How Narratives Add Up
Narrative Accretion is the recognition that stories—from documentaries and news to podcasts and entertainment programs—on certain subject matters add up, that the whole may often be greater than the sum of its parts. Any one story may unearth and explore important new areas, especially pressing or unseen contemporary issues and moments. But ultimately stories build upon and contribute to an on-going dialog with viewers and other artists about issues such as rape or criminal justice reform or poverty.
Indeed, sexual violence is best seen as “rape culture”, for example, because of the multiple layers of structural and cultural forces that allow sexual violence not only to be prevalent but often acceptable. We understand it as a culture precisely through the accumulation of stories which bring the viewer into a position of estrangement from that culture, jolting the viewer to see what is clearly in front of them but is often difficult to see in isolation (as structures and cultures typically are).
Narrative Accretion, then, is a recognition that singular stories—of rape in institutions such as colleges or the military, of unprocessed rape kits and corrupt legal systems, of social media users victimizing rape survivors—have greater meaning when read together as a collection of stories. Together they create a knowledge system for understanding in new ways precisely because these narratives offer new tools for thinking.
In some ways, the idea that stories accumulate over time is nothing new. Local history, for instance, is often an accumulation of legends and stories and documents, an aggregation of different narratives from multiple authors and times. Similarly, journalism or “news” exemplifies how stories build over time as more revelations or events unfold and facts add up to create a “story.” Indeed, journalists play this critical role in the creation of reality for readers as they recount “what is known” within a story as new information and accumulated facts are added up.
Accretion (as opposed to just accumulation) is defined as the process of growth that occurs through gradual accumulation of additional material or matter. Narrative accretion, then, recognizes that the breadth and variety of narratives, given proper circulation and exposure and time, have the potential to come together and cohere into new understandings and new ways of thinking. Furthermore, success in the marketplace or through critical recognition and cultural affirmation (such as awards) can also lead to imitation or snowballing of important themes. Indeed, such accretion can be measured by such imitations, the ripple effect created through media coverage, changes of narrative framing, increases in volume and texture of public conversations, and so forth.
Narrative Accretion also recognizes the specificity of this historical moment and the role of narrative within it as part of that process. Most of us live narrative-saturated lives, especially in the age of social media. A golden age of television has ushered in 500 scripted narratives a year in the U.S. alone. Documentaries proliferate across public media and streaming platforms alike. Podcasts provide unprecedented access to telling stories on demand for listening. And digital storytelling—through VR, data journalism, webisodes, mobile media, interactive documentaries, and even video games—saturate the web. In sum, there is no shortage of spaces for narrative to live and thrive.
To demonstrate, let’s look only at narratives that have received critical recognition in recent years through the George Foster Peabody Awards. The Peabody Awards review and adjudicate approximately 1200 television, radio/podcasts, and digital programming submissions per year. These submissions amount to what producers see as their best work, that which is worthy of winning an award for “Stories That Matter.” In turn, Peabody recognizes 30 winners and 30 nominees across genres (entertainment, documentary, news, public service) and platforms.
To take an issue such as race and criminal justice reform, Peabody has recognized 25 programs as winners and nominees in the last four years alone (a number, of course, that does not include programs submitted to Peabody for consideration that did not receive such recognition). Across documentaries, news, radio/podcasts, and even scripted entertainment, a powerful array of narratives emerges—stories of police violence and brutality, racialized policing, sentencing, the bail system, solitary confinement, false imprisonment, mass incarceration, criminalization of youth, prison conditions, readjustment after life in prison, and the overall failures of the criminal justice system in America. (See list below.)
It is precisely the fact that these stories appear and repeat across genre and platform, year after year, that adds not only to the growing body of evidence that the criminal justice system is broken, is racist, and/or that injustice is routinely accepted or ignored. Rather, these narratives cohere and contribute to a new understanding that how we think and talk about race and criminal justice itself must change. The evidence is overwhelming, and it adds up. But such narratives also provide the necessary vehicles for identification, recognition, connection, attachment, empathy, and understanding.
In sum, narrative accretion foregrounds how the accumulation of narratives is part of the process of societal growth and change. And through such accretion, the stories we carry in our heads can be powerful motivators for social action, policy change, and reform.