How We Know What We Are Being Told: On Peter Brooks’s “Seduced by Story”

Caterina Domeneghini reviews Peter Brooks’s new book “Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative.”

How We Know What We Are Being Told: On Peter Brooks’s “Seduced by Story”

Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative by Peter Brooks. New York Review Books. 176 pages.

ON APRIL 22, 2022, just a few weeks after the horrors of the Bucha massacre had been revealed, The Times Literary Supplement published a touching and provocative essay by the Ukrainian poet and writer Oksana Zabuzhko. “No Guilty People in the World?” (reprising the title of a short story Tolstoy wrote in 1909) makes a claim that sounds both rageful and cynical: “Russian literature has, for 200 years, painted a picture of the world in which the criminal is to be pitied, not condemned.” Think of Gerasim, Zabuzhko urges us with boundless irony, the mute serf who kills his dear puppy Mumu under the orders of his lady owner; or of Raskolnikov, the former law student who murders the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna for no apparent reason. What pity Turgenev and Dostoevsky felt for such poor souls! What a cruel fate! How many wrong steps taken, how much agony borne! And yet, Zabuzhko continues, the Gerasims and Raskolnikovs of yesterday are the flesh-and-bone Russians of today — the very same military men who “raped an eleven-year-old boy and tied his mother to a chair so she could watch,” and the very same ordinary citizens who, once trained by their teachers to sympathize with Gerasim and feel hatred for the lady, are now ready to condemn Putin but acquit the soldiers “sent to Ukraine to massacre much more than puppies.”

Perhaps some of these lives could have been spared, Zabuzhko suggests with bitterness, if Europe had ceased earlier to believe the naïve fable that Russia has been recounting for a while: that their state and their literature are not the same thing, that their bookshelves have nothing to do with the debasement of their people. The Ukrainian author concludes with a wish and a warning: “[T]he road for bombs and tanks has always been paved by books, and we are now first-hand witnesses to how the fate of millions can be decided by our reading choices.” The Russians have taken their stories too literally; the West has fallen into their trap of inurement. And here we are. What are we going to do now?

This blending of fiction and reality is precisely what Peter Brooks’s new book tries to warn us against. Seduced by Story: The Use and Abuse of Narrative is a succinct account of narrative persuasion, offering a solid case for the ambivalent power that stories can have in shaping us as individuals and nations. It’s the same old story: from Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” to Volodymyr Zelensky’s “I need ammunition, not a ride,” we largely continue to hope and live by the narratives we read, listen to, and are fed. These tales stay with us, bring us together. But they can also divide us and, most detrimentally, deceive us. If narrative stands as the dominant mode of representing and interpreting reality, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two. Seduced by Story provides an antidote and a corrective for some of the bad reading habits we have. Throughout six chapters that draw from literature, philosophy, psychology, and more, the Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale puts together a handy toolkit for enhancing our analytical skills against the temptation to take certain fictions not just as constructions but as all-explaining foundations of the modern world.

What partly generates the confusion between useful stories and dangerous myths, Brooks warns us, is that narrative now permeates every aspect of our daily lives. Storytelling as a means of communication has taken over nearly every field of knowledge, from politics to medicine, from corporate branding to new media. We find it on the back of our cereal boxes and among the features of Snapchat and Instagram. Whatever product we may be interested in, the selling company will take pains to tell us why their story is the one that truly matters. Indeed, my own review is liable to a popular trend in contemporary journalism that Brooks dismisses as the vicious strategy of attention seekers: to begin an article with a story, “an anecdote leading in to the substance of the subject.” Paraphrasing the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, Brooks argues that “grand narratives” have lost their appeal and have been reduced now to “mini-narratives” — like the “story of the day,” an initiative first launched by David Gergen, the former adviser of Ronald Reagan — that are largely “narcissistic and self-serving.” In my defense, I can only say that I wanted to sustain Zabuzhko’s provocation, or take it one step further. Perhaps even take it to the opposite extreme: What happens when even the few “grand narratives” we are left with, real narratives that deserve a genuine pause for reflection, are chewed over and spit out in a matter of minutes? Doesn’t it disturb you that I have deliberately relegated a story of war and bloodshed to the status of an “anecdote” to get your attention? If it doesn’t, or if it leaves you increasingly indifferent, then Seduced by Story is the book for you.

Brooks’s interest in the allure of stories can be traced back to his 1984 book Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, his first systematic attempt to demonstrate through a myriad of literary examples that “[o]ur lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative” and that plotting both reflects and seeks to impose an order on human life. Nearly 40 years later, Seduced by Story returns to finish the job with the same degree of attention towards certain pivot elements of storytelling and a little more pessimism — what Brooks calls his “disabused sense of what has happened to ‘narrative’ in our culture.” Two complementary assumptions motivate his endeavors. First, narrative is nowadays so widespread that it often comes diluted or devoid of importance or symbolic meaning, and Brooks declares himself sympathetic to positions that criticize such “extreme narrativism.” Second, however greatly social and political institutions may have trivialized narrative, narrative in itself is not a trivial phenomenon. The way in which we make sense of ourselves and the world is still, to a large extent, narratively constructed.

