canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

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.

Fulford writes:

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 Danforth Review.







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