Editor’s note: Malka Older is one of my favorite writers, and I am thrilled to not only have published her story Narrative Disorder last month but to have this essay from her that explores the concept named in that title, which she first rolled out in her brilliant novel Infomocracy, which you really should read if you haven’t already.
— Brian White
We are in the early stages of a narrative disorder epidemic. True, narrative disorder isn’t an official syndrome yet, but (unless I’m misreading the plotlines) our society is primed for it.
It’s not a new idea to suggest that cultures are defined, in part, by how they define their mental illnesses. This is not a question of whether the illnesses in question are “real” or not; it is about how a culture sees them, names them, categorizes them, and approaches them. Behaviors that seem unremarkable, or few and far between, or random in one decade may coalesce into a pattern worth diagnosing when they resonate with the zeitgeist. The famous example is the fugue state of fin-de-siècle Europe, in which worries about a new century and the increasing pace of modernity sent people wandering in amnesiac confusion. Similar concerns over change and increasing speed have made attention deficit disorder important to our time.
But the near future belongs to narrative. In fact, the present and the past do too; we just haven’t diagnosed it yet. Narrative disorder is nothing new; we have evidence that it’s been around for at least four hundred years (exhibit A: the gentleman from La Mancha), and probably much longer. But our society is calibrated to both exacerbate and to want to name it. We are simultaneously searching for meaning and desperate for meaningless distraction. We imagine ourselves as endlessly fascinating heroes of our own lives, and spend much of our time obsessing over fictional characters with manufactured backstories. Narrative makes us human and offers us the possibility of social cohesion, even as it isolates, fragments, and zombifies us.
When we do get around to codifying narrative disorder, it will be defined by two primary symptoms: narrative addiction and narrative perception.
The addiction to narrative content is apparent in the desperate push to find new stories to sell, resulting in reboots, remakes, and sequel after sequel as cheaper ways of doing so. It’s evident in the way the profit motive pushes the megacompanies running our news supply to edit narrative arcs into stories that, objectively, have no claim to them. I can see it on my Overdrive holds list, on Goodreads, on the successes of Amazon and Audible and GooglePlay and Netflix. We have enough leisure to be able to spend plenty of time engrossed in stories that have no bearing on our own lives, and enough intellectual complexity and/or despair in our jobs that latching on to an effortless narrative is an obvious, almost necessary form of rest.
Our understanding of the most familiar kinds of narrative has become so honed that the form can be stretched, twisted, scrambled, and truncated, and our brains can put it back together effortlessly. Ad companies can develop a narrative in fifteen seconds or a single photo; pop songs encapsulate a story in three and a half minutes; cable news can stretch one out over cycle after 24-hour cycle. Prestige television can work in flashbacks, flash forwards, dream sequences, musical interludes, and knowing nods to the audience, and we can without thinking put it together into a coherent chronology: not because of the cues they give us, but because we know what we are looking for.
Narrative can take many, many different forms, but in a given time and place it tends to cluster. That is part of why we keep searching for new stories, why hundreds of TV channels result in nothing to watch and why we scour the ratings for the next good book. Too much of this surging production of narrative content is repetition and repackaging of the same scarce plots. This is not all there is: movies from other countries and books from other times show us that different types of stories can be popular. But we’ve been conditioned to understand a certain pattern, from the first Disney movies and Sesame Street sketches to police procedurals and Harlequins and superhero comic books.
And here’s where narrative perception, the second symptom of narrative disorder, comes in: when we see those same plots over and over and over again in fiction, and games, and songs, and shoehorned into “news” features, traced into documentaries and biopics, when non-fiction starts to take on those arcs too, then we start to see it in real life.
Some of us are more sensitive to this than others, probably because we’re the ones with the worst addictions. We expect drama, and we expect it to crescendo and diminish in one of the familiar rhythms we’re used to. We want resolution, and we believe that events will make sense if we can just uncover the intrigue behind them.
And sometimes we’re right, because we’re not just looking for narrative everywhere, we’re also creating it. We create it through our expectations, sometimes, and we create it through our actions. We play for the cameras, which aren’t there, ratcheting up the stakes by raising voices and slamming out of the room, on cue, at the end of the scene. We narrate to ourselves in the voices of our favorite first-person personae; we break the fourth wall by looking at a non-existent audience to acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all. Sometimes we make decisions because of the values that have been portrayed to us, endlessly, through arc after arc of collaboratively constructed storyline.
This tendency manifests in all sorts of different ways, some superficial, some profound. In visual storytelling we’ve come up with our own version of pseudo-science of physiognomy, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, that led people to draw conclusions about a person’s character based on their facial structure. Instead of a series of rules paralleling personality traits to the width of the brow and the shape of the ears, we have casting agents and character actors, reinforcing over and over what a fussbudget looks like, a micro-managing bureaucrat, a leading lady, a leading lady’s best friend, a loser, a hero. These physical stereotypes, so often propagated in the same films and TV episodes that tell us it’s what’s inside that really counts, are self-reinforcing: we see a narrow set of representations of a CEO or a president, and sure enough boards and voters pick people who fit that image, regardless of qualifications. Before long the word “presidential” can be used in news headlines to refer not to abstract qualities or objective achievements, but the image that has been cultivated for us by the people who cast the dramas we watch when we’re relaxing.
Yes, in the immediate future this will be referred to as a narrative disorder, because that’s how a newly named difference is usually perceived (unless it’s categorized as elite and aspirational, which believe me brings its own problems). But like many neurodivergences, narrative susceptibility occurs on a spectrum. I have met people who claim not to enjoy reading fiction; I imagine there are some who don’t like films, telenovelas, the song “Alice’s Restaurant,” procedurals, epic poetry, storytelling either. I can accept that for those people, non-fiction (actual non-fiction, not non-fiction dressed in narrative clothing) is as restful and natural as fiction is for me. But that, I believe, is the vanishing point at one extreme, just as those who compulsively narrate every moment of their lives and see plot in every action and reaction are at the other. Between those two exceptional points, all of us look for meaning.