Tale Spin

Vibes aren’t killing narrative

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Every day, or so it feels, I read another opinion about the decline of “storytelling” or “narrative” itself. These theories range from idle musings to thoughtful arguments, and they don’t all agree with one another. But they generally seem to share the feeling — whether they’re lamenting, cheering, or just observing — that “storytelling” is growing tired or archaic, decreasing in quality, quantity, or cultural relevance. 

The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka has argued that TV shows like Emily in Paris are increasingly designed to be atmosphere diffusers, soothing audiences with color and movement rather than drawing us into a sequence of events. TV now “succumbs to, rather than competes with, your phone,” which is increasingly a site of “audiovisual eloquence” — not stories, but vibes. In his essay on “vibes,” Chayka quotes the artists Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden: “TikTok provides a rebuke to the truism that people want narratives.” This idea evokes corners of the advertising and marketing industries, which have been observing for years that consumers care less about brand stories than brand experiences. 

The death — or demotion — of the “story” is a recurring theme in literary and cinematic history

An overlapping but distinct strand of argumentation suggests that the practice of “storytelling” has been coopted by a particular version thereof. Another New Yorker writer, Vinson Cunningham, argued a few years ago that Humans of New York, TED Talks, the Moth, and other organizations that trade in “storytelling” were “refashioning” the word’s definition. The new “story” was something too glossy and instrumental to convey much meaning at all: “‘Storytelling,’ in this parlance,” Cunningham writes, “is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests.” Other critics have argued that the Marvel Cinematic Universe subordinates plot to other incentives, like servicing fandoms and boosting its own IP. “MCU films are not about characters, choices, consequences,” writes Gerry Canavan. “They are only ever about the permanent extension of the MCU itself as a franchise.” 

I read these arguments with pleasure, and I usually agree with them. They explain my creeping numbness to narration, my sense that stories are exhausted — not because they’ve all been told already, but because they seem ever more corrupted, insufficient, superfluous, or beside the point. Then again, I still spend plenty of time with novels, articles, movies, and TV shows that sequence events in a way I find meaningful, just as my own brain sequences the past and the future. “Narratives are so deeply embedded in how we think and what we think … it’s hard to get hold of what stories are,” Lynne Tillman wrote, in a 1995 essay called “Telling Tales.” It is “hard to see how they function because they are always functioning.” More recently, Tillman noted that she had been writing “against those who said [stories] were dead.”

The death — or demotion — of the “story” is a recurring theme in literary and cinematic history. Tillman, for example, may have been referring to Language poetry, a 1970s Bay Area movement known for being rigorously anti-narrative. (She was part of another movement, New Narrative, that formed in reaction to it.) Language poets took an extreme approach to the ethos of modernist experimentation, which often foregrounded the texture or atmospherics of language, turning stories into mere delivery vehicles. “The story might wobble; the plot might crumble; ruin might seize upon the characters,” Virginia Woolf wrote in 1927. “The novel, in short, might become a work of art.” 

In postmodern literature, storytelling methods mushroomed, blurring fact and fiction, playing with self-reflexivity, and dispensing with linearity. The resulting art was exciting to some and dismaying to others, usually for the same reasons — one being that it sometimes turned the meaningful ordering of events into a secondary concern, at best. When hypertext fiction emerged in the 1990s, some readers, handed the ability to choose their path through a narrative, found it much less exciting than advertised. “The experience feels profoundly meaningless and dull,” wrote Laura Miller in 1998. “The promise that the fiction of the future will have no story, or a story of the reader’s own devising, recalls a Lily Tomlin joke about the afterlife: It turns out that there is sex in heaven, you just can’t feel it.”

Just as Chayka suggests that “vibes” represent the dominance of atmosphere over narrative, some film critics have argued that spectacular special effects overpower ever-thinner plots, turning stories into set pieces. Others have pointed out in response that “an outright opposition of narrative and spectacle … is not borne out by the history of Hollywood cinema,” as the scholar Barry Langford writes. The fate of narrative, then, is yet another narrative. What makes it such a compelling one?

