Seduced by Story.

Jonathan Taylor’s TLS review (archived) of Peter Brooks’ Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative makes it sound worth reading; I was particularly taken with this passage:

Better storytelling, then, does not necessarily make the listeners or readers better people. While we cling to the age-old assumption that storytelling might be a good in itself – that stories are “improving”, making people more empathetic and wiser – twenty-first-century storytelling might just make some people richer, others poorer. Storytelling is incredibly powerful, as Simmons claims, but this is an amoral power that can be used for good or ill, for profit or loss, in the name of self-interest or selflessness, conservatism or radicalism: “There is nothing inherently worthy or unworthy about narrative”, Brooks states. “It’s the uses it is put to that count.” Narrative has “no special privilege” and is by no means

immunise[d] … from unethical uses. On the contrary, because it is intended as an act of communication, narrative is subject to all the abuses of language itself. Language was given to man in order to lie, said Machiavelli; and the ability of language to use counterfactuals inhabits narrative as well.

Of course, lying is fundamental to many of our culture’s principal modes of narrative. By definition the novel – our culture’s “dominant form” of storytelling for Brooks – is counterfactual. There is a key difference, though, between a novel’s fiction and a brand’s, politician’s or lawyer’s lie: that is, a novel brings attention to its own fictionality, while the others do not. They have to efface any counterfactuality, pretending to their audiences that their stories are the whole truth and nothing but the truth. By contrast, a reader reads a novel – even a nineteenth-century realist novel – with a sort of double consciousness, somehow both suspending disbelief and being aware that what they are reading is fiction, both immersed in the “novelistic illusion” and standing outside it. Just as a child playing “make-believe” or “let’s pretend” is “capable of holding simultaneously belief in the fiction and awareness of reality”, so an adult reader brings a “willing suspension of disbelief” to the novel “not … from naiveté or stupidity but because that is part of the intellectual and emotional pleasure of reading … Even though you know it to be fiction you need to submit to its simulations of the real”. For Brooks it is precisely this double consciousness on the part of the reader that makes the novel so valuable. It means that novels exist in the playful world of “half-belief”, a “space in which the human mind can deal with reality, speak of it, reshape it imaginatively, ask ‘what if’ questions about it”.

Serious problems arise, Brooks argues, when half belief becomes full belief – when readers lose sight of the fictionality of fiction. “One must use fictions always with the awareness of their fictionality”, he warns. “They are ‘as if’ constructions of reality that we need, that we have to use creatively in order not to die of the chaos of reality – but they are not reality itself.” In Seduced by Story Brooks explores various fields – including psychoanalysis, legal practice and modern political discourse – in which the distinction between narrative and “reality” has been eroded, or even collapsed. He warns us that: “the universe is not our stories about the universe, even if those stories are all we have. Swamped in story as we seem to be, we may lose the distinction between the two, asserting the dominion of our constructed realities over the real thing”.

Those are important distinctions that are too often lost sight of. (We’ve discussed Dostoevsky’s thoughts about the importance of lies more than once, e.g. here and here.)


  1. Stu Clayton says

    Language was given to man in order to lie, said Machiavelli

    That’s a very productive word pattern: “X was given to man in order to Y”. It’s like “Love is when …”.

    But why get all lit crit epistomolly about it ? I find myself more often confronted with excuses than with “the fictionality of fiction” and such high-minded conundrums.

    Warum erzählen Menschen? Wie haben sie Erzählen gelernt? Welche kulturellen Leistungen sind mit dem Erzählen verbunden? Und was ist Erzählen überhaupt? Auf diese Fragen gibt Fritz Breithaupt eine verblüffende Antwort. Erzählen erlaubt es, Ausreden vorzutragen.
    # Kultur der Ausrede

    There is a key difference, though, between a novel’s fiction and a brand’s, politician’s or lawyer’s lie: that is, a novel brings attention to its own fictionality, while the others do not. They have to efface any counterfactuality, pretending to their audiences that their stories are the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    Oh yeah ? I don’t see Trump, MTG, Alex Jones et al expending much effort in that direction. I often read of interviews with (say) Trump supporters who say they don’t necessarily believe all he says, but they still “support” him, because he “has the right attitude”. So maybe there’s something else at work here besides the “fictionality of fiction”.

  2. Of course there is. There’s always something else at work; the world is a complicated place. But don’t worry, I don’t expect you to take an interest in high-minded conundrums.

  3. David Marjanović says

    What Trump does is, in traditional characters, 指鹿為馬 (“show deer, call horse”) – whether anybody, Trump himself included, actually believes it’s a horse is completely beside the point; it’s a pure show of power.

  4. Stu Clayton says

    it’s a pure show of power.

    Exactly. The snark in my remark “maybe there’s something else at work here” went unremarked.

    I don’t expect you to take an interest in high-minded conundrums.

    Surely, surely this is not the first article you’ve read along the lines of “the universe is not our stories about the universe, even if those stories are all we have” ?? With very few exceptions, it’s always the same old whirl of words, merely rotating in slightly different directions.

