Not All Stories Are Created Equal

The “Power of Story” is an article of faith among authors, librarians, and other bookish people. But beware its limitations.

The “power of story” consistent theme among authors, publishers, librarians, bookworms—and increasingly, politicians and opinion-mongers. I see it a lot in children’s fiction these days: find your story, tell your story, live your story. A wildly acclaimed children’s novel called When You Trap a Tiger (five starred reviews!) is all about “the power of story” to shape perception in an all-female Korean/American family. The central character learns empowerment from a mythical tiger of traditional folktales, both dangerous and benign (cue Joseph Campbell on the hero’s journey and the power of myth).

In politics, “the narrative” carries the day, rather than the principle or the rational argument. If I can hit you up with a tale of woe or success, you’ll remember and respond. Stories go straight to the heart, while propositions have to work their way through your mind in a series of logical steps. Reason takes work (at least for me); story is its own reward.

Why do we respond so viscerally to stories? For me, as in most things, it goes back to God. The arc of the Bible is a classic plot with a setting, protagonist & antagonist, supporting characters, central conflict, development, climax, and resolution. In fact, I suspect that’s where the classic plot came from in the first place, since it seems to be hard-wired in human consciousness.

At times in our past, such as the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, the power of reason dominated the power of story. But within the last fifty years, the significance of capital-S Story has come roaring back. To listen to certain librarians, authors, teachers, and other bookish people, it’s ALL about story. The power to craft your own narrative is the power, somehow, to live by that narrative.

When I was much younger than I am now, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill became a best seller. (Is that a great name for a best-selling author, or what?) I never read the book, and don’t even recall seeing an actual copy, but heard it jokily referred to often enough, as in “I’ve been thinking about that all my life! Where’s the payoff?” Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking was presumably built around the same concept. In 2007, The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, got a huge boost from Oprah. From what I gather—and to be fair, I haven’t read any of these books—the gist of The Secret was the same idea as the other two: you have the power to control your life by the stories you tell yourself.

All three of these books are still selling.

The potency of a lie is in the measure of truth it contains. Stories certainly can shape action and consciousness—going back, as I believe, to the Original Story. But storytellers and those who love them (and sell them) are investing too much in the very idea of story as the chief means to meaning. Or as meaning itself. That is a mistake.

To take one example, still fresh on every American’s mind. On Memorial Day, a black man was killed by a white cop in a particularly egregious manner. The incident immediately became a narrative, helped along by endless replays. From that narrative sprang a wildfire of further incidents: protests and riots, statues coming down and memorials defaced, a tide of opinion shifts, a backlash affecting corporations, publishers, politics, and very likely the future of our nation.

The tinder was already there, piling up year by year. The plot was in place (slavery, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, systemic racism, police brutality). The death of George Floyd, sliding smoothly into the plot, lit the fuse. But where does it belong in the plot? Is it the climax? Part of the rising action, or development? Or maybe it’s the inciting incident of another story altogether. Only future history will tell. Characters in the middle of things are not able to tell us where they’ll end up.

That’s one example—a very glaring example of what can happen when Story rides roughshod over Reason. The same thing that happened to Europe when the Romantics revolted against the Enlightenment and started revolutionary fires that burned for half a century. And later, when a story called “the Jews control the world” shaped the conscience of a disaffected, proud, rudderless public and led to towering racial ambitions that started a world war.

For the individual child with her nose in a book, the right story can raise her sights and weave her into a larger world. The wrong story can drive her back into a smaller self, where it’s all about my identity, my truth, my plot. Writing or choosing one’s own story is always derivative and usually soul-shrinking; we’re made to be crucial parts of a larger whole, not irrelevant little plots floating in a void.  “Story,” unattached to a deeper truth, is almost always a lie.

Also at Redeemed Reader:

See Emily’s interview with literature professor Nathan Huffstetler about The Hero’s Journey.

Story isn’t everything, but we still love ’em, and we’re all about reading. Betsy rounded up 4 Books about the Reading Life and made a resolution about Reading More Clearly in 2020.
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