What do we talk about when we talk about storytelling?
From a lecture delivered at Humboldt University
Hello! In lieu of my regular ramblings, for this post I’ve decided to share a (lightly edited) transcript of a talk I gave at Humboldt University in Berlin earlier this month. The prompt offered by the interdisciplinary lecture series that hosted me was “Storytelling for Social Transformation,” and the audience was mostly social scientists and academics working on climate change. I’ve kept my epigraph and corny introductory segue, but spared you my Powerpoint slides. Enjoy!
“Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change.” - Frank Kermode, A Sense of an Ending
As [X] mentioned, I’m actually a novelist by trade—that is to say, not an academic, not great with Powerpoint—here to speak about storytelling for rapid social transformation in relation to climate change and energy transition. It’s an enormous honor to speak with you about these subjects today, but they’re also such enormous – and enormously important – topics that I have to admit I’m a bit intimidated to take them on. I think there are many valid points of entry here, but drawing from my own familiarity with novels and literary theory, I’d like to find our way into this discussion via the following question: Given the overwhelming call for stories, what do we talk about, really, when we talk about storytelling in the climate space? Furthermore, what taxonomies of stories are available to us, and what potential strategies — and consequences — do different story types have to offer?
Along the way, I hope to challenge the idea that storytelling in and unto itself is always an unambiguous “good” to be maximized, and to even reinvest it with a bit of danger.
Because when we talk about storytelling in relation to climate change, we are inevitably suggesting revising and reshaping our political narratives. This is of course an inherent part of any kind of social transformation. But it’s also a delicate and serious business that comes with certain responsibilities.
A Call for Stories
In his definitive global history of the environmental movement, The Age of Ecology, first published in 2011, German historian Joachim Radkau writes that “communication became a buzzword in the late 1970s and has remained that ever since.”
A decade later, this is still true – though the idea of communicating about and on behalf of the environment has taken on a new form. Today, there’s a groundswell call to tell better stories about climate change and energy transformation.
One finds signs of this everywhere in the academic literature, where the idea of Narrative Policy Frameworks (NPFs) has been popularized in the peer-reviewed literature. We see it in psychology, where researchers attempt to quantify the political or empathetic effects of reading ecological fiction. In my own field, climate-concerned fiction constitutes a new genre of literature—call it the “climate novel” or “cli fi” or the “Klimaroman”—where novelists are celebrated not only for their literary, but also their activist, accomplishments.
I suspect this call for stories can feel inspiringly accessible when compared to the job of educating the public about the technical aspects of climate mitigation and adaptation. Telling stories feels intuitive, familiar, even democratic—it’s such a part of our everyday that it seems almost harmless.
The Pulitzer-Prize winning climate journalist Dan Fagin summarizes further motivations for the call for climate stories here in a 2019 interview, where he highlights narrative’s capacity for emotional engagement:
“We know that people do not retain dry information and data. It doesn’t resonate with people emotionally. If we want people to remember something, and ultimately act on it, the content needs to come in the form of a story, in the form of narrative, with characters, drama and a connecting thread. Journalism needs all these things in order to be impactful and make a difference in people’s lives.”
It is commonplace now – utterly familiar – to say that storytelling is how we shape reality, that we daily “narrate” the world around us; to point out that stories are more emotionally engaging than raw data or facts. But beyond storytelling’s methodological accessibility and emotional potential, we also know that politics is about stories, and that climate change is increasingly a political, as opposed to a technical, problem. Judging from Radkau’s history of the environmental movement, it has always been a primarily political problem; it has always been about who can tell the more powerful story.
What do we talk about when we talk about storytelling?
There’s no doubt then that storytelling is a powerful tool. Yet while everyone tells stories, it’s another thing entirely to tell the “right” story at the right time (which is mostly to say, not to tell the “wrong” story) especially if we have political aims. And this brings us into the realm of literary theory.
