Who’s Done More Damage to Fictional Narrative?

Modernists?

Or Richard Nixon? A passage from Charles Baxter‘s essay “Dysfunctional Narratives, or: ‘Mistakes Were Made'”:

What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, “I made a mistake,” or “We did that.” You can’t reconstruct a story—you can’t even know what the story is—if everyone is saying, “Mistakes were made.” Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it’s history anyway, so let’s forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess. When we hear words like “deniability,” we are in the presence of narrative dysfunction, a phrase employed by the poet C. K. Williams to describe the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.

Baxter picks up that essay’s idea in a Q&A with the Prairie Schooner blog, updating his argument to include the current batch of presidential candidates. (Though didn’t this problem, to the extent it even qualifies as a problem, start with Laurence Sterne?)

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