Friday, January 22, 2010

Fiction, reality and storytelling

An interesting New Yorker article this week: Daniel Mendelssohn, in "But Enough About Me," talks about the blurring between reality and fiction in memoir writing. What interested me was when he talked about personal stories.
"Reality itself is a term that is rapidly being devalued. Take reality TV: on these shows, "real" people (that is, people who aren't professional actors) are placed in artificial situations ... in order to provoke the "real" emotions that the audience tunes in to witness...."
Notice all the quotes around "real." This is not reality, and we all know that. That's what makes it funny. It's wannabe fiction, a reincarnation of the B-grade movie. Even if the people participating in reality TV are not professional actors, you can bet they want to be.

Mendelssohn goes on to say that the rise of reality TV was caused in part by talk shows that trotted out for voyeurism the couldn't-happen-to-me problems of "real" people:
"...the premium placed by these shows on the spontaneous expression of genuine and extreme emotions has justified setups that are all too obviously unreal -- in a word, fictional."
But these people are also wannabe actors, or more likely wannabe celebrities. That's clear after ten minutes of watching their antics. These stories are told with a definite purpose, as "spontaneous" as they appear to be. Actually, the fake spontenaity is just a part of the artifice.

The way I interpret the obvious thirst we have for these "reality" fictions is this. We are all parched for the naturally occuring storytelling that happens in real social connection. We are more thirsty for this experience than we have ever been, because it is less available to us than it has ever been. But we have become so convinced that only purposeful stories are real stories that we can only look for what we crave where it cannot be found.

It's like we are thirsty for water, but we've forgotten water exists because we are so used to drinking Water. So we drink more Water, and more "water-flavored" Water, and we get more and more thirsty and can't understand why. What we really need is water. We need to return to spending time with the people we know and telling each other what has been happening to us. Have you noticed that even when we do get together lately, we turn away from each other and consume packaged stories? It's almost like we are afraid of something, like we are running from life itself, like we prefer the copy to the original. I've had two experiences recently where I joined a social group hoping to share experiences, and within a few meetings somebody had invited an expert to teach us how to do things properly, meaning to tell us prepared stories. For me, it sucked all the fun out of the group. The amazing thing was that I couldn't get anyone to understand why I didn't like the groups anymore. It was all the same to them.

The most interesting part of this article, for me, is in a telling juxtaposition. First, Mendelssohn mentions how people are inundated with stories by overhearing the cell-phone conversations of those around them. Then later he criticizes those who attack published memoirists for not telling the absolute truth and says people always re-story their experiences. These statements led me to the conclusion that many of those who write about storytelling, Mendelssohn among them, must be oblivious to the distinction between packaged and naturally occurring stories, even though it underlies many of the trends they are talking about. All of the forms of narrative discussed here -- memoir, talk show, reality TV, life story, even "personal narrative" -- no matter how "reality-based," are packaged, purposeful stories, created for far-flung consumption. The one glaring exception is cell-phone conversations, which are simply added to the mix without comment. Lumping what you overhear on cell phones with what you hear on Oprah shows that we have lost the ability to distinguish between story sharing and story broadcasting.

When I lived on Long Island I used to say that the way the city had overtaken the island reminded me of the way a butter knife spreads and thins out clumps of hot butter on a slice of toast: the towns were barely recognizable amid the suburban sprawl that had filled all the spaces between. The narrative world feels that way too: every in-between space has been taken up by packaged stories, and the towns (meaning, the localized worlds of related, relevant, contextual, personally exchanged narratives) barely register anymore. And what's worse, we seem to have forgotten where the towns were. On Long Island, what used to be this town or that town has merged into one giant entity, and the younger people hardly talk about the towns anymore. I've seen this happen with narrative too, in the way people talk about what happened on some sitcom or movie as though it happened to them personally. It's all the same to them.

The loss of distinction between local and packaged-for-travel narrative reminds me of how the locavore movement has had such difficulty getting people involved. It's a tomato, isn't it? It's a story, isn't it? Hey, maybe we need a locastory movement (or some better name). Maybe we can set up story sharing clubs and boot out all the book reading clubs. Maybe we can start the equivalent of community-supported agriculture -- show up every week to get your box of locally grown stories. Maybe I should write a personal memoir about not reading any stories that didn't originate within the 100 people most important to me. Maybe it will sell millions of copies.


Unknown said...

Great post, Cynthia. I think there actually is something of a locastory movement; I'll try to share some references on community storytelling later. LOVE the idea of a story CSA!

Cynthia Kurtz said...

Hi Kathy, thanks for the comment (sorry for not responding sooner, the email got filtered into spam for some reason). I'd like to learn more about any locastory movements. The only thing I've seen so far that fully qualifies is participatory theatre, where a group helps people (often young people) put on plays about, for, and in their own communities in order to make sense of some of the challenges they are facing. Everything else I've seen includes so much performance and polishing that it precludes true sharing. I'd be very happy to find out about more good stuff going on!