In 1984, Peter Brooks, now an emeritus professor of Comparative Literature at Yale, published Reading for the Plot, in which he argued that “[o]ur lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell, all of which are reworked in that story of our own lives that we narrate to ourselves in an episodic, sometimes semiconscious, but virtually uninterrupted monologue. We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.”
Almost four decades later, Brooks has a different perspective. In his new book, Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative, he provides a bracing and insightful look at the downsides of reducing everything to storytelling.
Lenny Picker: What led you to write this book?
Peter Brooks: I believe that there’s been a mindless proliferation of the notion of story and storytelling in our culture. I think all the battles about statues, for instance, and the naming of buildings, indicates that the story of who we are is very important to us. Storytelling has gotten out of hand—you go on any corporate website, and they tell you “Our Story.” What bothers me about that is the notion that “story” explains and justifies everything. Even in as benign an organization as NPR and their StoryCorps, the notion is story is, in and of itself, self-justifying, beneficent, and something we should all pay attention to. And I think that’s hogwash.
LP: Why do you say that?
PB: I think that you have to be aware of what story is, how it works on you, how story can degenerate into myth—the myth of a stolen election or American greatness or whatever—in which people come to believe without any awareness that it is a story that had been told to them, and that it’s fiction. So I think it’s important that we distinguish between living and telling. I mean, telling is very important to us, as a way of organizing our own lives. But it’s not the same thing as reality. It’s an interpretation of reality. So that’s the main point I think I want to make.
LP: You wrote in this book that today, the “only knowledge worth having is thought to be instrumental: that which gives you direct leverage on the world.” Given that many people are so overwhelmed by reality that they retreat into digital realms, or binge-watch shows, what’s wrong wit valuing instrumental knowledge?
PB: I have nothing against instrumental knowledge—we need it. But that’s not all there is in the world. And it seems to me that the role of the humanities is precisely to step back from the instrumental to consider notions of value, and notions of epistemology. How do we know what we know? And here, I think, narrative fictions, novels, actually are very helpful instruments. I mean, there’s been so much emphasis on STEM education. And one knows perfectly well why we need that. But it should not exclude this more reflective realm. I’m arguing for a realm of reflection, disengaged from the instrumental, so that one can reflect on the precise place of things in the world.
PW: Recently, in a pushback against assembly-line medical care where a patient is reduced to detectable symptoms, there’s been a movement to have people prepare for doctor’s appointments by having their story of their illness ready; how does that fit in with your current thinking about storytelling?
PB: Rita Charon of Columbia invented what she calls Narrative Medicine, which involves listening to, and interacting with, patients’ stories. And I think that touches upon a very important truth, the feeling that medicine has traditionally in this country only sort of treated you as body parts, not as a person with a history to be told. I have nothing against that—I think that’s probably largely beneficent. But, for instance, I came upon a book written for the corporate world by Annette Simmons called, Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins. And I think there’s a lot of that out there—that if you could just tell a more powerful story, you’re gonna win. And I think we see this in the political arena every day. And certainly Trump and his minions brought that to our attention, right? It doesn’t matter if the story is founded in reality, in the facts, it can still become dominant to the point where it can rally millions of people. I mean, I’m still flabbergasted by this notion that a stolen election is still out, there are people who actually want to reinstall Trump in the presidency. I mean, it’s absolutely demented. But it depends on a story. And Trump has been kind of brilliant and never letting go of this story. And just reiterating and stoking it. So that’s, so that’s the negative side, where narrative medicine is the positive side, and I want people to see both sides, because I find that there’s too much mindless praise that storytelling will get us everywhere we want to go.
LP: What role can the education system play in putting storytelling in its proper place, as opposed to being as dominant a form of communication and information-sharing as it’s become?
PB: I think education from the very beginning should be a process of awareness and self-awareness that you don’t exclude any stories, you simply teach people to be more aware of them—of how they’re constructed, and how they may be working on a listener or reader, which is one of the things that I try and talk about in the book. Stories are told generally with an intention, to make a point. We have to understand that what we have in any story, whether it be a newspaper article, or or an anecdote recounted to us, is just a version. And we sometimes need to try to track back through that to what is actually being told about.