Everyone, they say, has a story to tell - only nowadays, have you noticed, the term often used is "narrative." What's sometimes meant by this is not just a good yarn, but a carefully constructed tale, told to some specific purpose: getting someone elected, for instance.
"Narrative" has been on my screen for a while, but it really got my attention when it came up in an article on the socially conscious marketing of casual apparel. An expert was discussing a manufacturer of T-shirts that was attempting to set itself apart from its competitors by creating "a narrative" about its humane labor practices and commitment to manufacturing domestically rather than abroad.
"There is no production-based difference, so the only difference you can create is narrative," he said. Perhaps "Biography of a T-Shirt: From Rags to Riches - a Real Insider's View"?
The political uses of "narrative" in this sense are many. Part of the analysis of Sen. John Kerry's unsuccessful presidential bid last fall was that he lacked a compelling "narrative," as former Clinton adviser Jim Carville put it.
Notice how the Bush administration has used the compelling "personal stories" of appointees like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to win hearts and minds and Senate confirmation votes. ("Gutierrez's personal story suggests a classic political narrative," Newsday observed after his nomination.)
But "narrative" is on our minds for reasons beyond politics or marketing. Narrative, story line, is a way of maintaining our bearings. It's our defense against the bits and bytes of information that keep screaming at us through every channel, from broadband Internet on our desktops, to the crawl lines across the bottom of our television screens, to the news updates we can get on cellphones programmed to beep at us every time our favorite fanzine has something hot on J. Lo.
Scientists say we human beings are hard-wired to read other human faces. I suspect we may have a similar instinct for human stories.
As anyone who has studied journalism knows, the classic format of an American newspaper story is the inverted pyramid form: The most important thing comes first, then the next most important, and so on to the end of the article, which has the stuff that can be snipped off if necessary.
The folklore is that the inverted pyramid style developed during the Civil War, when the telegraph lines were likely to go down during the middle of the transmission of a news dispatch. It became clear that under such circumstances, saving the juiciest bits of information for last was probably not smart.
But the inverted pyramid, however compelling its logic, left the longing to tell stories, and to hear stories, unsatisfied. Recent years have seen a trend toward "narrative journalism" in newspapers and magazines, in which stories are told in depth, in chronological order, with "characters" not unlike the characters of a work of fiction. At its best, such writing engages the reader with a good story and then subtly, stealthily educates and enlightens as well. It's a technique that's being used for everything from the biography of a T-shirt to the reporting of genocide.
Joseph Stalin has been quoted as saying, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." At a time when so much of "the news" is mass tragedies involving distant millions, narrative journalists bravely set off in search of the one whose story can stand in for the stories of millions.
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