If this, in Brooks’s line of argument, may lead us, as it led psychologists like Jerome Bruner, to embrace the solipsistic conviction that “we are our narratives” — a disillusion that the philosopher Galen Strawson has dispelled with irony as the “fallacy of our age” — it does not yet represent a valid reason for abandoning storytelling altogether. What we need instead is an awareness that narrative, as the author claims (quoting Borges), “is the discipline of men, not of angels.” We need, in other words, some tools for understanding that stories are only a (good) starting point; they are made of the same substance as “what ifs,” not absolute truths.

Seduced by Story thus aims to “view with a critical eye the implications of the narrative turn in different kinds of storytelling, across different fields of knowledge.” If we break down that methodological statement, however, we are left with the impression that Brooks’s own narrative of literary criticism ends up delivering only parts of what it promises. Readers encounter a number of minor issues with the major premises of the book. So, let’s start unpacking.

First, there is the issue of “different kinds of storytelling.” Brooks implies that the lyric has been “eclipsed” in favor of the “discursive”; but then this claim is left in a critical void, and we can do nothing but take it for granted. In chapter three, he quotes Lukács on the difference between “story” and “novel,” but it’s effectively the latter that becomes Brooks’s main target for the largest part of his narrative. Drawing on a wide range of European authors that seem diverse enough for his purposes — from Balzac to Henry James, from Proust to Conan Doyle — he shows how “great novelists have recognized that life needs to be shaped and understood through narrative,” and what they can teach us about its benefits and limits. Novels follow certain conventions — they are told by a more or less reliable narrator, and they establish a dialogical relationship with readers within and outside the text, generating a multiplicity of perspectives and expectations. The fundamental condition is that we indulge in the fiction while knowing it is fictional — a game of make-believe, what Schiller called Spieltrieb. Narrative won’t solve all your problems or put order in your life or head, Brooks reminds us. But if we read analytically, it remains a powerful cognitive tool that makes us more alert to our sources of information and their reliability; it is essential to perceiving ourselves in time, to making sense of death, and to feeling more sympathetically as we assimilate other characters’ lives to our own.

Second, there is the issue of “different fields of knowledge.” Brooks’s own knowledge of his subject matter is truly exceptional. He is able to offer authoritative examples from the most disparate areas of expertise — from the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud, who realized with astonishment that his case presentations in Studies on Hysteria read just like short stories and demonstrated the centrality that narrative played in recovering the causes of certain symptoms, to legal storytelling, the most original contribution of the book, to which I will give separate attention in a moment. But, to return to one of the author’s major concerns — readers’ expectations — my expectations as a reader were that Brooks would expand on those “crucial facts in contemporary culture” to which, as the first chapter claims, the current damaging process of the “storification of reality” speaks. The pressing need for establishing a connection with the modern world that opens Seduced by Story finds little follow-through in the succeeding chapters.

History would appear to be the go-to field of knowledge for claiming the resonance of Brooks’s account for the present, but its potential does not get fully exploited. The first chapter contains, in fact, a promising example of the author’s hands-on experience of narrative as a weapon in “the conflicts over the representation of history,” when he recounts how, around 20 years ago, he signed a teaching contract at the University of Virginia and was “shocked by the massive equestrian statues of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and by another statue of Johnny Reb, that dominated Court Square and Market Square parks.” Those public monuments to African American enslavement were suddenly put into question in the summer of 2017, when the city’s decision to take down the statues met with the anger of white supremacists in the famously deadly riot in Charlottesville. Three years later, in 2020, the University of Virginia completed a granite memorial to the 4,000 enslaved builders of Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village.” This “need for counter stories, for denunciatory stories” told from the other side of the divide, as Brooks himself claimed in a Q and A with Princeton University Library, is part of what Seduced by Story is in theory about, but in practice it does not find further parallels in the literary examples on offer. There is no attempt to show how Black storytelling, from the autobiographical narratives of Olaudah Equiano to the more recent novels of Colson Whitehead and Brit Bennett, continues to be a powerful tool for self-assertion for many American writers and readers of color.

The case studies in Seduced by Story are firmly anchored in the canon of 18th- and 19th-century European realism, which for Brooks reveals a particularly interesting concern with how we can know (and question) what we are told. When he turns to contemporary novels, it is mostly to criticize — perhaps too harshly, by his own admission — the sloppiness of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train (2015). What Brooks really can’t digest is that Hawkins lets one of her main characters with limited perspective — not an omniscient narrator, which would still be acceptable — recount her own death. In so doing, she violates “one inviolable prohibition” of narrative conventions and calls for a reaction in her readers. If Megan’s death does not strike us as absurd, then “it must mean that we have given up any concern with how we know what we are being told. And maybe in the era of fake news and Facebook and memes generated from the dark web, that is the case.”

