How Not to Discuss Whether We Need Stories
“Do we need stories?” asks Tim Parks.
An interesting question. And an important one. But not a matter easily resolved within the confines of a few tweets, a couple Facebook updates, or an entire blog post (even one at the respected New York Review of Books).
That’s obvious though, right? So why Does Parks appear attempting just that? And what does he have to show for it?
Parks is reacting to this basic, if self-serving declaration from Jonathan Franzen: people need stories. He does so by inquiring as to why that might be, finding one reason, derailing that reason, and then declaring the his suspicion that the whole project (novels, stories, etc.) is quite unnecessary.
The problems with his analysis are beyond count, however. And being in the mood to studiously note them, I shall go on and do so.
First, Parks announces the question “Do we need stories?” Having intrigued his audience with a general and accessible inquiry he then pivots to what Franzen said more specifically, which was that there is an enormous need for, “elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.”
Moving to the baggage of Franzen’s claim, Parks wonders why these stories need be complex or what Twitter has to do with anything. But almost immediately, after raising these issues, Parks zooms back out, abandoning this line of thought before it even begins, and addresses the “world needs stories” thesis, whose proponents are, by the way, legion. So yea, these people are probably wrong and their demons.
With that stimulating image in mind, Parks turns next not to a brief summary of the thesis and its reasoning, but moves instead to a discussion of Salman Rushdie’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories Here, a text that he notes, “falls between fable and magical realism.” Remember “fable” and “magical realism”, they will be important later on.
Rushdie, it appears, proposes in this book that there is a natural ecology of stories which, when disrupted, leads to all sorts of bad things. In other words: Yay for narrative and cultural pluralism! But never mind this, because according to Parks, “Rushdie’s narrative is charming, but his ocean of stories argument never, to risk the pun, holds water.”
Not having read the book myself, I’m sure Parks is privy to some extra, perchance important, information that demonstrates the natural ecology of stories idea to be an argument of some kind. But since he doesn’t mention it, I won’t waste time giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Instead, I’ll simply state that claiming, within the context of a story no less, that narrative pluralism is better than narrative disharmony doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the question of whether to have narrative to begin with. After all, it would be easy enough not to focus on stories at all, in which case the idea of narrative disharmony would be moot.
But the question Parks is asking is, “Do we need stories?” Not, “Do we need a pluralism or harmony among our stories?” So why he goes on to explain that “Far from imposing silence, cults, religions, and ideologies of all kinds have their own noisy stories to tell,” is a mystery.
Then there is this:
“Rather the problem is that preacher and polemicist want us to accept just one, mutually exclusive set of stories, one vision, which we must believe is true. And many people are happy to do this. Once they’ve signed up to a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or even liberal pluralist narrative it’s unlikely they’ll go out of their way to research competing accounts of the world. People tend to use stories of whatever kind to bolster their beliefs, not to question them.”
Perhaps I am missing some sleep that would have otherwise aerated the densely packed soil of my imagination so that more charitable interpretations of Parks’ above point might have sprouted up instead of the one that will now follow.
Parks claims that Rushdie’s argument is bunk. He then goes on to explain how there is no narrative pluralism and look at all the bad things that have happened. And oh, by the way, people often used stories to bolster their own beliefs rather than analyze them rationally. This appears to me to support Rushdie’s idea, per Parks, that narrative pluralism is to be preferred to narrative disharmony; not the opposite of that. But I must reiterate, I have not read the book in question, and can only go off of Parks limited, and seemingly contradictory examination of it.
But time to move on again, because it’s back to Franzen’s original statement since Parks is pretty sure that what he just said has nothing to do with the “we-need-stories thesis” that “Franzen was thinking of.” So Park again calls into question the need for “complex” stories that are conceived of away from Twitter. The rational for this with which Parks will do battle is to be the following:
“…the world has become immensely complicated and the complex stories of our novels help us to see our way through it, to shape a trajectory for ourselves in the increasingly fragmented and ill-defined social world we move in.”
Here, Parks first order of business demonstrate why, even if we do need stories, we don’t need novels. Novels, which are far from the only forms of complex narrative, do put the audience in the unique position of having the world mediated to them via a single author. But this unique form is actually quite precarious Parks explains, because novels “compete for our assent and seek to seduce us toward the author’s point of view.”
Since I doubt that is a very controversial statement, at least not when considering the bigger question Parks will be answering, if he ever gets around to it, I’ll accept it and respond, so what?