Because storytelling is an activity that comes to us almost as naturally as breathing, it rarely begs rigorous definition. But perhaps that’s all the more reason to give it one here. Leaving aside for a moment whether or not a story is meant to be taken as fictional, I’ll put forward the few cautions assumptions that: 1) To tell a story is to engage in a mode of persuasion; 2) The telling of a story takes place in narrative time and; 3) A story makes meaning, not least by linking events otherwise unconnected, or by finding new connections between events previously believed to be linked in a different way.
Regarding the first point, we might say that a story – again, whether or not it’s meant to be taken as fictional – presents a version of the world and asks an audience to believe in it. It therefore means to persuade us that there is something here worth believing in.
It seeks to capture our attention.
A novel, for example, through powers of imitation or stylistic prowess, must “persuade” you of the truth-value of its fictional world by keeping you engrossed in an imaginary space, however fantastical or strange or ‘unreal’ that world may be, for the duration of the story. A politician, by contrast, sets out to persuade you of a version of the nation’s future in which you might participate—as long as you vote for her, that is. A story arising from time-series econometric analysis, meanwhile, seeks historical trends and correlations in order to tell a story about cause-and-effect between the included variables. Here, persuasive power is rooted in the goodness of model fit and the level of statistical significance.
We might therefore say that different kinds of stories use distinct if overlapping modes of “persuasion.”
The second assumption—that stories take place in narrative time—is in service of this major aim of persuading someone. This is especially true for literary narratives. As the French philosopher Paul Riceour writes in his study of the novel and narration, Time and Narrative, “[T]he speculation on time is an inconclusive rumination to which narrative activity alone can respond.” As a corollary, it is the unique ability of literature to ‘embed’ ideas, abstractions, and timeless truths in narrative—to give these abstractions a time element—in the process making them temporally measurable and emotionally resonant as well.
This is obviously useful for a challenge like climate change, whose overarching time-scale (a distant-ish future) and dramas (inexact, if certain, disaster) remains, for many, stubbornly distant and abstract.
For an example of the emotional and communicative power of “embedding” abstractions in narrative time, compare the experience of summarizing Proust to… actually reading Proust. I can state, here and now, a suggested summary of In Search of Lost Time: “Bearing witness to the disappearance of familiar social orders and customs from 19th-century Paris is a lot like losing the love of your life!” Of course this isn’t at all like unspooling the same sentiment across the thousands of pages that actually constitute the novel. Only the latter has emotional weight.
To recap: Abstract concepts can’t be experienced temporally. But by placing an abstraction in narrative time, we allow it to be experienced. To be felt.
Now, the fact that stories do unfold in narrative time is also what allows them to form meaning-making plots by revealing how events are linked through chronological relations of cause and consequence.
But because we’re in the business of persuasion, one could easily interrupt us here: How is this any different from marketing??
While marketing and branding strategies often borrow from the language of storytelling—and indeed I suspect this is one reason why we so often speak about the importance of “storytelling” in our personal and political lives—I’d make the tentative generalization that as opposed to actual stories, brands do not necessarily unfold in narrative time, nor do they construct plots through relations of cause and effect between events.
Certainly they can! But to me, brands just as easily—even primarily—exist as immediate, instantaneous (that is, without “duration”) constellations of associations that can be communicated just as well through atemporal (ie, not time-dependent) media: the logo, the ad, the jingle, the billboard, etc.
By sacrificing that ability to embed arguments in time, brands also inevitably lose some capacity for complexity and for making difficult abstract concepts experiential.
We can therefore bracket brands, at least for the moment, as an atemporal – or at least less temporal – mode of persuasion.
“Real-world” v. Literary Storytelling
Within this definition of a story—a mode of persuasion entangled in a sense of time elapsing—there’s still a wide diversity of possible stories we might tell. The question remains: What do we talk about, really, when we talk about storytelling with respect to climate?
Outside of literature, in the social and natural sciences, storytelling is often invoked to explicitly reorganize our understanding of the real-world present, future, or past: stories in the social sciences, for example, often serve to explain why things are the way they are, and why or how they might be different.
