What is narrative?

Like many writers and literary scholars I’ve often thought about the meaning of the term ‘narrative.’ Only recently, though, has the word’s definition has come into clear focus. Narrative, according to an emerging consensus, can be defined as a willfully partisan construal of data whose purpose is to sway opinion toward a narrow set of morals, values and prejudices, usually with the deliberate intent to secure political advantage or personal gain.

This definition has not yet entered the dictionaries, which offer instead under the heading of narrative “an account that presents connected events” (Wikipedia); “the representation in art of an event or story” (Webster’s); or the “action de raconter, d’exposer une suite d’événements” (Larousse). In contrast, the above definition correlates more with propaganda, but with an added emphasis on the sequential ordering of information into story form; depending on the context, it can be more or less synonymous with fabricationalibimessaging and spin. A few examples may serve as illustrations.

In a recent piece of investigative journalism, The Washington Post reports on the direct influence of drug makers on the medical establishment. With the help of so-called “experts” the pharmaceutical companies succeeded in molding Food and Drug Administration policies and regulations to their advantage (Washington Post, 12/31/12). The drugs at issue in the article are new trademarked opiates that the companies managed to pass off to the public as safe and harmless, when in fact they are often lethal and highly addictive. 

Russell Portenoy, a doctor tapped as expert adviser to the FDA, reported that he was “trying to create a narrative [sic] so that the primary care audience would … feel more comfortable about opioids.” Apparently underscoring the ‘fictional’ nature of his scientific work, he added that his “primary goal was to destigmatize” the dangerous drugs, so he “often left evidence behind.” The federal policy that resulted from such flawed testimony unleashed a flood of drugs on unsuspecting patients, aided by deceptive marketing tactics. A public health nurse dealing with the consequences in her community said the opioid scourge was “absolutely devastating,” while a doctor called the drug companies’ sales methods “satanic.”

As it happens, that community is in Appalachia, ‘losers’  if ever there were. And of course, according to the dictum, history is written by the winners. Is it a coincidence that the cliché has seen a resurgence of late — not as a cautionary remark about the abuse of facts by dominant forces, but instead as a complacent confirmation of data’s tight control by righteous victors? In other words, as ‘narrative’? Literally? Such is the usage we find in a recent post in Politico, titled “Obama’s Narrative.”

Now that he’s won, Obama holds the power to write his own history, literally. His biggest early success came as a memoir author, not as a politician, and he plans to write the definitive narrative [sic] of his presidency after 2016. Politico, 1/1/13

This passage neatly condenses several abuses of language endemic to our mediascape. The victory the author refers to is Obama’s second electoral win as viewed from the perspective of his successful negotiations over the “fiscal cliff.” A messy situation, to say the least. Who won and who lost is an open question. The oligarchs, with their tax-free estates? The unemployed, with their meager extension of benefits? A perfect opportunity for “narrative.”

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