This post originally appeared on September 11, 2014.
The world these days is full of competing stories. I can’t turn on my computer without being inundated by them (unless I don’t look at any social media, but then what’s a computer for? Writing?). Everything that is happening, it seems, is represented by not one but at least two differing narratives. The recent retraction of a hiring offer at a major Midwestern university over a controversial Twitter feed is either an affront to faculty governance and intellectual freedom or it is a reasonable decision based on the evidence. Relatedly, (since this is what the tweets were about), recent events in Gaza are reason to condemn the Israeli government for war crimes or are reason to support it in defending itself. Unrelatedly, publicly airing a video of a football player assaulting his then-girlfriend, now-wife, in an elevator was the right move as it led to his suspension from professional football or it was a violation of the couple’s privacy.
I bring these examples up not to talk about them in themselves but to make the point that the controversies over these events can be seen not as made up entirely of logical argument (or, for that matter, unreflecting passion), but as consisting largely of competing narratives. That is, the positions people hold on these things may come from aspects of their identities—national origin, gender, some kind of identification with a relevant group—but even if they do, they are informed and supported by a story. The stories may be about the past that led to the current state of affairs or about assumptions regarding human nature or the nature of the relationship between states and citizens or employers and employees.
I’m thinking today about the importance of stories to the way we see the world (not a new insight, I know) in part because the anniversary of 9/11 is two days from the moment I am writing this. In this morning’s online reading I saw an article about still-classified portions of documents pertaining to the events of that day, documents that might or might not change our understanding of what happened. One congressman is quoted as saying these pages “tell a story that has been completely removed from the 9/11 Report.” The 9/11 Report is the official account of what happened, but it is one story among many, and it is a story informed by other stories about American history, global history, and the nature of armed conflict, just as competing accounts are informed by other, larger stories and smaller personal ones.
This got me thinking about other stories we tell ourselves about those events, stories that are as much about ourselves as anything else. A scheduled event on my campus, an email from my chancellor informs me, will celebrate “Patriot Day,” the term some are using for the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. There is a wealth of narrative behind that labeling choice.
I am also thinking about stories now because I am always thinking about stories. It is one of the chief job hazards of teaching and studying fiction. This job has taught me to see narrative everywhere. As Hayden White has argued even history, which at first glance seems about the facts of past events, is shaped by the same tropes and story-forms that shape novels. It has taught me that the arguments we have about the world around us are at bottom just stories, and that, as Billy Bragg sings in “It Says Here,” “…there are two sides to every story.” Maybe most importantly, it has taught me that there actually more than two sides—that is, that we too often fall into the trap of thinking there are only two choices, two ways to understand a particular event or phenomenon, while the best fiction can show us that the options are never-ending. It can do this, as Bakhtin argued in his reading of Dostoevsky when a writer embodies opposing viewpoints in different characters and doesn’t pick a winner. It can also do this when it shows how difficult it is to understand the world at all, when it presents characters or narrators with points of view that do not seem to be endorsed by the author but to which the author seems to oppose no “correct” view (which Lukacs claimed is the definition of the modern novel).
My ultimate point here could be seen as another answer to the question answered in a previous entry, “Why I Teach Literature.” Another reason I teach fiction is to offer my students the opportunity to see the competing narratives in the books I assign and in the world around them, to see how these stories are built on other stories, and to see how there are more than two sides to every story. There are ways to teach that encourage these lessons, which any teacher can easily enough apply in their classroom, methods that highlight the opposition, nuance, and ambiguity in fiction and in the stories we tell outside of the pages in books. Helping students to look at things in this way can, in a hoary old humanist formulation I still believe in, help them to better appreciate and understand not only literature but also life, which, to borrow an old concept, is stories all the way down.