Guest post: Narrative in literature is about explaining something

Originally a comment by latsot on And full as much heart.

I can’t decide whether the idea that narrative is necessary for empathy is depressing or encouraging. Over the years I learned, when writing grant proposals, first to tell a story about the technology I’m pretending I’m going to build and then later to tell a story about how the people reviewing the proposal will use that technology. Often, it’s a story about how they’ll write their own grant proposals based on the proposed technology, whether it ever exists or not. That’s one of the reasons computer science isn’t really science.

This approach has been spectacularly successful and, as I said, I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad. But persuading people to support a cause – even to the extent of spending enormous sums of money on it – is often seriously helped out by narrative. By literature. By spinning a yarn. By telling a tale with the reader as the protagonist, as the hero. Or even as the villain; I’m talking about computer science, after all.

That should surprise nobody. But in my experience, that narrative sticks and will make the people who bought into it more inclined to support future projects, regardless of the success or otherwise of the previous ones.

It wouldn’t surprise me much if those of us who did a lot of our earlier socialising via literature had a more well-established and fundamental sense of empathy than some others, even if (though?) we’re shit at actually interacting with real people. Narrative in literature is about explaining something. Someone’s feelings, their motives, their intentions. Sometimes it’s about explaining those things about someone who isn’t a party to the discussion. Sometimes it’s an argument about a third party’s feelings or motives, sometimes speculative.

Either way, it’s an artificial construct designed to help tell a story and I have a nagging suspicion that something about that abstraction can help tune natural inclinations toward empathy.

Or perhaps people who read a lot of books are just awesome, I don’t know.


  1. luzclara says

    Narrative is a particularly engaging form of explaining. I have a nagging suspicion that humans may be hardwired to respond to narrative and to structure lots of business into narrative. I might have even read something on those lines when I was writing about life history documentation. And I also used to start with a story when I was writing a grant proposal or an article. It sucks ’em in fast!!

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    Narrative is a particularly engaging form of explaining.

    Engaging… and dangerous. I can tell a story about how a woman saves herself from an attacker in the park by shooting him with her concealed weapon, and influence readers to believe (a) that “normal” attacks against women are by strangers in parks, and (b) women would be safer if only they carried more guns.

    Or I can tell a story about a concerned, caring Earl, who sticks by his servants despite their being arrested twice and charged (falsely, of course) with two different murders, and who spends himself to the brink of penury all for the welfare of his tenants.

    Or about the woman plantation owner whose slaves are heartbroken by the emancipation proclamation and insist on continuing to work for her without pay because she’s such a wonderful mistress.

    Or about the libertarian paradise, or the socialist paradise, or… or… or…

    I’m having trouble tracking it down, but I seem to recall that Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote a popular novelization of a famous crime, in which she exonerated the counterpart of the person who was actually convicted for the crime, with the effect of convincing many people that the person was innocent after all. I’m probably misremembering that it resulted in an actual pardon. In any case, again IIRC, Rinehart’s theory of the case was deemed unsupportable.

    Whether or not that’s accurate, there are enough examples in which novels and movies “based on actual events” have colored public memory of those events to the point that misconceptions of those events are more prevalent than accurate knowledge.

    I don’t see a solution to the problem, but we’re suckers for a good story. To a terrifying extent.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    Ah! Here’s what I was looking for:

    Years after Thomas Bram was sentenced to death in Suffolk Court for murdering three people aboard a ship in 1896, Ms. Rinehart became convinced of the guilt of another man, Charlie Brown, who had testified against Mr. Bram. She wrote a novel, “The After House,” about a homicidal maniac named “Charlie Jones.” Mr. Bram was released on parole in 1913 and granted a presidential pardon.

    “Mary proved that evidence against Bram was concocted, but she was sued for libel by Brown’s family, and they won. As a result, all fiction since then has carried the notice that ‘all characters are fictitious, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental,'” Ms. Bitticks said.

    I can’t remember where I read that Rinehart’s theory is unsupportable, but this page appears to be arguing inferentially that the pardoned Bram was guilty.


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