The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture
by Robert Fulford
House of Anansi Press, 1999
Review by Michael Bryson
Ever since 1961, CBC Radio has co-sponsored "The Massey Lectures"
with Massey College of the University of Toronto. In recent years, the
House of Anansi Press has published them, and they have been widely popular
as well as often engaging and provocative. In November 1999, the CBC broadcast
the latest series of five lectures, these by the Toronto-based journalist
Robert Fulford. Fulford, who was for 19 years the editor of one of Canada's
most prominent cultural institutions, Saturday Night Magazine,
chose as his topic the social role of storytelling, which he views as
static throughout history.
Stories survive partly
because they remind us of what we know and partly because they call
us back to what we consider significant. Hansel and Gretel reminds
us how helpless we felt as children. Anne of Green Gables reminds
us of the power of imagination in a world that tries to deny its value.
Huckleberry Finn reminds us of the individual's duty to defy
the rules of an unjust world.
Fulford begins his first lecture with the unsubstantiated assumption
that "narrative began its life on earth in the form of gossip."
He then proceeds to illustrate how storytelling (and storymaking) is central
to what it means to be a human being, and he is surely right to argue
we would have no knowledge of ourselves if it weren't for the stories
we tell. The question must be asked, however, about why this assertion
even needs to be made. Over five chapters (representing the five lectures)
Fulford provides a competent survey of storytelling in the Western tradition
through history. He also outlines many of the issues and challenges (i.e.,
like postmodern criticism as represented by Foucault and Derrida, for
example) that have either undermined or enhanced that tradition, depending
on your point of view. Unfortunately, there is little here that is new,
original or startling.
Take, for instance, the above quotation from Fulford. Everything he
says is true enough, but these are also the statements of a generalist.
It would be easy enough to come up with two dozen reasons why particular
stories survive, and why the works Fulford cites continue to be read.
The issues are altogether more complicated and interesting than Fulford
illustrates. In fact, Fulford seems to almost go out of his way to avoid
controversy (a sad legacy of the "Red Tory" civility the Canadian
cultural community would be better off without). Fulford tips his hat
to both feminism and postmodernism, saying their critiques of "master
narratives" have led to a more just world. However, his constant
moderation towards what he defines as the cultural centre undermines his
credibility as a philosopher king. He articulates his Aristotelian mean,
but leaves us hungry for more particulars, more meaty argument. If God
is in the details, Fulford is a non-believer.
Fulford's five lectures include an overview of the role of stories
in individual lives; a look at how historical narratives are structures;
an examination of stories and journalistic conventions; a glance in "The
Cracked Mirror of Modernity"; and an intriguing illustration of how
Leonardo DiCaprio's character in "Titanic" inherited his cultural
significance from the Romance narrative tradition most powerfully captured
by Sir Walter Scott's 1819 novel Ivanhoe. Readers looking for a
quick introduction to the challenges facing narrative as we move into
the 21st century could do worse than to read this book. Anyone looking
for an extension of arguments already made better elsewhere had best turn
their gaze to another place.
Michael Bryson is the editor of The