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The vestigial tale
In our modern click-and-skim world, there's dwindling time and space for the expertly crafted narrative

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.

There's a furious adapt-or-die mentality among media organizations. Researchers say we're becoming a "society of scanners." They say the Internet is a "link medium." We find ourselves abandoning stories in mid-sentence. Newspaper executives have embraced a new format known as "charticles," which are, in the words of the American Journalism Review, "combinations of text, images and graphics that take the place of a full article." The Orlando Sentinel, for example, now has a front page crammed with graphics, columnist head-shots, bulletins, story keys, headlines, bumpers, tags, indexes, an advertisement -- a cartoon! -- and lots of pleas to check the Web site.

There is much confusion about what, precisely, should vanish in this broad media makeover. Is it print? Or just long stories? Or just bad, boring, dishwater-dull stories? Complicating the situation is that the online world is both increasingly dominant and, for many media organizations, stubbornly unprofitable. If you're a media exec, wrap your head around the paradox that print is dead and online news a bust.

The sages say that we've reached a situation where "content creation" no longer pays. Only "aggregation" is profitable. It's a freak variant of Darwinism -- the survival of the parasitic. But obviously there will be little of value to aggregate if only rich people and dilettantes can afford to type up their thoughts.

Facebook is another big challenge for narrative. It's hard to sustain a story on a page designed to put you in contact with your 1,374 close personal friends. Writing on someone's "wall" is often just a step up from spray-painting a railroad overpass.

To a remarkable degree, bloggers aren't storytellers. They are partisans, ranters, linkers. Bloggers give away their entire plot in the first sentence, or perhaps even in their URL (www.i-hate-everyone.com).

Even the TV industry faces a serious story deficit. Those prime-time police and hospital dramas cost a lot of money to make. Not so expensive, however, is Jay Leno walking out and doing a monologue. That's one reason he's moved to 10 p.m., five nights a week. (The most compelling stories on TV are now those crafted by reality-show producers who stitch together a narrative of who's backstabbing whom in pursuit of a prize. It's all in the editing.)

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there's a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: "The great stories will survive. But the question is who's going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it's expensive."

'Thirst for gossip'

Story-loving isn't just culture; it's biology. The human brain has evolved in such a way as to enable the construction and comprehension of narratives.

"We experience our lives in narrative form," says novelist Jonathan Franzen. "If you can't order things in a narrative fashion, your life is a chaotic bowl of mush."

Roughly around the age of 4, psychologists say, the human child develops a "theory of mind." The child suddenly grasps that other people have feelings, thoughts, just like the child's own. From this great mental leap comes a secondary, almost accidental talent: We can get inside the heads of people whom we never actually meet except in stories. This is why fiction works. Who says Huck Finn, Pooh or Harry Potter aren't real? They seem real enough.

Steven Pinker, Harvard's guru of evolutionary psychology, says our interest in stories comes in part from a "thirst for gossip" -- we need insider information about our social world. Narratives give gossip shape and meaning. And stories let us experiment, safely, with novel social arrangements that might otherwise blow up in our face. Think of all the adultery literature. "The Scarlet Letter." "Madame Bovary." "Anna Karenina." Usually someone dies. Don't try this at home.

Pinker on fiction: "Fiction may be, at least in part, a pleasure technology, a co-opting of language and imagery as a virtual reality device which allows a reader to enjoy pleasant hallucinations like exploring interesting territories, conquering enemies, hobnobbing with powerful people and winning attractive mates."

At the risk of picking a fight with a professor, it's not simply the appreciation of fiction that's adaptive. It's the appreciation of any kind of narrative. Kids at bedtime don't specify true or false: They just say "tell me a story."

Stories have certain basic rules.

"There is always a protagonist," Mary Pope Osborne, author of the Magic Tree House books, says of her stories. "The protagonist really wants something. There are obstacles. The protagonist goes through a crisis, most often, and either fails or succeeds."

Another key element of a story: Information unspools. The payoff is delayed.

"You're not just reporting information but you're revealing an unfolding of information," Osborne says.

Kids today have no attention span, we are told -- and then devour all seven of the Harry Potter books multiple times.

Courting eyeballs

Ron Suskind is on the road, in Michigan, reporting his next book, another epic of narrative nonfiction. Suskind figures the biggest challenge is getting a reader's attention at all. A news peg helps. A headline. The crackle of scandal. But there is so much competition for eyeballs.

"It puts inordinate pressure on getting them in the tent," Suskind says. "The hook, the sell, the draw, the scent."

Storytellers will have to be more disciplined or get a new line of work. This is not a crisis, this is progress. Fewer "jello ledes," quote-dumps, the whole notebook disgorged upon the page. Less overwriting by frustrated novelists. Sorry, we don't need to read Proust's version of the zoning hearing.

"There's this inevitable movement toward shorter, tighter, quicker," says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists.

Some long stories have managed to go viral on the Web. A recent example was "The Girl in the Window," a feature by reporter Lane DeGregory and photographer Melissa Lyttle in the St. Pete Times about a 7-year-old feral child. It has received more than a million hits on the Web.

What this means is that the Internet can be, for the very best stories, an accelerant, not a retardant, of great narrative. But mediocre stories need not apply. And even with the best stories, Gary Smith is still correct: It's a drag, usually, to read a long story online. This is why they invented the Print button.

The best feature of print is that it doesn't interrupt you. It doesn't try to link you somewhere else. It doesn't talk back. That's a killer app in and of itself these days. Interactivity is a great virtue sometimes, but there are other times when you want to read a story that doesn't try to heckle you as it squirms in your lap.

And so the Gary Smiths are not out of business yet. Stories won't die, he says.

"People crave stories too much. It's kind of the pipeline to the heart."

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, which continues to run long narratives even while dabbling in supplemental online blogs, tells us, "I can't imagine a world in which the only thing of interest is the brief, the ephemeral, the flickering and the tweeted."

Dave Barry, humorist and best-selling young-adult novelist, says by e-mail: "You can't really read Twitters. I mean, I don't see anybody ever going to the beach with a big old mess of Twitters. Gotta have a plot. The big change from Jane Austen is that now the plot has to have really hot vampires."

And here's Walter Isaacson, the media sage and biographer, whose Rolodex would be a thing of wonder were anyone to still use Rolodexes:

"The good Lord is pretty smart, and He also knows better than most of us how to communicate and get his Word out there. Thus in the Good Book he presents to us, he MAKES IT A NARRATIVE!"

In the beginning . . .

Yeah, that's a narrative all right. Sold like mad.

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