annotations: the universal power of storytelling

there's no actual annotated document this week fyi, but still good stuff to read

This is annotations, a newsletter in which I annotate a story every two weeks, and also read and write other stuff.

Due to personal reasons that have to do with time and a lack thereof, I did not actually produce an annotated document this week, so if that’s all you’re here for, TURN BACK NOW it’s not too late, you can still close this tab.

not really annotated: “This Narrated Life” by Maria Tumarkin, Griffith Review

This essay, “This Narrated Life” by Maria Tumarkin for Australian quarterly Griffith Review, should probably begin with a story. After all, as Tumarkin writes: “Starting an essay or any substantial piece of journalism with a story is pretty much the law these days. The reader will swallow your story and then here she is with your shiny hook in her innards and you can start pulling on it this way or that.”

And yet, Tumarkin does not. “I am sick of reading these opening stories, sick of their intent to seduce, they remind me of the candles, wine and music put out by a man who wants to sleep with you,” she writes, two-thirds of the way through the essay, long after the seduction of a narrative lede was supposed to lure the reader into the piece. Only then does she tell her story.

Tumarkin’s essay interrogates our—our, as in we, as readers, as an industry, as people—obsession with storytelling. Fetishization, more like. We—consumers and producers of stories—have strong-armed stories into being something more like “conduits for the universal, for the transcendental,” made glossy smooth by pressure. When works of journalism or nonfiction or truth or whatever privilege the form so much more than the actual content, that’s where things get tricky. “It may be that there is something Trojan horse-like about a certain kind of narrative: it can sneak, unnoticed, past the usual well-oiled protocols of authentification, the usual ethical questioning,” Tumarkin writes. “Sometimes stories can lead you down foxholes you cannot fact-check your way out of.”

We consume stories because we ultimately want to be entertained, to feel something, to be moved as human beings. But, Tumarkin questions: “What happens when that question – ‘Can you tell a story, Bart?’ – is asked of our scientists, our thinkers, our educators, our artists, our journalists, our human rights advocates?” For instance, climate change. Somehow, people keep saying that scientists and journalists just haven’t told the story of climate change well enough. What the fuck are we supposed to do then? Dig for those compelling characters, the right narrative arc, all while the temperature rises bit by bit?

Here’s Tumarkin again:

When public conversations become distorted by particular storytelling tics, you have to question what is being missed and what is not allowed to happen. Also, what does happen to those scientists, thinkers, artists and advocates who do not make the public laugh, cry or wanna break out in song? Do they simply get left behind? And let's for a moment take the best-case scenario – let us say you put into the public domain a story that is lucidly and persuasively told, one that elicits big thoughts and heavy emotions. This kind of story is still no substitute for a genuine public debate with its bumping of heads, its pushes and pulls, its peculiar and all-important labours – defending your position, nailing your opponents, issuing rejoinders, synthesising thought, changing your mind – that are so different to the exertions of storytelling, even storytelling at its best.

Ultimately, this essay is a sharp, convincing indictment of our culture’s dominant preoccupation with the “universal power of storytelling,” of which this newsletter is guilty, I guess. Really makes you think, huh. (Still love stories, though!!!)


  • The Venn diagram of people who are obsessed with Succession and people who find this cover story about the battle for the Trump family-dynasty throne absolutely riveting is a perfect circle (a.k.a. me!!!). [The Atlantic]

  • Attending college as a first-generation, low-income student. [NYT Magazine]

  • The dream of Etsy in a world built for Amazons. [Vox]

  • Of the remaining magazines, New York remains, I think, the most magazine-y in its creativity and playfulness of form and packaging. Case in point: a “guide” to the Silicon Valley incubator of Stanford, by Max Read. [Intelligencer]

  • Amanda Hess on the convergence of politics and pop culture in this strange era of stanning would-be and actual policy makers. [NYT]


for my place of work, here’s my first attempt at some sort of book review/interview/profile hybrid, starring author Mary H.K. Choi:

Sorry about this week! Thanks! Bye!


Loading more posts…