Literary Term Larcency: the Co-opting of Narrative

In “The Cognitive and Anthropological Origins of Narrative,” Richard van Oort argues for the “coeval origin” of narrative and language. If that’s true, maybe I have no business complaining about this, but I’m going to anyway.

narrative_planning_map

As a writer, we have certain literary devices and terms which we call our own. They are the tools in our proverbial toolbox, and they are ours. Here’s my issue: I don’t like hearing the word “narrative” used outside of literary circles.

My husband is a political enthusiast. I am not. Our compromise is a Netflix marathon of “Scandal,” a White House-based drama. While the show isn’t the first place where I have heard the word “narrative” used to describe something quite unliterary, its repeated use in a political context unnerves me. It angers me. Our pure tool, so beautifully designed to shape truth by fiction, there means nothing more than “make the story palatable and helpful to our political aims.”

It’s unforgiveable. It’s outright theft, and I’m angry.

I suspect I am not the only one who is angry about this perpetual (in my view) word/device abuse. Did you catch Sam Lipsyte’s story in the May 5, 2014 issue of The New Yorker called “The Naturals”? He speaks of a company who wants to create a lakefront development but the area needs a “narrative.” “The main thing is we’re trying to tell a story here. A lakefront narrative,” says a consultant. Huh? His main character seems just as puzzled as I am by that usage.

Throughout the story the main character, Caperton, encounters people who openly admit to being storytellers: a wrestler, his stepmother who works in “narrative medicine” helping patients tell their stories, and his dying father who tells him that “Death is just a part of the story.”

While I think Lipsyte’s claim is a bit different than mine — I believe he’s complaining about everything needing a story and I’m specifically complaining about the misuse of the word “narrative,” our beefs may not be so far apart. Why must politicians have a narrative, which implies a purposely crafted and presented tale rather than a strict presentation of the facts which would allow a person to decide for him or herself what happened?

Okay, there may be some writerly ego involved here: I want to be the one who tells the stories, who explains through fiction, which means admitting that my story, although true, is based on a narrative created by me.

“Stories were devices for deluding ourselves and others…” says Lipsyte’s truth-disguised-as-tale. Sometimes. Sometimes our stories make the world a much more beautiful place. Sometimes they make a hero of someone who is not. But when we admit to shaping the, yes, narrative, that’s fair, not manipulative. At least not a veiled manipulation. To hear riverfronts and politics using it, well, that’s just dishonest. Give me back my narrative, you hear me? Or at least find another word to call it.

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