Sun, Dec 05, 2004 - Page 9 News List

`Narrative': The new story of `story,' and make sure it's coherent

By William Safire  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

"A narrative is the key to everything," said Stanley Greenberg, a pollster for US Sen. John Kerry, looking back at the election. He explained to reporters that the Republicans had "a narrative that motivated their voters."

Robert Shrum, a top Kerry strategist, half-agreed: "We had a narrative, but in the end, I don't think it came through."

James Carville, a Democrat in vigorous nondenial a few days later on Meet the Press, developed the theme on the hot word: "They produce a narrative, we produce a litany." (That's a list, or enumeration.) "They say, `I'm going to protect you from the terrorists in Tehran and the homos in Hollywood.' We say, `We're for clean air, better schools, more health care.' And so there's a Republican narrative, a story, and there's a Democratic litany."

Thus has political science dipped into the latest terminology of literary criticism to explain an election. In 1966, the essayist Roland Barthes declared, "Numberless are the world's narratives," and his structural analysis of stories helped give birth to the discipline of narratology. In that year, Robert Scholes of Brown, now president of the Modern Language Association, co-wrote a book with Robert Kellogg titled "The Nature of Narrative," defining the word as "all those literary works which are distinguished by two characteristics: the presence of a story and a story-teller." Reached at Brown, Scholes updates his brainchild: "Right now there are competing narratives of actual events that go on. It's what we call `spin' and `spin doctoring.' After an event, there are people who want to control the perception of that event, and the way they do that is by intervening with a narrative."

Peter Brooks, now of the University of Virginia, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2001 that the Starr Report about president Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky presented its major findings in a section titled "Narrative." He noted that this title "was a play for public acceptance of a certain formal construction of the events and their meaning. Had Starr chosen a more cubist approach, readers would have of course constructed their own narratives -- they did in any event. The claim that there was one narrative was a pre-emptive strike against dissenting opinions." (In the same way, Lee Hamilton of the Sept. 11 commission said of its 2004 report, "We finally cut all adjectives and ended up with a sparse narrative style.")

Reached by e-mail, Brooks replies: "The use of the word narrative is completely out of hand! ... While I think the term has been trivialized through overuse, I believe the overuse responds to a recognition that narrative is one of the principal ways in which we organize our experience of the world -- a part of our cognitive tool kit that was long neglected by psychologists and philosophers."

I am now wading into deeper water, but that is part of the gripping, dramatic story of today's column. This swiftly flowing but easy-to-follow chronicle of a word is a far cry from the back-and-forth time frames, character convolutions and cubist splintering of motivation that characterize much postmodern fiction.

Jim Phelan, editor of Narrative, the apt title of the triannual (that's three times a year) journal of the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature, defines the word as "the representation of events and characters in some causal or at least noncoincidental sequence." The Ohio State professor says that "several of us on the Narrative listserv" -- that's a closed fraternity of Internetties -- "had a discussion about the Democrats' concern with Kerry's coherent narrative or lack thereof."

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