The chance to investigate the narrative impulse at some length came when I was appointed the 1999 Massey lecturer by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The Massey Lectures were founded in 1961 to honour Vincent Massey, a major patron of the arts as well as the first Canadian-born governor general. Each autumn, a writer, teacher, or public figure gives a series of five one-hour radio talks on a subject that springs naturally from his or her work. In recent years, Massey College, which Vincent Massey created, has been associated with the lectures, and the House of Anansi Press has published them.
The form is now traditional--five separate but interlocked lectures, each around 7,500 words. Themes tend to be wide-ranging, such as the pathology of family life, the implications of technology, or the prospects for capitalism in the next century. I discussed several approaches with the CBC and Massey College, and in the end we settled on an exploration of storytelling. It seems to me that this crucial element of culture receives less attention than it deserves; just because it is so pervasive, we often fail to consider its sources and its implications.
Of all the ways we communicate with one another, the story has established itself as the most comfortable, the most versatile--and perhaps also the most dangerous. Stories touch all of us, reaching across cultures and generations, accompanying humanity down the centuries. Assembling facts or incidents into tales is the only form of expression and entertainment that most of us enjoy equally at age three and age seventy-three.
The story links us to ancestors we can never know, people who lived ten or twenty thousand years ago. As the study of preliterate cultures demonstrates, storytelling was central to society long before humans learned to write. Millions of anonymous raconteurs invented narrative, and simultaneously began the history of civilization, when they discovered how to turn their observations and knowledge into tales they could pass on to others.
My plan, when I set out to write these lectures, was to look at narrative from a few unusual angles and perhaps open it to wider discussion. I especially wanted to assert the value of those unruly and unaccredited forms of narrative that arise from conversation, in particular the stories, true or untrue, that we tell about ourselves and people we know. In my view, we can profitably bring to amateur storytelling the same tools of understanding that we routinely apply to literature.
My first chapter locates the foundations of narrative in gossip, that much maligned art form. It relates gossip to sophisticated fiction, and discusses the personal histories that people concoct in the course of establishing their identity. From this beginning at the bottom of the narrative food chain, my second chapter moves to an arena of grand ambition, where Edward Gibbon, H. G. Wells, Arnold Toynbee, and others have tried to chart the course of civilization with their master narratives. My own profession, journalism, stands at the core of the third chapter, which also discusses the endlessly surprising form of literature that we call urban legends. My fourth chapter deals with the "unreliable narrator," as deployed by writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Ford Madox Ford; this subject nestles beside postmodern academic theory, each of them commenting on the other. Finally, in chapter five, as a way of relating history to the present moment, I trace one long vibrant line of romantic narrative from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe to contemporary mass culture, where the burden of narrative comes to rest on that exceptional figure invented by the twentieth century, the star of movies and television. All this, I hope, serves my main intention: to identify the lines of meaning that connect public narratives, grand or humble, with the narratives we all enact, the true stories of our lives.
This book can be ordered from Indigo, from Chapters, or from the book's publisher, Anansi.