Steve Almond’s New York Times essay, “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’” laments the demise of the Dickensian omniscient narrator, or at the very least, what Almond sees as a reduced cultural imperative to produce unified narratives. The internet, Almond claims, has chopped the parts of our lives up into small, consumable pieces, each of which is dissociated from the others, removing the context necessary to produce narrative. Almond writes,
In the past, our nation has been summoned to social progress by leaders like Lincoln and F.D.R. and Martin Luther King Jr., who served as narrators of a larger story about the American experience, our sins and duties and moral potential. Last summer, President Obama conceded that he had failed to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.” He needed to be a better narrator.
This is a laudable goal. But even if Obama tried to tell such a story, would we be able to hear it? Or would we hear only the bits and pieces run through our chosen media filters — filters designed to neuter the force of any larger narrative by snipping it into sound bites?
The underlying and more ominous question is whether the story of our species — the greater human narrative — has simply become too enormous, too confused and terrifying, for us to grapple with. This might explain why so many of us now rely on a cacophony of unreliable narrators to shape our view of the world and ourselves.
Most striking are Almond’s assumptions and value judgements about narrative and narrators: coherence and reliability is good, while fragmentation is an understandable but unfortunate consequence of modern culture. Of the omniscient narrators of the nineteenth century, Almond writes, “These stories don’t just awaken readers’ sympathies; they enlarge our moral imagination. They offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it.” In Almond’s eyes, story tellers are better leaders, and we should prefer narrators who tell large-scale stories over those who are unable to rise above fragmentation.
Of course, the act of narration is one of imposing the narrator’s idea of order on an unordered set of circumstances. It can be a violent act, or an oppressive one, or an actively manipulative act, depending on who’s doing the narrating and whose stories are being assembled into narrative. And narrative can lend a false sense of security by implying an order or a purpose that isn’t actually present. Good narrators can be compelling leaders by telling persuasive stories, not necessarily by telling true stories.
I love a good omniscient narrator as much as the next guy, but I think we want to be careful about ascribing an inherently positive valence to narrative. Which, I would argue, a closer reading of those classic narrators would actually reveal.