We have this term now in circulation: “the narrative.” It is one of those somewhat pretentious academic terms that has wormed its way into common speech, like “gender” or “significant other,” bringing hidden freight along with it.  Everywhere you look, you find it being used, and by all kinds of people. Elite journalists, who are likely to be products of university life rather than years of shoe-leather reporting, are perhaps the most likely to employ it, as a way of indicating their intellectual sophistication. But conservative populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are just as likely to use it too. Why is this so? What does this development mean?

I think the answer is clear. The ever more common use of “narrative” signifies the widespread and growing skepticism about any and all of the general accounts of events that have been, and are being, provided to us. We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief — nothing so robust as relativism, but instead something more like a sustained “whatever” — and the word “narrative” provides a way of talking neutrally about such accounts while distancing ourselves from a consideration of their truth.


Wilfred M. McClay

Claremont Review of Books (Winter 2013/14)