    I got tired of that decades ago, after maybe 10 articles and 20 books of that kind. There is no balm in TLS, only well-spoken cluenessness.

    You needn’t take the Luhmann route. All roads lead nowhere, but the scenic views on the way are worth it. It sure beats staring at the same old conundrums until you get cross-eyed.

  5. Surely, surely this is not the first article you’ve read along the lines of “the universe is not our stories about the universe, even if those stories are all we have” ??

    No, but unlike you I don’t automatically dismiss things because they resemble other things I’ve already seen. Semper aliquid novi, comrade.

  6. Stu Clayton says

    So you always answer the door when Jehovah’s Witnesses ring, although what they say and do always resembles what they said and did ? Do you never get fed up with something of a kind ? I remember quite a few posts and comments of yours which show the opposite.

    I automatically dismiss waffling once I recognize it. Is that a failing ? Proposed: “It is better to put hot cherries on a waffle than to curse its darkness.”

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Semper aliquid novi, comrade.

    Sure, but rarely a novum worth remembering. One memorable novum per midden-heap is unsatisfactory ROI. Get those talents working ! The bible tells you so.

  8. John Cowan says

    Tolkien laid out almost a century ago what’s wrong with willing suspension of disbelief in “On Fairy-Stories:

    Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.

    A real enthusiast for cricket is in the enchanted state: Secondary Belief. I, when I watch a match, am on the lower level. I can achieve (more or less) willing suspension of disbelief, when I am held there and supported by some other motive that will keep away boredom: for instance, a wild, heraldic, preference for dark blue rather than light. This suspension of disbelief may thus be a somewhat tired, shabby, or sentimental state of mind, and so lean to the “adult.” I fancy it is often the state of adults in the presence of a fairy-story. They are held there and supported by sentiment (memories of childhood, or notions of what childhood ought to be like); they think they ought to like the tale. But if they really liked it, for itself, they would not have to suspend disbelief: they would believe—in this sense.


    I once saw a so-called “children’s pantomime,” the straight story of Puss-in-Boots, with even the metamorphosis of the ogre into a mouse. Had this been mechanically successful it would either have terrified the spectators or else have been just a turn of high-class conjuring. As it was, though done with some ingenuity of lighting, disbelief had not so much to be suspended as hanged, drawn, and quartered.

    something else at work here

    JRRT again:

    So now, when [the Ring’s] master was awake once more and sending out his dark thought from Mirkwood, it abandoned Gollum. Only to be picked up by the most unlikely person imaginable: Bilbo from the Shire!

    ‘Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.’

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    “Fancy literary narrative is just a crock of shit trying to rip you off,” sez the Extremely Distinguished Now-Emeritus Professor of Humanities, whose career coincided with a radical drop in undergraduate interest in majoring in the humanities. A coincidence, surely. Why would students be uninterested in our clever agenda of explaining that the objects of our scholarly study are neither true nor beautiful nor edifying?

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I am also put in mind of:

    “A statesman is an easy man,
    He tells his lies by rote;
    A journalist makes up his lies
    And takes you by the throat;
    So stay at home and drink your beer
    And let the neighbours vote.”

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Quietism as the first resort of boredom ? Well, it takes all kinds.

    The repetitiveness of the conundrum churners is reassuring for thoughtful folks, just like Trump’s trumpeting is for those partial to brass bands.

    I bet the editors of the TLS have a schedule for those articles on reality vs fiction. Readers expect them occasionally, but not too often – since that would risk reminding people that they got nowhere the last time.

    Myself, I am never bored. I just finished Time Shelter, reread a few Borges stories, and am now on the third volume of Martineau’s Autobiography (not written by her!). It’s conventional, stagey and startling by turns. The cult of Selfless Self !

  12. I just finished Time Shelter

    How was it?

  13. John Cowan says

    Trump’s trumpeting is for those partial to brass bands

    … particularly those that habitually perform in coal mines.

    I am never bored

    Gale never was either. I myself had a episode of acute boredom at age 19 when I was in a hotel room with nowhere to go, no one to talk to, and nothing to read. Since then I have endeavored never to be without reading matter.

    am now on the third volume of Martineau’s Autobiography (not written by her!)

    That garden-pathed me good; I thought you meant she had not written the first two volumes either. Strictly speaking the title of the whole three-decker is Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography with memorials by Maria Weston Chapman: it is sometimes published with all three volumes, sometimes just with Harriet’s two.

  14. Should that be “garden-paththed”, as in “lagged”, “ratted”, “washshed”?

  15. i can’t tell whether tolkein is, like brooks, having trouble grasping the (i’d think pretty basic) fact that people can – and constantly do – relate to an experience (including a piece of cultural work) on multiple levels simultaneously, and that factuality is not always a particularly important one of them, or whether his “Secondary Belief” is at heart a denigration of that basic mode. it’s stranger in brooks, though, since at some point in his career he’s almost certainly had to at least pretend to have read brecht on the power of the Verfremdungseffekt, which is based on precisely that understanding.

