Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Our Stories, Our Companions: A Conversation with Arthur W. Frank

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Our Stories, Our Companions: A Conversation with Arthur W. Frank

Article excerpt

Arthur W. Frank is professor of sociology at the University of Calgary. His publications include The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness and Ethics and The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine, and How to Live, both published by the University of Chicago Press, as well as At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness (Houghton Mifflin) and Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-narratology (University of Chicago Press). Dr. Frank has been honored with the Natalie Davis Spingarn Writer's Award from the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (Canada) and the Abbyann Lynch Medal for Bioethics from the Royal Society of Canada. He is an Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Hastings Center. The following is a redacted transcript of a telephone interview that took place on September 19, 2013.

Caren S. Neile: Your work is a potent expression of sociology's claims on narrative and story. I'd like to begin with some of the issues you raised in your most recent book, Letting Stories Breathe. Could you tell me what your experience and thinking were that led you to that book?

Arthur W. Frank: I worked on Letting Stories Breathe for a long time. I was first invited to give workshops on narrative analysis back around the year 2000 and spent the next ten years offering half- or full-day, and sometimes two-day, workshops all over the world. During this time, I was constantly revising my notes. Those workshops were the big influence for the book. And so the readers I had foremost in mind while writing it were researchers who wanted to use narrative in studying whatever they were working on. Most of the people I was talking to during that decade were doing some kind of health research, collecting stories that generally had to do with health, either on the side of the health-care worker or that of the ill person.

The problem I found in giving those workshops was distinguishing narrative from more general discourse analysis. Thinking through what makes an analysis a narrative rather than discourse analysis led me to realize that in the center of it was stories. There is a significant difference between what's useful to say about discourse and what there is to say about stories.

Also, as I've read over the years what I often find lacking in books about stories are the stories. I wanted to write a book where stories themselves would carry the argument as much as possible. There are parts of Letting Stories Breathe where I succeed more and parts where I succeed less, but it was important to me. By endeavoring to place stories in the foreground and my comments in the background, I'm trying to trust both stories and storytellers to teach us what stories do.

CN: There are so many different ways of distinguishing between story and narrative. What are your definitions of these vexed terms?

AF: I think about the distinction between story and narrative in terms of a Venn diagram. That is to say, there's a certain area of overlap, where you can legitimately use the words interchangeably. It's not that I myself am always able to maintain a strict difference; sometimes it just doesn't matter. But there are also the outer areas of the diagram where the two don't overlap. For me, the distinction goes back to classic, perhaps dated, linguistics of Noam Chomsky and Ferdinand de Saussure. Chomsky distinguishes between competence and performance. Competence is the sum of ever ything that a speaker is able to say, while performance is an actual speech act. For de Saussure, la langue is the theoretical sum of possibilities for speaking, while la parole is the empirical occurrence of people actually speaking.

In my usage, narrative is on the side of competence or la langue, that is, general types of stories available as cultural resources for storytellers. So we would speak of Cinderella narratives-that is, a type of story in which someone who is oppressed gets a lucky break, is elevated, and things work out wonderfully-or we would talk about progress narratives or narratives of death and regeneration. …

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