“Familiar though his name may be to us, the storyteller … has already become something remote from us and … is getting even more distant,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller.” The essay, nominally about the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, concerns itself with evidence of storytelling’s decline. One piece of evidence is the prevalence of “information,” specifically the news media and its concern with immediacy over meaning. Another is the predominance of novels.

For Benjamin, storytelling is a specific practice embedded in social life — the sharing of “communicable experience,” from which people in Europe between world wars were increasingly alienated. While the storyteller takes what he tells from his own experience and “in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale,” the novelist works in isolation, aloof from everyday wisdom. Unlike oral tradition, novels definitively end, coaxing a “meaning” that is necessarily reductive. Describing the shift from the “real story” of oral tradition to the non-story of the novel was for Benjamin a way of registering the ruptures of war, technological progression, and advancing capitalism.

If a novel compresses time and character into a finite text, these blogs were uncompressed. There were voices and there was a sense of ongoingness

I had been reading a lot of novels when I started visiting personal blogs in the mid aughts. My favorites were kept by women in their 20s who were, like me, figuring out how to become adults. I would sit on the dusty wood floor of the apartment I shared with my sister, in front of a blue laptop that must have weighed eight pounds, typing URLs directly into the Internet Explorer address bar. The books I thought I should have been reading were probably stacked next to my bed; instead, I wanted to see whether there were new updates to be had on the lives of Emily Gould, Molly Wizenberg, or Samantha Irby. 

I don’t really remember the specifics of their posts. I certainly don’t remember the overarching plots, because there were none. There were voices and there was a sense of ongoingness. If a novel compresses time, space, and character into a finite text, these blogs were uncompressed. The action took place in real time, in the world I knew, and it wasn’t always “action.” Anecdotes were surrounded by jokes, lists, random thoughts, impromptu book and movie reviews, and recipes I make to this day. I didn’t know where it was going, and they didn’t know either. Reading a blog wasn’t something you could do over a weekend, like reading a novel. It was part of your daily life, until it wasn’t. 

Blogs were obviously not what Benjamin had in mind when he wrote about exemplary stories. But these blogs met at least some of his criteria: They were totally open-ended, grounded in the teller’s experience and highly assimilable to my own. “What distinguishes the novel from the story … is its essential dependence on the book,” Benjamin writes. Having been freed from that dependency, bloggers were doing something that resembled the storytelling whose loss he mourned.

At the time, my storytelling benchmarks were 20th-century novels and films, whose worlds — no matter how mundane — were bounded wholes that stood apart from everyday experience: They compressed and compartmentalized life, rather than running through it. While I could recognize that blog posts were narrative constructions, and many of them had conventional arcs, they seemed to break with a tradition that to me defined what stories were. They appeared to leak literary expression back into the daily flow, making everyday life, for a minute here and there, feel as meaningful as art. I didn’t perceive this as a return to “storytelling,” a term that, for me, carried associations close to the opposite of Benjamin’s. It felt like a refreshing departure. 

In his 2010 manifesto Reality Hunger, David Shields set out to document “a burgeoning group of interrelated (but unconnected) artists … who are breaking larger and larger chunks of ‘reality’ into their work.” He covers reality TV, hip-hop sampling, documentaries, graffiti, lyric essays, and other work characterized by: 

randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone… plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography… 

And so on. One corollary of “more reality” was less storytelling. “Plots are for dead people,” Shields writes. “I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective — a lens, a distortion effect.” A plot invented by a novelist was too often a tedious “demonstration of cultural refinement” or “parable of the power of storytelling.” The voice of an essayist was more likely to offer a direct encounter with illuminating intelligence, a plotless immersion in the “serial enactments of the mind’s processes.”

At the time, a lot of novelists were feeling the same way. “Increasingly I’m less interested in writing about fictional people, because it seems so tiresome to make up a fake person and put them through the paces of a fake story,” Sheila Heti said in 2007. “I just — I can’t do it.” Her 2010 novel How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life has all the qualities of “reality hunger,” recording a short period in the life of a character named Sheila, who is trying to write a play, and including transcripts of Heti’s conversations with friends. It’s a defining work of “autofiction,” one of the past decade’s major literary trends, a combination of fiction and autobiography that complicates both forms. 

