Engaging Narrative Theory: Critical Approaches to the Storytelling Boom
Special Issue of Poetics Today 2022
Guest Editors: Maria Mäkelä & Hanna Meretoja
“Narratives are everywhere” was once the triumphant slogan of narrative scholars, but now we are starting to realize that this might in fact be a problem. In contemporary social media induced narrative environments, stories of personal change and disruptive experience often end up dominating over systematic data or scientific knowledge. As argued by researcher of social politics Sujatha Fernandes (2017), the contemporary storytelling boom is, in essence, inseparable from the neoliberal doctrine highlighting the upward mobility of an individual, while downplaying supra-individual societal structures and processes. Moreover, compelling stories are extremely difficult to challenge and falsify, regardless of their purpose and consequences. Narrative has, indeed, a unique capacity to capture and convey human experience – what it feels like to be this particular person living through these particular events. This doctrine is now being widely popularized across spheres of life; storytelling consultancy thrives, economists talk about “narrative economics” (Shiller 2019), and practices ranging from personal branding (see Salmon 2010) to socio-political activism (see Polletta 2006, Fernandes 2017) increasingly draw from a narrative repertoire. An insufficiently researched area are all the possible downsides of these engaging narratives that everyone should allegedly be crafting in today’s story economy. While Western literary and philosophical traditions have their own strong story-critical currents, contemporary practices of storytelling are permeated by a strong story-positivity that ought to be challenged by narratologists as well as philosophically, sociologically, and psychologically oriented narrative scholars.
Many contemporary researchers in literary studies, psychology and philosophy like to claim that engaging with narratives enhances our mind-reading ability, or cognitive empathy, which plays a crucial role in social interaction and moral development. It is no wonder, then, that narrative is being touted as the miracle cure for a wide variety of individual and social ills. Many narrative studies approaches lend generous support to the instrumentalization of narrative form, and storytelling consultants and manuals are eagerly repeating more or less streamlined versions of recent studies on narrative and empathy. Yet narrative may just as well be put to uses that are dubious if not dangerous. The widespread, uncritical use of narratives of personal experience in journalism and social media may have large-scale consequences that were neither intended nor anticipated. Experientiality may come at the cost of informativeness, while the narrative form as such tends to complicate the distinction between fact and fiction. Self-fashioning through cultural narratives adopted from self-help literature is not without its risks either. Furthermore, while narratives are ideally suited to conveying human experiences, they may simplify and misrepresent – or simply fail to depict – complex social interactions or material processes, such as climate change. Consequently, one pertinent task for contemporary narrative scholars is to highlight not only the affordances but also the epistemic, cognitive, and ethical limitations of narrative forms and easily shareable masterplots (Mäkelä 2018, Mäkelä forthcoming).
Both academic and popular discourse on the moral and cognitive benefits of literature can be seen as closely related to the general storytelling boom. Today, narrative fiction is instrumentalized and even medicalized in the service of wellbeing and self-help industry; overly simplifying popularizations of, for example, empirical research on reading produce simplistic advice (see e.g. “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov”, Belluck 2013, The New York Times). In critical discussion of the storytelling boom, however, it is worth looking at how fiction itself has critically engaged with narrative. Particularly since the crisis of storytelling in modernism and postmodernism Western fiction has problematized narrative as a form of representation – questioning it from ontological, epistemological and ethical perspectives and thematizing the risks and potential of narrative in nuanced ways that manifest metanarrativity, self-aware reflection on the role of cultural narratives in our lives (Meretoja 2014). Drawing on the complexity with which narrative fiction has explored this issue, narrative scholars have recently sought to provide nuanced models for evaluating the risks and benefits of different kinds of narrative practices (Schiff et al. [ed.] 2017; Meretoja 2018).
The Poetics Today special issue Engaging Narrative Theory: Critical Approaches to the Storytelling Boom seeks to redefine the role of narrative theorists and analysts in the contemporary storytelling boom. If research on the benefits of storytelling has caught on in the public imagination and various professional practices, we should be in a position to disseminate critical practices for the analysis of the forms and contexts of storytelling as well.
The organizers invite narrative scholars across disciplines to critically address the following (and related) issues:
- discourse on well-being and cognitive benefits of literature, “literature makes us better people”, empathy·
- sociological criticism of curated storytelling (Fernandes 2017) and the critique of empathy (Shuman 2005)
- narrative and post-truth
- storytelling boom and its relation to late capitalism, “narrative economics” (Shiller 2018, Beckert 2016)
- the story-critical potential of fiction
- literary industry affected by the storytelling boom
- narrative consultancy business; storytelling self-help and manuals
- story-critical reading in narrative studies? story-critical tools for audiences?
- “narrative” as a slogan and poor instrumental use of terms like “narrative” and “storytelling” across disciplines and spheres of life
- popularizing narrative theory
- social life of narratives vs. analysis of individual texts
- uses and risks of viral storytelling
Please send a proposal of max. 300 words and a short biographical statement to Maria Mäkelä (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Hanna Meretoja (email@example.com) by March 15, 2020.
Beckert, Jens 2016. Imagined Futures. Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics. Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press.
Fernandes, Sujatha 2017. Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mäkelä, Maria 2018. “Lessons from the Dangers of Narrative Project: Toward a Story-Critical Narratology.” Tekstualia2018:4, 175–186. Open access.
Mäkelä, Maria forthcoming 2020. “Through the Cracks in the Safety Net: Narratives of Personal Experience in Social Media and Human Interest Journalism.” In Marianne Wolff Lundholt & Klarissa Lueg (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Counter-Narratives. New York & London: Routledge.
Meretoja, Hanna 2014. The Narrative Turn in Fiction and Theory: The Crisis and Return of Storytelling from Robbe-Grillet to Tournier. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Meretoja, Hanna 2018. The Ethics of Storytelling: Narrative Hermeneutics, History and the Possible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Polletta, Francesca 2006. It Was Like a Fever. Storytelling in Protest and Politics. London: University of Chicago Press.
Salmon, Christian 2010. Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, transl. by David Macey. London and New York: Verso.
Schiff, Brian; A. Elizabeth McKim & Sylvie Patron (eds.) 2017. Life and Narrative: The Risks and Responsibilities of Storying Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shiller, Robert J. 2019. Narrative Economics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Shuman, Amy 2005. Other People’s Stories: Entitlement Claims and the Critique of Empathy