Too Many Stories

Are we getting paralyzed by narrative overload?

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Storytelling is among the oldest and most basic ways of communicating information, and we have long relied on stories to make sense of our lives and the seemingly plotless world careening around us. Stories are also building blocks of knowledge. Intelligence and education researchers increasingly place them at the foundation of memory and learning; some postulate the existence of a “narrative module” in the human brain, akin to linguist Noam Chomsky’s “grammar module,” that processes experience and data in story form.

Today the power of narrative is being harnessed in new ways. Medicine, picking up from psychology and 12-step practices, is discovering the palliative and healing powers of storytelling. Richard Stone, author of The Healing Art of Storytelling (Hyperion, 1996), is a professional storyteller who often works in hospices with bereavement counselors and dying patients. “Hospice communities have come to understand—and there’s a lot of research to substantiate this—that when people have a chance to tell their stories, they’re able to see the meaning of life, to see the path they’ve taken, and approach the whole event of their death very differently,” Stone says.

Like other storytellers, Stone has also been hired to build camaraderie and collective values in corporate settings. “Good organizations are concerned about company values,” he says. “I teach leaders to be good storytellers, and how to choose stories that contextually reflect their company’s core values. I also believe—and it’s a very simple idea—that people work together better when they know each other. If you know their personal stories, who they are, you’re going to approach them differently, and probably work more effectively together.”

Similarly, activists have latched onto storytelling as a vivid way to critique irresponsible activities in the community. In the current issue of Alternatives Journal, environmental author Sylvia Bowerbank explores ways in which community residents’ personal narratives, or “testimonies,” can help researchers and public servants advance environmental causes by bearing witness to the ecology of their homeland. In this way, a good story can be a formidable defense against a bad law.

The legal profession’s concern with narrative seems obvious. But the academic movement called narrative law (or “law and literature,” as scholars more often refer to it) goes beyond the traditional presentation of the facts of a case, promoting storytelling as a reformist alternative to mainstream legal debate and discourse—a way for marginalized voices to be heard, to challenge the status quo, and to move away from increasingly abstract forms of modern law. As Yale Law School professor Paul Gewirtz writes in his introduction to Law’s Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law (Yale University Press, 1996), “I think the turn to narrative [in law] is a clear offshoot of the further loss of faith in the idea of objective truth and the widespread embrace of ideas about the social construction of reality. Narrative, in other words, is seen as the social construction of reality.”

If narrative is, in fact, the social construction of reality, then the ways it is mutating in the online world is a reality shift worth noting. Like print, radio, and TV before it, the Internet has become a hotbed for autobiography and no-holds-barred confessional storytelling. Web diaries are growing exponentially, providing countless true-life soap operas for foraging readers. (That the bulk of them are beyond boring is another matter.)

But web diaries are just one of the new story forms that the computer and the Internet have produced. Hypertext—stories that can unfold in a variety of ways as you create your own path through a web of narrative units (or “lexias”)—has established its own literary niche with a number of independent publishers (the Massachusetts-based Eastgate Systems foremost among them).

More dizzying than the multiple narratives and evasive endings of hypertext are the ones that are created in MUDs (multiuser domains), where a number of Internet participants can role play simultaneously in fictional worlds in real time. At the moment, these worlds are primarily text-based. But as Janet H. Murray posits in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Free Press, 1997), the time will come when “a visit to such a space will combine the rhythmic kinetic pleasures of dancing with the visual pleasures of sculpture and film . . . [and] combine the immediate pull of an authored story, like an ongoing television serial, with the open-ended agency of the MUDs.” In other words, it would be a world not unlike the holodeck of the book’s title—the cyberdrama space from Star Trek: Voyager that allows crew members to kick back as players in a fully formed fantasy of their own programming.

Taken together, all of this narrative hyperactivity is enough to give even a serious story lover vertigo. After all, how many stories can a mentally sound person entertain in a given day? Is it possible to have too many stories? Author Charles Baxter recognizes a problem, but he doesn’t think it’s narrative glut. “I don’t think there are too many stories,” he says. “I think there’s just too much information. You can get sick of stories if you have to spend your whole day living with data. Also, I think if stories are given to you in a psychotherapeutic mode, you often feel like ‘this story demands a response from me.’ If people are always telling you how they were beaten up or molested by their fathers, after a while you may get fatigued because you feel that some sort of response from you is called for, and you may not know what response is appropriate or needful. And fatigue is not the right word; it’s more a kind of helplessness.”

In Baxter’s recent Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (Graywolf Press, 1997), he discusses the concept of “narrative dysfunction”—a phrase borrowed from the poet C. K. Williams that, Baxter writes, describes “the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.” Baxter suggests that the Kennedy assassination, Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era disavowals of responsibility, and the endless procession of testimonies on Oprah and Montel Williams are all popular examples of dysfunctional narratives. Within these stories, people and events are blamed for doing someone (or some group) wrong. But since there is no one around to fully accept responsibility, there can be no true closure to these narratives; thus the story “spreads over the landscape like a stain,” infecting the culture with a mixture of sorrow, depression, and impotent rage. “Dysfunctional narratives tend to begin in solitude and they tend to resist their own forms of communication,” Baxter concludes. “They don’t have communities so much as audiences of fellow victims.”

So all stories are not created equal. Some can rally against understanding, just as others promote it; some can encourage healing, just as others keep problems festering. But why should we be surprised that something as basic as the narrative impulse should bring with it all the complexities and contradictions of life itself?