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Jane Austen Weekly: Spare Me the Political Narrative

Unlike the typical politician, Austen always signals the artificiality of her narratives. If only political narratives -- or all the pundits insisting we need them -- could be as honest. But what politician says, "enjoy the artificiality of my American success story?"
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Phew. The election is over. I was looking forward to some respite from the rhetoric.

But no, there it was again, smack in the center on the New York Times op-ed page: the word "narrative" used to describe what a successful president must produce. The voices that "will write the narrative" of President Obama's "new first 100 days," Ron Suskind wrote, are "looking for a lead actor."

No offense to Ron Suskind. His article is smart. But the media's obsession with "narrative" is making me nuts.

During the campaign you couldn't get a way from the word, which was often prefaced by "lost." "Has Obama ... lost control of the narrative?" a BBC broadcast asked a year ago. A few months later, an Atlantic article was titled, "Mitt Romney Has Lost Control of the Bain Capital Narrative." Just two days before the election, a caption on the New York Times Magazine cover read "The Lost Narrative of the Obama Administration."

In such contexts, I wish the word "narrative" would get lost. It is so trivializing. We need a lot more than a "narrative" to solve our country's problems.

Don't get me wrong. I know narratives are central to human communication and understanding. I've read the endless series of articles about how we're biologically programmed to need them. Plus I love narratives. I'm an English professor for heaven's sakes. I have been writing a weekly column about Jane Austen, in case you didn't notice. And yes, I will get to her in a moment. Meanwhile, enjoy the narrative suspense.

Which brings me to a question. What is a narrative? And why isn't everyone just using the word "story" instead? In preparing this column, I got so confused about this I turned to Facebook at midnight: "Is there a meaningful difference between the word 'narrative' and 'story'?" I asked my friends.

I woke up to more comments than I've ever received for one of my Austen columns. (Thanks, guys!) Here's the basic consensus: Though the words "narrative" and "story" are largely interchangeable, a "narrative" emphasizes the structural aspects of a story and the art of telling and controlling it to influence an audience. A narrative can also imply the existence of a narrator.

And now I can turn to Jane Austen's narratives (also known as novels), all of which include a narrator who occasionally refers to herself in the first person. In narrative terms, Austen writes comedies. And comedies are narratively designed to end with marriage (just as tragedies end with death). Political narratives have equally predictable trajectories. At the conventions, Obama, Biden, and Ryan each told a version of the upward mobility narrative that begins with birth into a family of modest means, includes personal suffering, celebrates an America where hard work is rewarded, and ends with the narrator's ascendancy.

So too, at the beginning of any Austen novel, we know how it will end. But unlike the typical politician, Austen always signals the artificiality of her narratives. As the inevitable marriage finale approaches, the narrator often jokes about her design. "I fear," she confesses at the end of Northanger Abbey, that my "readers ... will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity." At the end of Mansfield Park the narrator writes, "I purposely abstain from dates ... I only entreat every body to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier," the protagonists were engaged.

Above all, Austen marks narrative artifice by famously refusing to satisfy her reader's desires for a full-fledged proposal scene. Unlike in the movies, Austen's heroines never even get a kiss. In Pride and Prejudice, we are told only that Darcy "expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do." After Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, the narrator asks, "What did she say? -- Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does." By drawing a curtain on the moment we've all been waiting for, Austen highlights the problem of our narrative expectations. We want a romantic completion that doesn't exist.

If only political narratives -- or all the pundits insisting we need them -- could be as honest. But what politician says, "Enjoy the artificiality of my American success story?" How many advocates of political narratives add, "the stories are made up"?

The problem with the "use of the word narrative in a political sense," Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute for Journalism and Media told me, is that it is "associated with propaganda, spin, [and] the necessary coloring of the truth to satisfy a particular ideological agenda." The association "too easily fits into skepticism about politicians."

My problem is that no matter how sincere the political narrator (if you can imagine such a person), all narratives are fabricated. Even a narrative report of the "facts" involves the artful selection, omission and organization of details. Narratives about the future -- which politicians always offer -- cannot rely on hindsight. And some of the world's most pressing problems do not lend themselves to narrative. Has anyone heard a crowd-pleasing story about global warming?

Apparently, the newly re-elected Barack Obama has bought the narrative about narrative control. As Ron Suskind points out, in the past year he twice told interviewers that "the key thing a president should do 'is tell a story to the American people.'" During his first term, Obama hosted three dinners for some of the country's lead historians. He didn't do this because of his great love of history, Jodi Kantor reports. Rather, the president was trying to figure out how to "carve his own grand place in it ... 'It was almost as if he was writing his own history book about himself,' said David M. Kennedy" of Stanford.

I am not surprised by his ambition. Anybody who wants to be president has to have a planet-sized ego. What's more, I admire Obama's literary sensibility. I loved Dreams from My Father and I have taught it.

But no matter what the media tells me or what Obama himself says, I can assure you, I am not longing for a good story from my president.

Why? Because I've read enough Austen to know that narrative control is best viewed ironically.

Susan Celia Greenfield is a Public Voices Fellow for the Op-Ed Project

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