Joel Achenbach: Gary Smith and the endangerment of detailed, long-form stories

Telling the tale: Long-form narratives such as (counterclockwise from top) the St. Petersburg Times' feature "The Girl in the Window," the Bible, Gary Smith's "Beyond the Game" and Leo Tolstoy's novels on 19th-century Russian life would need more acreage than what's available on tiny cellphone screens.
Telling the tale: Long-form narratives such as (counterclockwise from top) the St. Petersburg Times' feature "The Girl in the Window," the Bible, Gary Smith's "Beyond the Game" and Leo Tolstoy's novels on 19th-century Russian life would need more acreage than what's available on tiny cellphone screens. (Screenshot From Tampabay.com; Tolstoy Portrait By Vladimir Voinovich: David Hoffman/the Washington Post; Cellphone: Joel Garreau/the Washington Post)

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Gary Smith writes very long stories for a living. They run 8,000 words. He crafts four of them a year for Sports Illustrated. He is a throwback, a spinner of yarns in what we will call for the millionth time the Age of Twitter. Narrative these days competes against incrementalized information -- data, chatter, noise. Smith doesn't think he's a dinosaur, but he does fear that the long-form narrative doesn't quite work on a computer screen.

"You're on the Web and the Internet all day, and you got your trigger finger on that Scroll Down button. And you're looking to move material across the screen. Move-and-skim is the mood you're in."

And that's no way to read a story.

"A story curls you back into yourself," he says, "and you need a special time and place and setting and mode for that. If it becomes all one smear with your work life and checking your e-mail, your Facebook, it's lost all its reason for being."

Smith is saying all this by phone from his screened-in back porch in Charleston, S.C. This is where he writes, on a laptop resting on a teak picnic table, with a view of a small back yard with fruit trees -- orange, lemon, loquat. The loquat, he says, has a few pieces of fruit clinging to its lower branches. Yeah, an irrelevant detail, but notice how your brain reflexively inserts other details, like the humidity and the lizard scampering across the back walk and the languid cat on the fence post. Stories are collaborative; the listener paints the backdrop.

Smith is 55 years old, and his work has been heavily anthologized. His heroes know failure as surely as they know triumph. His favorite story, "Damned Yankee," was about a baseball player who might have been the next Yogi Berra but for all the guilt he felt from having accidentally thrown a javelin through his uncle's head. (Now that's a story!)

There's endless talk in the news media about the next killer app. Maybe Twitter really will change the world. Maybe the next big thing will be just an algorithm, like Google's citation-ranking equation. But Smith is betting that there will still be a market, somehow, for what he does. Narrative isn't merely a technique for communicating; it's how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this.

They know that the story is the original killer app.

Media makeover

To understand the magic of narrative, you have to ponder the rise in Japan of "mobile phone novels." These are novels written on a cellphone keypad. The reader uploads the novel one cellphone screen at a time. The Japanese, always technophiles, find themselves reading their phones the way Westerners used to read the daily newspaper.

There are two ways to look at this situation: One is to make the electronic gadget the star of a heroic tale called The Changing Media. New gadgets can do anything! They can not only put you in touch with friends, they can store your photo album, tell you your longitude and latitude, and write fabulous novels. But another way of describing the situation is to say that you can't keep a good story down. The story, not the gadget, is what's irrepressible. So powerful is the story as a way of communicating that it will even sprout in a cellphone.

Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive who now runs an investment fund for innovative technologies, says by e-mail: "iPhones and Blackberries give us new formats -- like Twitter -- which is a type of story telling. Somebody will write a novel told as text messages."

Been done. It was in Finland, a novel called "The Last Messages," complete with typos.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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