Thursday, November 19, 2009

The internet has failed storytelling

So I'm looking at Kathy Hansen's blog and as usual she brings the news to the news-poor: an article called "The internet is killing storytelling" in the London Times that is apparently the talk of twitter-town. I simply had to respond, even (evidently) after everybody else already has done so, and added this comment:

The internet is not killing storytelling: the internet has failed storytelling.

Natural storytelling has many forms, from the anecdotal snippet to the long-form narrative, and all are equally valid and needed. What is wrong with the internet for storytelling is not that it shortens stories, but that it strips away context and fails to replicate the nuanced ways in which groups of people naturally make sense of their stories together. I've been working in this area for the past ten years and have recently released free and open source software ( meant to address the issue of making the internet work better for storytelling.

I don't think the splintering of attention spans is killing storytelling, though I agree that it is *changing* storytelling. But that trend started long before the internet appeared. A plot of readership of long-form narratives would not show a sudden recent dip but would more likely show a slow decline through the past several decades. Even what passes for a novel today is nothing like what people read a hundred years ago.

But: if life moved at such a slow pace back then, why were technological advances advertised as "time-saving devices"? If people had as much time as we think they did - you know, because life didn't move at such a "rapid pace" as it does today - why would those advertisements work? Perhaps the whole speeding up of society is just a story. Maybe what has been happening recently seems more important, so it seems like there is more of it, so it seems to be accelerating because more has to be packed into the same amount of time.

Marcus Aurelious said in 167 BCE:

"[I] often think of the rapidity with which things pass by and disappear, both the things which are and the things which are produced. For substance is like a river in a continual flow, and and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still."

Putting aside my fundamental disagreement with the "rapid pace of change" and "information age" alarmists, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with this article. First, the article confuses (using Shawn Callahan's great terms) little-s stories with big-S Stories. Big-S Stories may be declining - in the form in which we are used to find them - but little-s stories are alive and well, though as I mentioned I think the internet has not served them well (and I've written a lot about this in other places). When Macintyre mentions "the cacophony of interactive chatter and noise, exciting and fast moving but plethoric and ephemeral" - well, that's the way storytelling has always been. Storytelling is fast and slow, it's deep and trivial, it's long and short, it's sacred and profane, it's prepared and spontaneous, it's controlling and liberating, it's uplifting and nasty, it's ... (continue ad infinitum in your own terms).

But on the other hand ... on the issue of the "long-form narrative" declining, I have to admit that I share Macintyre's sadness. Myself personally, I love to go deep into a story, or into a sea of stories. But I seem to be more and more out of step in this, as far as I can tell by the reactions of people I ask about it. To give a quick example of what I mean by going deep: I recently read Dostoyevsky's 700-page The Idiot three times in a row, interspersed with watching the 8-hour movie version twice (the Russian one, which by the way is the very best book-to-movie ever made). Fitting this in between work and child care took more than a month, but I recognized that it was an event in my life's course that required a proper degree of respect and care. This narrative event was so momentous that the refractory period after The Idiot (that being the time in which no other fiction can be read, so that the last echoes of the narrative event can resound properly) lasted for a full month. This deep narrative experience ranks up there with only a few others of that magnitude in my life. Probably the biggest one ever is that from about age ten to age twenty, when once a year I reverently retrieved the huge book of Hans Christian Andersen's collected works (800 some pages) from the public library and soaked myself in it for weeks.

My guess is that by doing this sort of ritualized deep immersion in stories I am trying to get to an experience that used to be more common a long time ago. I'm looking for giant-S stories, maybe. I've heard that the old bards told stories that lasted days, weeks or months. What would it be like to dive that deep into a story? I can hear someone saying, it would be like TV. But that's not true. TV is paper-thin. Movies are thin. Most recent novels are thin. The way people used to write was thick, rich, heavy with description, emotion, complexity, detail. That's why I love these old books. I love it when an author spends two or three pages detailing one room or flower or feeling or thought. That sort of depth is almost extinct now. I can't explain it very well, but reading most recent novels and seeing most of the television and movies that are available is like gazing out over a barren desert when I feel a great need to experience the multiplicities of a rain forest.

I actually rewrote this post a few hours after I started it (apologies to the few people who read the first version). I felt like it sounded like I was trying to say that I had some special ability to "go deep" into stories that other people didn't have, or that I was arrogant about reading "the classics," or that I needed more "difficult" stories than other people. But I don't read "the classics" because I am some kind of literary expert. I read them because they are rich, and I crave narrative richness. (I think that's also why I love wallowing in hundreds of collected stories so much - it's richness all over again.) Obviously not everybody craves narrative richness, to judge from the reactions I get when I mention this. I am constantly on the lookout for people to talk about old books with, and in about 30 years of looking I've met ... two. Internet discussion boards about "the classics" are ghost towns, and the face-to-face discussion groups I find at local libraries are not willing to consider anything bigger than tidbits. Sometimes I feel like I am in one of those stories where you suddenly find yourself the only person left on earth.

That's okay. Probably there is genetic variation in attention span and interest in long boring things like three pages describing a room or flower or feeling or thought. What I'm trying to say is, people a few hundred years ago had a lot of narrative to choose from across a spectrum of richness. But today nearly everything is thin, short and small. I've said before that ordinary people are not doing as much ordinary storytelling as they once did (because they leave it to Hollywood). Now I'm thinking that the universe of storytelling has contracted on both sides. Why has this happened? Could it be that media storytelling - newspaper articles, movies, TV shows - has chipped away at both sides of the spectrum at once?

People make fun of people who think that environmentalism means saving the "cute fuzzy animals" while ignoring the keystone species that hold the whole puzzle together. Some keystone species can be tiny nasty scurrying things, but some of them are huge, slow-growing, patient things, like funguses that silently cover hundreds of acres. The same can be said of stories. Maybe the tiny scurrying stories and the great hulking funguses both need some help surviving in today's world.


Unknown said...

We should talk about old books sometime. Last winter I read the new translation of "War & Peace" and it was an unbelievable experience (though it took me the better part of two months to read it once). I have "The Brothers Karamazov" (again, new translation) on deck for December. That is one of my favorites that I haven't read in years and years.

One thing that has happened to novels is that they've gotten afflicted with "real-time" syndrome. Authors, to create a more visceral reading experience, use about the same time to describe a moment as the moment takes in real time. Like a movie. (Or they summarize like heck. For me, that only works if you're Joseph Heller.) Or they focus on first person narrations where the narrator's voice is the focus. Rarely if ever do they slow things down.

Cynthia Kurtz said...

John, let's do that. I never finished War and Peace. I was reading it on the train, and a guy said "Oh, you're reading War and Peace? How do you like it?" I said, "Well, it's great but there sure is a lot of this battle and that battle. I'm hoping that thins out." And he said, "No, it's pretty much that the whole way through." So my enthusiasum dropped off. But I should give it another chance. I love Tolstoy's other stuff, though I must admit I threw the book across the room when Anna Karenina died (and left it there for a few days in demonstration of my sense of betrayal).

I've gotten my most "visceral reading experiences" while reading pages of dense description! Like the parts in Henry James when you finally start to get an inkling of what is wrong (or the characters do). Maybe there are Hemingway readers and James readers, and the world needs both kinds (of readers and authors).