I’m sure exceptions abound. But in general, or at least for now, let’s agree then that these “non-fictional,” claim-making stories – while they indeed “narrate” the world – are also explicitly intended to be about the real world, and therefore contiguous with our daily experience.
A few examples:
Darwin’s theory of evolution: A story about how life developed according to natural laws that determine present biological and ecological paradigms.
Adam Smith on the origins of money and trade: A story about the inherent self-interestedness of human nature and the evolution of money and barter that justifies present-day markets.
Rousseau’s The Social Contract: A story about the emergence of the state that justifies modern paradigms of the state.
Joachim Radkau in Nature and Power: Discusses stories of “virgin nature,” a static natural state that existed prior to and beyond the reach of humans.
Now, we might ask: Did these stories indeed lead to social transformation? Even to rapid social transformation? Because when we talk about storytelling in the climate space we are forever racing against the clock; time is of the essence.
Whether or not we still agree with these stories, historical consensus would seem to say that, yes, they did lead to major, if not especially rapid, political, economic, social, and scientific change, transformations that drew on the logical or scientific authority of these very narratives to radically revise the public sphere in the real world.
What is the difference between these kinds of stories and fictions, then, and novels, the kind of story I myself might write?
A common criterion used to distinguish a scientific theory from a “nonscientific” one can be traced to Karl Popper, who argued that a theory is scientific if and only if it is subject to empirical falsifiability – if it could be proven false through empirical data. (Popper was no fan of Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, saying it had more in common with myth than science.)
Transferring this definition of falsifiability to the field of storytelling, we might note that the “stories” listed on the previous slide share a common characteristic. They can all be served with counternarratives and counterclaims, opposing arguments that seek to invalidate these narratives by putting forth alternative stories about the origins of money, the state, the Galapagos turtle, etc. We can present opposing narratives about how the real world was, is, or ought to be. For example, that Nature has no a static, “virgin state,” but is dynamic and forever changing – in part because human influence has left its mark on Nature for tens of thousands of years.
The point here, at least for our purposes, is that a differentiating criterion between a literary story and a historical argument is that the real-world story can be argued against, while the literary can only be argued about. And even then only according to its own interior logic—its choices in content and form.
The Consciously False
This distinction is consequential.
In the 1960s, when English literary scholar Frank Kermode was writing about fictions and the purposes of fiction-making in the shadow of WWII, this point about the remove of literary fictions from real-world claim-making and hypothesis was no frivolous academic matter. In emphasizing the differentiating characteristics between falsifiable stories and what Kermode calls ‘consciously false’ stories, he writes:
“[L]iterary fictions belong to Vaihinger’s category of ‘the consciously false.’ They are not subject, like hypothesis, to proof or disconfirmation, only, if they come to lose their operational effectiveness, to neglect… [Literary fictions] are not myths, and they are not hypotheses: you neither rearrange the world to suit them, nor test them by experiment, for instance in gas-chambers.” A Sense of an Ending (41)
This provocative quote points us towards the ambivalence of storytelling, which perhaps isn’t so harmless or unambiguous after all; like protest, stories that aim to reorganize our understanding of the real world can obviously lead to either progressive or regressive outcomes.
Anyone with a glancing familiarity with the history of American or European nationalism, for example, knows that storytelling can be dangerous when a tale about real history begins to adopt fictional, ‘consciously false’ elements. That is to say, when it becomes a myth.
As Kermode writes, “Fictions degenerate into myth whenever they are not consciously held to be fictive.”
Here we introduce a new story type: In addition to literary and “real world” stories, we have myths, consciously false stories that nevertheless pretend to be subject to hypothesis, proof, or disconfirmation. Myths, in other words, mix the modes of persuasion of storytelling in the social sciences with the persuasive techniques of fiction. The resulting hybrid allows them to be especially dexterous at evading counterargument in the real world.