    @JWB: perhaps the goals closest to his heart are less about the humanities than making the trains run on time, like his erstwhile colleague and bosom buddy paul?

  16. David Marjanović says



    Synchronically, the doubling of the consonant letters is to show that the vowel remains “short”, e.g. that ratted isn’t pronounced with rate the way rated is. But sh, after well over a thousand years, still counts as a consonant cluster for this purpose, so any vowel preceding it is already assumed to be short.

    The same holds for German sch, BTW.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    How was it?

    Fantastic. Most of the blurbs on the paperback make no sense: “comedic” for instance. Borges lurks in the wings.

  18. Keith Ivey says

    still counts as a consonant cluster

    As does x (not surprisingly, since it’s two phonemes), despite all the people writing vaxxed who (probably) would never write taxxed, fixxes, or boxxing. Admittedly they may write vaxx too.

  19. I was in a smartass mood.

  20. David Marjanović says

    It may have started with the last name Foxx.

    …which reminds me: when Otto Gericke discovered the vacuum and air pressure, he was ennobled and got the additional right to add a letter to his name. Presumably figuring he was going to become internationally famous, he made things easier for readers of French and became Otto von Guericke.

  21. he was ennobled and got the additional right to add a letter to his name.

    That is truly bizarre.

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    It is understandable that Messrs. Von Schmiedt or Von Miestbauer might wish to make a distinction with their humble counterparts Schmidt and Mistbauer. Of course others in their new circle may laugh, but this can be settled on a field of honour.

  23. I see a few von Schmidts on a quick search, all if them in the U.S. Is this as funny-sounding as I think it is?

    There was also a Ferdinand von Bauer, an Austro-Hungarian Minister of War.

  24. Jim Fixx was a popular fitness writer in the ’70s. The all-knowing WP tells me that his father, journalist Calvin Fixx, né Fix, “added a second ‘x’ to his surname because, he said, ‘a verb cannot be a name.’”

  25. And let us not forget Redd Foxx. (Oddly, the Wikipedia article says nothing about the stage name or how he came to adopt it.)

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    A non-U.S. von Schmidt known to wikipedia is the posh Dutchman Johann George Otto Stuart von Schmidt auf Altenstadt, reportedly Governor-General of Surinam in 1852-55.

    One of the items I have yet to get to in my current listening project (“63 Albums from 1963”) is the eponymously-titled “Dick Fariña & Eric Von Schmidt,” being a collaboration of those two American folk-scene dudes, but released only in the U.K.– it having been recorded in the back room of Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop in the Charing Cross Road one night when both fellows happened to be in London, along with other hangers-on like the harmonica player using the pseudonym “Blind Boy Grunt” instead of his usual pseudonym. Two years later EVS had moved on to U.S.-released albums with names like “Eric Sings Von Schmidt,” featuring instead of BBG the harmonica stylings of Mel Lyman, who within a few years thereafter was better known as a cult leader than a folkie. (I have not read his 1966 opus “Autobiography of a World Savior,” but I take it it does not provide very much guidance on harmonica technique.)

  27. Baseball power hitter Jimmy Foxx had an unusual enough surname spelling that he was nicknamed “Double X.”

  28. John Cowan says

    i can’t tell whether tolkein is

    … stupid or bigoted. Um, neither?

    at some point in his career [Brooks has] almost certainly had to at least pretend to have read brecht on the power of the Verfremdungseffekt

    T doesn’t cite Brecht, for reasons of both date and belonging to an utterly different tradition, but he’s well familiar with the effect:

    Recovery [one of the virtues of fairy-stories] (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces.

    This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

    […] And there is […] Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside through a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

    […] The word Mooreeffoc may cause you suddenly to realize that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future to be reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits; but it cannot do more than that: act as a time-telescope focused on one spot.

    Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds. The gems all turn into flowers or flames, and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.

    The “fantastic” elements in verse and prose of other kinds, even when only decorative or occasional, help in this release. But not so thoroughly as a fairy-story, a thing built on or about Fantasy, of which Fantasy is the core. Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram [Sigurd’s dragon-slaying sword] cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon [part of T’s own mythology, though no one knew it then] root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory.

    And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.

    It’s clear that Tolkien takes a wider view of the role of emotion than Brecht does. Tolkien’s enstrangement is attached, not detached, but what it is attached to is not the fields we know but something much greater than that.

  29. Bathrobe says

    Santa Claus is, of course, a completely and wilfully false narrative that many believe, until the magical story is shown to be untrue, by which they approach one step closer to adulthood.

    For adults, one function of false narratives is to show that reality isn’t what you think it to be. Whether it’s Qanon, the Great Replacement, or Jewish financiers manipulating the world, these stories are meant to be believed in. They are embraced by many who regard what is peddled by the mainstream press and the establishment as a false narrative.

    Even fiction (including science fiction) tells stories with the purpose of helping us look at reality in a different way.

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