Friday essay: empathy or division? On the science and politics of storytelling

Writers can’t always be trusted when they talk about the power and importance of story. We have a vested interest and can get sentimental, promoting the immense power of story, of narrative, as inherently benign.

Even when a writer is famously sceptical of narrative, such as Joan Didion, the sentimentalists overrule her. As Zadie Smith pointed out recently in The New Yorker, one of Didion’s most famous lines – “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” – is now quoted as if Didion is celebrating story rather than warning about delusion.

“It is a peculiarity of Joan Didion’s work that her most ironic formulations are now read as sincere,” Smith says of this line. “A sentence meant as an indictment has transformed into personal credo.”

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