- Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology by Arthur W. Frank
The idea that stories are important to people is hardly new, but the claim that they are of paramount importance is a view that is [End Page 382] not so widely shared. In Letting Stories Breathe, the sociologist Arthur Frank sets out to persuade readers that stories are vital to both our individual and collective lives. They are vital not only because they shape our everyday experience and dealings with each other, but because they also act in ways that surpass our awareness of their force and direction. As Frank says at one point, they are "made of air but they leave their mark" (43). In giving stories breath, Frank wants to give them life.
Stories are what we "grow up on" (7). Not least, there are stories that we are told as children or when growing up that warn of the dangers of straying from cultural paths. Frank includes in the introduction to his book an excerpt from Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: "'You must not tell anyone,' my mother said, 'what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say that your father has all brothers because it is as if she had never been born'" (7). Frank reveals the background to this story as one of revenge upon the writer's aunt who became pregnant by a man who was not her husband. The purpose of the story is not that it should be retold, but that it should be remembered as a warning as to how to live one's life. More generally, Frank argues that we are all cast into stories, but not in a fixed way. There are some stories we adhere to—as if playing a part set down for us—while others provide the basis for rebellion or just adaptation. There are also success stories that provide models, not just in families, but also in organizations, for how to act in ways that are proper, both functionally and ethically. We can surrender to stories or we can resist them. Frank quotes a section from Tolstoy's War and Peace in which the character of Mademoiselle Bourienne succumbs to the improper advances of a suitor, as she is guided by a story she had been told long before by her aunt. He uses this excerpt to show how stories can shape perception and action in a kind of reverse mimesis. What makes this example interesting is that a story can have its effect over time, can wait, as it were, for the most opportune moment or context in which its message can truly be heard—and acted upon. This leads to the point that stories do not just carry messages from the past, but they project future possibilities. As Frank says, "Stories do not just have plots. Stories work to emplot lives" (10). As we grow up and grow on, so our attempts to retell and to reformulate the stories we have been told engage us in living out those redirections. To the extent that stories are useful in helping to live a moral and successful life, they are, in Frank's terms, good or bad companions, and he [End Page 383] spends time in this book outlining the different ways in which these various outcomes might occur.
For readers who are already familiar with the work of Arthur Frank (particularly his own story, At the Will of the Body, and The Wounded Storyteller), this new work will seem a logical elaboration of ideas that he has put forward about the way stories give form to experience. Though here, in Letting Stories Breathe, he is going one step further to claim that without stories there would be no experience. "In the beginning was the story," he might have said. Hence he makes the claim that nobody thinks originally or even alone, but is forever engaged within narrative templates...