This sort of prescriptivism, however, prevents us from appreciating narratives that, in their diversity, have offered avenues of expression to marginalized groups. “I am dead” is an “impossible utterance” that goes as far back as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” (1845), as Brooks reminds us. But in merely attributing this statement to Poe’s poetic license, he fails to see that what may look like the unacceptable breaking of the rules of the novel for some becomes, for others, a way to reclaim personhood and agency over one’s body. Poe makes a white man feel what African American men and women constantly felt in having their bodies acquired by medical schools for dissection and experiment. In this, he represents a missed opportunity for recognizing what Seduced by Story argues, with other examples, later on — that novels endow us with another pair of eyes, with the “capacity to understand others as having irreducible rights that cannot be violated.”

Brooks is picky about narrative conventions and rightly so, but we should also accept that conventions become conventions in the eye of the beholder, and that sometimes they sadly bring very little good. There is a certain pattern with which news about the latest massacre in Ukraine, or the latest shooting in the United States, reaches us every day: the notification that some have been wounded, some are dead, popping up on our smartphones; bleak images of the areas affected broadcast on news channels; updates on the number of casualties via social media; and the usual public pleas from either side of the political spectrum. I think it is time to face the fact that such narrative repetitiveness has made us numb to violence — which, by the way, does not mean to imply that such news should no longer be reported. But does it mean that all we can do is scroll, repost, and forget?

The point Brooks makes about our lack of reflection “in the era of fake news and Facebook” is an important one, but the darkness of our present cannot be solely blamed on deceitful narratives like that of Megan’s death. It is the advent of the digital era that has made us sloppy readers, that has changed our way of storing, processing, and trusting information. And it is the corporate world, a focus on which takes up some space at the outset of the book, that is increasingly responsible for controlling how and which stories are disseminated. Narratives like that of the individual’s carbon footprint, invented ad hoc by the fossil fuel industry, should also be part of the conversation Brooks has helpfully rekindled, to expose the ways in which corporations create these myths as blame-shifting tools, shrugging off all responsibility for collective action. Such stories are not about the death of a character but of an entire planet. In blindly accepting their pattern, we remain tied to the status quo.

All these elements come together in the final and most timely chapter of Seduced by Story, entitled “Further Thoughts: Stories in and of the Law.” Developing upon Jonathan Shapiro’s acclaimed 2014 book Lawyers, Liars, and the Art of Storytelling: Using Stories to Advocate, Influence, and Persuade, Brooks argues that the law easily lends itself to storytelling because of its intrinsic structural components. Drawing on famous cases, he shows that the ways in which stories are narrated in courtrooms can have a decisive impact in arriving at conviction. And not only conviction, but also connection. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, considering the arrest of a white man based on a warrant discovered during an unlawful investigatory stop, connected the case to the much larger issue of racial injustice in the United States: “For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ — instructing them never to run down the street […] all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”

Brooks also touches upon something exquisitely American in this chapter, what he calls the “unabated reverence” that citizens display towards the US Constitution. Yet if the Constitution is the founding myth, Seduced by Story warns us, it should also “be subjected to a more acute awareness of its narrative logic.” The notion of “retrospective prophecy” on which Supreme Court narratives are based, according to which “the ruling in the case at hand exists as the fulfillment of what was called for in the beginning,” sounds all the more ironical in the light of the overturning of Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. “It is as if the past were pregnant with the present,” Brooks reports rather ominously, picking up on philosopher of history Louis O. Mink’s idea that “there can be no unknown knowledge,” only “past facts not yet described in a context of narrative form.” I wonder if this is what we are going to tell the millions of American women who can no longer access safe abortion services today — that their bodies are pregnant with the decisions and mistakes someone else made for them.

Overall, Brooks’s account is rigorous, though his literary examples could have spoken more directly to the fabric of modern society. As he acknowledges, narrative itself is ethically neutral, and it is its use or misuse that determines its moral compass. We should not only analyze the structural elements of stories, then, but also the process through which narrative affects us once it becomes absorbed in our institutions. One of the main problems for Oksana Zabuzhko is that Russians have found in their literature a justification for what their state has been demanding from them all along. Yet, as Brooks would correct her, this does not mean that Russian literature, or literature in general, is intrinsically bad.

Our capacity to distinguish fiction from reality depends on our critical reasoning, and our capacity for critical reasoning largely depends on the educational institutions responsible for training us in that kind of thinking. If the Russian pupils in Zabuzhko’s recollection had been taught to read Dostoevsky analytically, they would now appreciate him also as an author capable of fervent criticism against the regime and social conditions of his time. The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, from whom Brooks borrows the concept of “dialogism,” saw in Dostoevsky’s novels a positive example of polyphony — a plurality of genuinely independent voices, each with their own perspective, who achieve a better understanding of themselves by interacting with one another, instead of imposing a totalitarian and totalizing vision of the truth. This, after all, is the public role that Seduced by Story hopes to claim back for the humanities in a society that increasingly devalues them in favor of instrumental knowledge: a reflective tool for unpacking the untold, “unanalyzed stories” of our world, ripping apart the harmful veil of myth.


Caterina Domeneghini, a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Oxford, writes freelance for literary magazines in English and Italian.

LARB Contributor

Caterina Domeneghini, a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Oxford, writes freelance for literary magazines in English and Italian. Her writing has appeared in Artribune, Oxford Review of Books, Asymptote, and The Times Literary Supplement, among others. She has also published poetry in The Oxonian Review and Lucent Dreaming.


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