The danger of this result is laid out most starkly when applied to the realm of politics. And it’s possible that some story types are more prone to political myth-making than others. In The Age of Ecology, Joachim Radkau makes glancing reference to the “Friend-Enemy” model in historicizing the ongoing war between environmental groups and their opponents, suggesting that in certain cases, such “rigidly drawn lines” of debate can preclude progress. It’s a reference to a model originally put forth by Carl Schmitt, a German lawyer and political philosopher turned prominent member of the Nazi Party, whose influence nevertheless lingers in certain corners of academia in the form of this theory. In his original outline of the Friend-Enemy model, Schmitt writes that morality, aesthetics, economics, and finally politics can be essentialized into antinomies:
Let us assume that in the realm of morality, the final distinctions are between good and evil, in aesthetics beautiful and ugly, in economics profitable and unprofitable. The question then is whether there is also a special distinction which can serve as a simple criterion of the political and of what it consists… The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.
I’d like to think, along with Radkau in Age of Ecology, that Schmitt is wrong here. Political life cannot and should not be reduced to an endless war between friends and enemies. Yet we cannot deny that the Friend-Enemy distinction, applied to the realm of politics, has been especially persuasive when combined with myth. The effects of anti-Semitic mythmaking in Weimar Germany, for example, were, among other qualities, extremely transformational, extremely rapid.
In our increasingly polarized world, it seems worth remembering that storytelling is an ambiguous activity, capable of both progressive and reactionary outcomes; it can yield enormous, rapid benefits, and it can also cause enormous harm, especially when we tell our stories along simplified moral schema—for example, from the point-of-view of the Friend-Enemy model.
As much as we might hope that our storytellers yank us from the jaws of disaster by spinning the correct yarn, as a novelist, I believe that it is an equal responsibility of storytellers to keep alive the attitudes that underpin democracy – that is, a recognition of moral complexity, ambiguity, and imperfect resolution – thereby preserving the foundations on which politically feasible, just transformations in democratic societies are built.
If we achieve rapid energy transformation by sacrificing democracy, for example, we will still have lost.
Calling back to the distinction between brands and stories, we might also note how quickly political myths dissolve into labels. The identifications of “eco-friend” and “eco-enemy,” to borrow from the labels noted in Age of Ecology, are so symbolically totalizing that we no longer require any narrative context in order to grasp their meaning. We have left the realm of storytelling and entered the logic of the political brand—a sign of social incohesiveness and narrative breakdown.
This fragmented state of affairs suits some people perfectly well - in particular, those who aren’t really arguing in good faith or who don’t want to invite actual debate. Neither brands nor myths are really designed to be argued against or stimulate real-world discussion. They are designed to resist the emotional complexity and temporal immersiveness of fictional worlds as well as the investigation and intellectual debate sparked by real-world storytellers.
Literary Storytelling: Modeling how we navigate crisis
As I come to the end of this talk, there’s something that still troubles me. The idea that novels confine their immediate claim-making to their own worlds feels deeply unsatisfying in a moment in great need of rapid progress in transitioning away from fossil fuels: for tens of millions of people, climate change isn’t an abstract or distant concept at all. With such a pressing crisis as the climate crisis, what could possibly be the value of retreating into a model world?
Kermode writes that “[F]ictions, if successful, make sense of the here and now.” The result is an irrevocable change in the reader. Because the fact remains that while novels don’t make direct claim to changing the way the world is, was, or ought to be, they do make a claim to our sense of self within the contexts we occupy in the real world beyond the covers of the book we’re reading. Kermode continues: “[And] of course it may be said that in changing ourselves we have, in the best possible indirect way, changed the world.”
While here at Humboldt, I find myself constantly returning to this idea of whether novels can “do” anything at all, let alone supercharge political action against climate change. I return again and again to the task, that is, of trying to justify the novel’s existence. The answer, I think, however unsatisfactory it may be for those of us consumed by a sense of impatience and urgency, lies here, with Kermode. It lies with the fact that we can think of novels as models that dramatize the way that we, as human beings, navigate our way through crisis both as individuals and in groups—usually fearfully, often messily, rarely straightforwardly.
