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Not the Same Old Story

The theory of storytelling has moved well beyond literature and into medicine, law and even world affairs.


Everybody loves a good story. Little did we know how much.

From cavemen to scholars, people have been drawn to fire pits, water coolers, theaters and grave sites to share stories, which have long been at the core of the arts, novels, movies and plays. But since the postmodern literary movement of the 1960s swept out of academia and into the wider culture, narrative thinking has seeped into other fields. Historians, lawyers, physicians, economists and psychologists have all rediscovered the power of stories to frame reality, and storytelling has come to rival logic as a way to understand legal cases, geography, illness or war. Stories have become so pervasive, critics fear they have become a dangerous replacement for facts and reasoned argument.

In these tale-telling times, the crisis ignited on Sept. 11 has been called a clash of narratives between the stories that terrorists use and those Westerners believe. And literary debates about whether a story describes what is real or determines reality have gained a new relevance.

"We always knew stories are really powerful. They've probably never been treated before as if they mattered" in shaping our public and private lives, said Paul Costello, co-founder of the small Center for Narrative Studies in Washington, D.C., which was formed six years ago to track the spreading use and practice of narrative. "Before, it was always 'That's only a story, give me the facts."' Now, he said, more people are realizing that "stories have real effects that have got to be looked at seriously."

Interest in narrative arose spontaneously among a handful of intellectuals in the late 1950s, said Stanley Fish, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Between 1958 and 1963, a bunch of books appeared in a number of disciplines, all written independently, all making the same point: Our sense of fact and of the shape of events always follows from an unarticulated set of assumptions," he said. Thomas G. Kuhn, John Langshaw Austin, Clifford Geertz, Richard Rorty and Michel Foucault shared similar insights in science, culture, philosophy, anthropology and sociolinguistics.

"When we see things, we don't see them directly and immediately. That generalized way of looking at things, we didn't choose. We more or less fall into it by virtue of our nationality, ethnicity, etc."

Since then, he said, the idea of the narrative construction of reality has been like "something in the water." In some cases, scholars said, academic insights passed more form than substance into the wider culture, as, for instance, deconstruction came to be an advertising slogan for jeans.

Yet people widely absorbed the scholars' argument that at some level stories are the most powerful form of discourse, stronger than logic, stronger than reason, stronger than bare fact. Stories explain, justify and inspire in a way that abstract reasoning just can't do, said Yale University's Peter Brooks, author of "Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative." In fact, he said, "I don't think we would have that much of a perception of reality without constructing it in a narrative."


Popular historians such as Joseph Ellis and David McCullough have revived narrative techniques to engage readers, and even the most seemingly fact-based fields have felt the pull toward storytelling. "There's been a claim that economics is really about stories," Brooks said.

Narrative is seen by business consultants as a way to improve "knowledge management," Costello said. In geography, he said, "a story is what converts space into a place. Mention the Mississippi and people immediately evoke a story, Mark Twain or the floods."

In law, storytelling has been rediscovered as a way to counter legal abstraction, and its use has raised a new consciousness about the malleability of the story. "People are more self-conscious about the fact that narrative is selective," said Martha Nussbaum, a University of Chicago philosopher who has taught law students about the value of narrative. "The way you tell a story is quite crucial to the legal issues involved.

"This is popping up not only in the teaching of law, but in the awareness of judges, who recognize a story can reveal or can obscure. We want to make sure we get the right stories."

She described one sexual harassment case, for instance, in which a judge ruled that a woman was not harmed by crude language in the workplace, partly because the woman herself had also used such language. However, an appellate judge overruled the lower court, saying the story painted by the defense had left out features that were legally relevant, such as the fact that the woman was in the minority in a system that used intimidation, and that she had only been trying to fit in, Nussbaum said.

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