I want to raise the question of what the world thinks “narrative” means, what educated media commentators and writers mean by it, and what relationship does the widespread use of “narrative” have to do with the use of the term narrative journalism?—Gerald Grow, “The Invasion of the Term ‘Narrative’ “

Gerald Grow, now retired, a Shakespeare scholar who ended up teaching journalism at Florida A & M University, keeps an eclectic and useful web site about writing and teaching. It brims with neat stuff, including journalism and magazine-writing teaching strategies, ideas about visual art, AP and APA style guides, and thoughts on Eastern spirituality, to name a few categories. His beef about narrative’s proliferation is lodged in his annex of article ideas for “anyone who wants to take them, develop them, use them, disprove them—in the interest of continuing the conversation on journalism education.”

Grow gives examples from reviews and news stories of what he considers misuse of the term, and says:

I am puzzled by what looks like a tendency to reduce events in the world that can mean life or death (e.g., men with guns, big storm, food shortage, job lost, clash of cultures, core beliefs) to the terms of literary criticism (narrative, story, margin). In many cases, I would expect some term like theory, explanation, understanding, picture, biography, motive, version, alibi, etc.

What is going on? What does it mean to conflate so many useful and content-filled distinctions into the vague theoretical term “narrative”? Calling so many types of discourse “narratives” is rather like referring to both wood pulp and voters as “biomass.” Where did this reductionistic use of the term “narrative” come from? Who is promoting it? Who benefits from it? Why do so many articulate, educated people so easily slip into using it when they are trying explain something? To question this devil in its own terminology: What is lost when the term “narrative” colonizes public discourse?

So, reading this, one begins to wonder. I admit I’m a prime offender—Exhibit A: this blog—but I love the richness and connotations of “narrative,” even if Grow’s got a point that the word’s rampant usage appears trendy and mindless. (A clothing section of a department store in my town is labeled Narrative, big letters up on the wall above the racks.) The other day, reading about the Penn State scandal in The New York Times, I saw this usage in a story about Coach Joe Paterno meeting with President Graham Spanier:

In 2004, Mr. Spanier, Mr. Curley and select board members twice went to his house in efforts to get him to retire. Mr. Paterno declined, and the moment was looked at in the narrative of Paterno’s career as an instance of his overcoming adversity.

Something else may have sufficed, but here “narrative” embodies ongoing and mythic overtones that seem just right.


  • John says:

    What a thought-provoking post, thanks. For me, “narrative” is obviously such a useful word because it draws attention to the fact that the truth is not just complex or dependent on where one sits but much more problematic. I think it’s ubiquity stems from the demise of metanarratives like the idea of progress or the dogmatic forms of Marxism- however, postmodernism may not be the answer because it can be seen as another metanarrative- hence in philosophical terms there are escapes like social constructivism or critical realism- just to say people are using “narrative” too frequently and pointing out some clumsy usage of the term is hiding from these debates about how we struggle to know and represent stuff.
    Thanks, John.

  • barbararuth says:

    ” … the moment was looked at in the narrative of Paterno’s career … ” is one clunky phrase!

    The word “narrative” works there because the writer refers directly to a story. That sentence means something like “Paterno declined, and by doing so, provided a convincing plot point for a romantic story, the story of a man who built a career around overcoming adversity.”

    Grow gives examples of calling things “narratives” that are not stories, like a set of music; of suggesting that narratives are entities with will of their own, rather than things people craft; and of flattening words with other meanings into the term “narrative,” like calling both myths and reports “narratives.”

  • Thomas Bebin says:

    Here it is 10 years later 2021 and the term “narrative” is almost COVID like in how quickly it is used. I feel it’s use today by influencers has turned this word/term into a fad. I feel many use the term without knowing actually what the definition of “narrative” means, and in doing so society will ultimately accept its new definition without question.

    • Richard says:

      Well said, Thomas. Glad you found my post after all these years too. I wonder if all this appropriation is driven by the mania to be informed, very discerning consumers? Anything to draw attention to our own sophistication. Even if a term is distorted!

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