The shift from the “real story” of oral tradition to the non-story of the novel was a way of registering the ruptures of technological progression

Autofiction’s twin was the essayistic (or “lyric”) memoir, which might have peaked with the rise of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) to the New York Times bestseller list. Much of what I most loved reading from 2005 to 2015 could be described as one of the two: Maggie Nelson’s Jane (2005) and Bluets (2009), Renee Gladman’s Toaf (2008), Tao Lin’s Taipei (2013), Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness (2015). Like blogs, these books subordinated plot to voice, creating their own patchworks of art and life. In an interview about Ongoingness, a series of reflections about a diary she kept for years, Manguso said she’d “never really been interested in plot, reading it or writing it,” and had come to realize that she was “not the only person with this problem.” 

It’s unlikely that she, or any of the others, would say that their books were devoid of story. Sheila’s relationships evolve. Manguso has a baby and it changes her life. Critics even started comparing this wave to New Narrative — the group of writers, including Tillman, for whom the representation of events in time had been a defining practice. New Narrativists, too, had little use for conventional plot and freely mixed fiction and autobiography, but in contrast to Language poetry, the “narrative” stood out. A few decades later, against a U.S. literary market full of novels inspired by genre fiction and traditional realism — where even self-consciously experimental works were often intricately plotted — the slackening of narrative stood out. “Story” is the story that writers tell about what they’re moving toward or away from.

In 2018, Amanda Hess wrote a New York Times essay called “The End of Endings,” in which she broadens arguments like the one Canavan and others have made about Marvel. Not only do cinematic universes seem to infinitely, meaninglessly expand; the ending of any book, movie, or narrative “property” is now liable to be overwritten by prequels, sequels, reboots, reunions, revivals, remakes, or spinoffs. Everything is a “self-perpetuating content machine,” because “the logic of the internet” — endless scrolling, or the desire to suck people into something and profit by keeping them there — “is colonizing everything.” To a degree, that includes storytelling itself: “Didn’t endings used to mean something?” she writes. “They imbued everything that came before them with significance.”

Although she cites Benjamin’s observation that novels are defined by their endings, Hess arrives at an opposite point. For Benjamin, novels represent modern alienation and confusion; stories are the opposite, their open-endedness conducive to sense-making. For Hess — and for me, at the age when I started reading blogs — novels are the definitive stories; open-endedness makes contemporary narratives feel unstorylike and, in her case, meaningless. Like most writers who argue that storytelling is on the wane, Hess and Benjamin use different, context-dependent definitions of the term, turning it into an avatar of a broader cultural phenomenon.

A topic is an accumulation of material, a story is a path hacked through it. And it feels increasingly difficult to try to hack through anything

The mass of retrievable data about my life and the world sometimes gives me the feeling that neither could be meaningfully apprehended except through the database logic of categorization and lookup. The ability to collect, archive, tag, and search turns everything into a topic. “Topic” versus “story” is a classic literary binary: The former is an accumulation of material, the latter is a path hacked through it. And it feels increasingly difficult, if not futile, to try to hack through anything — my inbox, my tabs, or problems of much greater consequence: climate change, Covid-19, class inequality. Stories, even the ones I tell about my own life, feel less like stories than datapoints, so many rows in a spreadsheet.

The database might feel like the antithesis of the story. But databases — like “vibes,” ambience, spectacle, “reality,” or novels — are just another environment in which stories can be found. Narratives arise when journalists visualize data, when machines “learn” from it, when artists and activists describe its gaps or shape it to their own ends. Recently, Heti published a series of stories that she composed by putting all 500,000 words of her journals into Excel and then ordering the sentences alphabetically. “Perhaps this would help me identify patterns and repetitions,” she writes, explaining her motivation in an introduction to the project:

How many times had I written, “I hate him,” for example? With the sentences untethered from narrative, I started to see the self in a new way: as something quite solid, anchored by shockingly few characteristic preoccupations. As I returned to the project over the years, it grew into something more novelistic. … The self’s report on itself is surely a great fiction.

Megan Marz has written about books, language, and technology for the Baffler, the Washington Post, and other publications.