And like most models, novels start with real-world data—with collections of experience. In my forthcoming novel The Visitors, written between 2018 and 2021, I was motivated precisely by what I took to be a moment of total breakdown in political communication in a moment of crisis, a trend that has continued, I believe, as the rise of populism throughout the West reinforces the boundaries of taboo between increasingly isolated, mutually exclusive ways of seeing the world.
With The Visitors, then, I wanted to explore what happens when we utterly lose faith in the ability of the democratic machinery to express the public will, or to communicate public vision. After all, I live in a country where presidential candidates regularly bag elections without having won the popular vote.
To highlight this state of affairs, I wanted to present extreme reactions to it: at the center of my novel is a textile artist, deeply in debt, who’s either lost her mind or been psychically hacked; she’s started hallucinating her destructive complex, manifested in the form of a tiny visitor who follows her around New York, urging her on toward system collapse. In the background, an eco-hacktivist group is seeking to demolish the US electrical grid as a way of pressing ‘reset’ on the nation’s political structures. Our protagonist wonders: Is there something in her that actually supports this plan? How desperate does she have to be to become fascinated by such extreme measures?
This all sounds very serious. But I also believe that novels, as much as they seek to make sense of real-world crises, come equally from a place of lightness. If I’m to be honest with you, most of my fiction shares something with the impulse to tell a joke: The “fabric” of society, represented in The Visitors through the protagonist’s career in textile arts, and the national “network” of the electrical grid, are such on-the-nose metaphors for a fragmented democratic society that I simply couldn’t pass them up—they almost present themselves as readymade punchlines. As much as the impulse for the book came from the desire to reckon with American politics and structural injustice and my own political despair, then, an equal part of the plot stems from impish, childlike make-believe: from following through on the question, Wouldn’t it be sort of amusing if….?
Another strategy I use as a novelist: When I come across a formal problem – for example, that novels seem utterly limited in their ability to address the climate crisis – I often end up putting that problem at the center of the story. This has been the case at Humboldt, where I realized that I can’t meet my aim of writing about climate without putting the impotence of art at the very the heart of the novel I’ve been working on. I reserve the right to change my mind, but for now the radically revised premise currently goes something like this: [REDACTED]1
Now I don’t know if this sounds more like the opening to a novel or a joke – [REDACTED]2 – and probably not a very good one at that. But it does provide a frame, enough of one that I can begin to allow the concerns at hand to take place in narrative time.
When we talk about storytelling in the climate space, we often talk about it as if storytelling were a solution unto itself – that telling stories is the solution. I think instead that these model-worlds in crisis clear a space to have a conversation about our own – they provide a site of analysis for things that are hard to talk about and politically difficult to achieve. And so the chosen narrative frame might as well be expansive enough to bring in as many of the challenges faced as possible – to try to narrate, for example, everything from the complexities of the carbon market, to political gridlock, to the feeling of individual helplessness and uselessness in the face of such extreme crises.
In modeling those responses to crisis, novels may not provide ready-made solutions or even comfort. They do show, however, that your moment, your fears, your terror, your doubt, are not historically unique—that our experience of crisis and transformation itself extends across history. They keep alive an openness to ambiguity, and also a sense of lightness - or at least absurdity - when everything else seems quite dark.
I wish I knew what story we ought to tell. But in the meantime I will settle for conserving the attitude - on its surface so very useless in a world faced with rapid material ecological decay - that the consequences of language are hardly abstract, that it couldn’t matter more the things we say.
Post-script: Thanks for reading! And forgive me, but: The Visitors comes out June 7th from And Other Stories. Don’t forget to request your review copy by replying directly to this email, if you’re a reviewer, or to pre-order it here if you’re not a reviewer but have made it this far into this post, because in that case you are obviously the ideal reader.
And okay, a few Powerpoint slides, because graphic design remains the unsung highlight of this Substack…
Like I said, I reserve the right to change my mind.