The Narratives We Like

A plot mountain graphGun fights, political intrigue, and a race against time. Reading fiction is one activity that provides a little excitement. While I enjoy a range of authors and styles, my favorites are the pulp espionage and legal thrillers from authors like David Baldacci, John Grisham, and Steven Martini. The exciting plot keeps me highly engaged and turning the pages to see how the hero or (sometimes) heroine fight off or outwit the dangerous, enigmatic threat. Like many people, I appreciate a good narrative, and that desire for a manageable, linear plot is not limited to reading novels.

Reading in Hayden White’s Tropics of Discourse (yes, I also read some academic works during the summer) has prompted me to reflect on these preferences and their connection to my own writing. White argues that the construction of a historical narrative has important similarities to fiction writing, as the historian selects data from the range of sources she peruses and pieces them together into a narrative, choosing particular “modes of emplotment” (such as romance, comedy, or tragedy) that generally correspond to particular explanatory approaches in the field of history.

My own preference for a linear plot in fiction is similar to this image of historical narrative to develop a neat and tidy representation. While I emphasize the complexity of issues of identification and classification in my own writing, my representations still tend to simplify the complexity of the people who have been willing to spend time telling me about their lives. In fact, their own representations, often times, reflect their effort to present their own lives in a simple, linear plot.

Desiring a neat and tidy narrative, of course, is present in most academic writing and teaching. Our students and our readers often want a clear argument and story (particularly in cases of ethnography) that has a sensible explanatory power. While we can criticize textbook representations in which those who follow a particular religion are always devout and do things properly, more complex representations that emphasize the diversity of practices that represent a specific religion nonetheless isolate and highlight what we identify as religion and leave out much of the complexity and contestation, the messiness of life. For example, when I write about particular ritualized events, I include the specific variations of an occasion (rather than boiling it down to an “average” or ideal event that erases variation), but I still reduce many of the distractions that become part of any event (from the traffic honking on the street to the parent trying to calm a baby in the back of a temple) and certainly leave out the ways my mind (and presumably the attention of many participants) wanders to so many unrelated things in the course of the event.

Even though I have not found works of fiction that avoid a more linear narrative structure as enjoyable as simpler fiction (perhaps a sign of my limited intellect, I know), I can recognize that those works provide a useful representation of the complexity of life that avoids some of the common reduction required to generate a linear progression. Perhaps I should not only read more of that literature but also begin to model my own representations of social formations in a similar, less linear fashion that constructs a different image of the complexity that we attempt to analyze.


Image credit: Plot Mountain by Kaede4 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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