other people as ‘so moving, so simple, so perfect’. And undoubtedly – why not? – it can be just that: moving, simple, perfect. But the pressure on stories to act as conduits for the universal, for the transcendental, can also produce a curious effect. It can make friction-and-silence-laden spaces created by the telling and the listening feel smooth, elementary, back to how-it-once-was, like a woman after a Brazilian.

There was a moment in Rai Gaita’s 2011 public lecture ‘To Civilise the City?’ – a lecture ostensibly about the future and past of universities – when Gaita said our culture’s emphasis on crafting good stories exists, at least partly, at the expense of good thinking. ‘Some people say that where there is good writing there is also good thinking,’ observed Gaita, ‘but that is not true, except perhaps at the highest level.’ I don’t know if I fully agree or, in fact, if I believe the two processes are manifestly distinct at any level, but surely Gaita is right in suggesting that the near-automatic equating of good writing with good thinking is misguided. Perhaps it is very simple: much as we like to think otherwise, we cannot do all our thinking through stories. Neither can we generate meaning – macro, mini, whatever – through stories alone; nor take stock. No doubt a story is a singularly powerful thing, what Ira Glass calls ‘the back door into the deepest parts of us not accessible in other ways. Its power is not explicable to rational analysis, it is far more animal, far deeper, far more pre-rational. Narrative “gets to us” in ways that other things don’t.’

There are no new stories, only old stories in new clothes. Speaking of clothes, truth walks our world ‘dressed in the clothes of story’, because people cannot bear the naked truth.

I heard Glass say this about narrative at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre during his 2012 ‘Reinventing the Radio’ tour of Australia. And it’s true, I thought, especially the ‘getting to us’ bit. Glass spoke of narrative acting prophylactically – ‘when a story gets inside of us, it makes us less crazy’ – and as a shield, à la Scheherazade in 1001 Arabian Nights. ‘You can save your life a thousand times by suspense.’ I came out of the theatre that night feeling warm, fuzzy, and nodding all the way back to Elsternwick.

But, also, something about This American Life was making me uneasy. ‘A story is like a train going to a station,’ Glass likes to say – except sometimes, and increasingly, it can feel like a tank crushing all sorts of things under its tracks. Something in the way the form pushes itself onto the experience; something about how the obligatory reflection framing the story often feels subtly untrue. 

I couldn’t put my finger on what was troubling me. Then I read a piece by Eugenia Williamson in a magazine called The Baffler in which she argued – bravely, I thought – that the story told by Mike Daisey about appalling working conditions in Apple factories in China, which quickly became This American Life’s most popular episode, and which turned out to be largely fabricated, was the logical outcome of the show’s predilection for tackling complex subjects by means of a ‘dramatic non-fiction narrative in the form of a personal journey’.

Glass and his team dedicated a whole follow-up episode to dissecting what went wrong and how Daisey fooled them. But there was, I am afraid, a structural issue at play. It may be that there is something Trojan horse-like about a certain kind of narrative: it can sneak, unnoticed, past the usual well-oiled protocols of authentification, the usual ethical questioning. Sometimes stories can lead you down foxholes you cannot fact-check your way out of. Or, worse, perhaps falsehoods are inevitable when ‘the method of “exploring” ideas through stories is now the preferred mode of, or replacement for, serious thought and argument’ as Steven Poole writes in his review of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Little, Brown, 2013). Actually Gladwell, he of the better-than-best-selling Blink (Little, Brown, 2005), The Tipping Point (Little, Brown, 2000) and Outliers (Little, Brown, 2008), is an interesting case. He has perfected the formula of combining affecting stories with prestigious-sounding and freely abbreviated academic research, particularly in the fields of psychology and sociology. His schtick is what philosopher John Gray describes, a little uncharitably, as a ‘mix of moralism and scientism’. Surely, as well, Gladwellism is a product of this moment, in which people insist on using stories as the primary means of working out what they think and of saying what they mean.

This is a shorter, edited version of Maria Tumarkin’s essay published in the current edition of Griffith REVIEW. You can read the essay in full in the journal, available now in good bookshops.

Join us tonight for Cultural Solutions, a Griffith REVIEW event about the profound and lasting effects of cultural solutions to social problems. With Julianne Schultz, Marcus Westbury, Scott Rankin and Robyn Archer. Chaired by Simon Abrahams.

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