According to Parks, the so what is that “rather than needing stories we need to learn how to smell out their drift and resist them.” Stories are warnings against, what else, other stories. How pernicious he remarks. Arguments like this have been made before, thousands of years ago, most notably by the interlocutors in several of Plato’s dialogues. Rhetoric is often, if not only used to gain “our assent and seek to seduce us toward the author’s point of view.”
But how do we guard against such persuasions? Why, by studying rhetoric of course. Likewise, even if this were a brutal blow to the novel’s positive value, it does nothing to affect the novel’s necessity as a form of proactive defense against the malign influence of others. Even if novels were declared “unnecessary” in the humanistic sense, narrative tropes borrowed from the novel would continue to be used, and thus the novel as a subject of study would remain vital.
Unfortunately, even this debate is a distraction because as Parks divines, “there’s something deeper going on.” That something is where most of the confusion seeping throughout his piece has pooled:
“There are words that describe objects we make: to know the word ‘chair’ is to understand about moving from standing to sitting and appreciate the match of the human body with certain shapes and materials.
But there are also words that come complete with entire narratives, or rather that can’t come without them. The only way we can understand words like God, angel, devil, ghost, is through stories, since these entities do not allow themselves to be known in other ways, or not to the likes of me.
Here not only is the word invented—all words are—but the referent is invented too, and a story to suit. God is a one-word creation story.”
This is subtle terrain upon which Parks treads, and I am certainly ill-trained to traverse it with him. So I will merely point out what troubles me about this passage rather than claim he is wrong.
First off, it certainly appears like the network of interrelated meanings which adhere in the idea of a “chair” are ones which can’t be left out. Though a chair is a physical object, the concepts which accompany the word, and allow us to make sense of it, are not. Instead, they are sensations: standing, sitting, moving, resting. These, which would be involved in someone explaining the meaning of “chair” to someone who had never seen, used, or heard of one before, are in that way similar to the network of meanings which must accompany God in order to make sense of the term. Would any strong believer in God not claim to have a unique sensation, beyond that of the belief itself, which they are in fact referring to when they say or write it? I for one, being an atheist, can only understand the word in so far as those who feel it are able to explain it to me.
And here is where Parks account is most troubling. While the stories surrounding the word God are invented (more accurately: inspired), the word itself is arguably of a thing. Whether referring to the real entity, or of the sensation which allows one to commune with it, the word is not on the same level as the fictions accompanying the it (like angels and demons). In much the same way that deeper meanings of “chair” might be elucidated by stories involving thrones, wheelchairs and recliners, God is made clearer, or at least somewhat intelligible in ways other than direct sensation, by stories involving angels, demons, and crosses (in the Christian sense of the concept).
This matters for Parks main counter-claim against the need-stories thesis which is that, “the most important word in the invented-referents category is ‘self.’” This proposition is supported first by arguing that “the self requires a story,” then by begging the question why one’s sense of self needs to be amplified (the only use he sees for stories, especially in the form of novels), and is finally brought home by talking about how some (I wouldn’t want to generalize about one of the world’s largest and oldest religions) Buddhist priests, and the late Arthur Schopenhauer, would argue that the self isn’t real anyway.
The result of this chain of reasoning is that the self requires a story, but since the self isn’t real, it doesn’t really require one, and that even if the self were real, and required a story, it does not require one in the complex form of the modern novel, which, if anything, is probably unhealthy for one’s sense of self.
However, if the sensation of self is anything like the sensation of God, or the sensation of standing vs. sitting, it’s hard to maintain that it isn’t and real necessarily requires a story upon which to base itself. Also, the fact that Buddhism is rich with myths, parables, and metaphors seems to call into question the direct link Parks constructs between self and story. Which is why he makes sure to note near the end of his entry a distinction between stories that excite the ego and encourage identification with the author (pernicious novels) and those which do not (everything else).
Which is to say that his entire analysis ends up nowhere, without acknowledging as much, and all while needlessly launching distracting and contradictory rebuttals of poorly explained positions.
Parks is onto something when he describes the connection of stories to the self. Many people would feel, even if they don’t strictly need stories, that their lives would be somehow incomplete without them. At the very least, I think his remark about the seductive nature of narratives is the more interesting point. And one that doesn’t distinguish stories as something we can do without, but rather an aspect of our discourse and everyday experience that can’t be ignored. Whether or not we need stories, they seem inextricably linked to the structure of our consciousness. Perhaps the more important question as a result then is whether we could ever disentangle ourselves from them? We might not need stories, but could we abandon them even if we wanted to?