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Ten Spurs 2012

Bill Marvel on the humanity of storytelling


If a Chicago company has its way, what you are holding in your hands someday soon will be produced by an algorithm, a set of calculations driving a computer. Not just the printing on the page, the typography, the layouts. That’s already computers’ work.

But the words, sentences and paragraphs. The stories.

According to Wired magazine, always a hound on the scent of this kind of thing, a company that calls itself — apparently without irony — Narrative Science has already created templates for simple news stories: Local beauty wins pageant, Northsiders take championship, Man bites dog — the kind of stuff editors used to throw at cub reporters.

Ah, but Narrative Science has bigger ambitions. A company spokesman told Wired that with templates generated by “meta-writers,” its algorithms will soon be turning out long-form analytical pieces, explanatory pieces. Even, we can guess, narratives.

The kind of stories you hold in your hands.

Didn’t we see it coming? The whole thrust of journalism — and here and there, some journalism schools – has been away from flesh-and-blood reporting and writing to machines that aggregate and collate and distribute information. Digital devices are pumping this stuff into a zillion cell phones, iPads, websites, blogsites, Twitter and Facebook accounts. How many millions are out there consuming it? Google could probably tell you; Google knows everything.

The journalists who feed this vast enterprise, “content providers” in the brave new language of electronic journalism, are being urged to “brand” themselves, like salty snacks or banking services or political candidates. Name recognition is everything; the actual writing is an afterthought – or no thought at all. 

This is not news we needed to hear, not on top of shrinking newsrooms and shrinking readers’ attention spans.

Even Hollywood is getting worried. A few years ago some former movie execs got together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study whether the traditional beginning-middle–end formula is still the best way to tell stories to a generation raised on texts and tweets. The Center for Future Story Telling, as the project is called, will be a kind of a futurological think-tank, a mini-Media Lab,  “rethinking storytelling for the 21st century.”

The assumption is that old-fashioned 20th-century story telling is no longer enough. Just as writers of the last century lost patience with the languid drift of Victorian travel narratives and the leisurely unfolding of Dickensian plots, so we are being admonished to turn away from…from what?

“Hey, journalists, enough with the fancy leads already!” John Edward Ames yelled at us from the front page of the Christian Science Monitor a few years ago. What Ames, a writer of Westerns and historical fictions  -– a novelist! –- meant was, stop setting scenes, stop fooling around with character and motivation and all that. Stop indulging yourselves as writers.

We hear it even from colleagues. The old pro who mistrusts “color” and the anecdotal lead, who sees every narrative as a dangerous dance atop the wall that divides the craft of fact-gathering from the chaos of fiction—he’s still out there, vigilantly on patrol. And to our mortification, every now and then he catches a James Frey or a David Sedaris trying to sneak across the line. Even in journalism classes you hear the yelp of the exasperated teacher: You can’t do that in a news story. You can’t write from inside people’s heads. You can’t waste readers’ time setting a scene. Just the facts, please.

Those of us who have dedicated our careers to punching a few holes in that wall – opening windows to let in some light and air, we like to think – don’t necessarily disagree with the old pros and the schoolmarms of  J-school. We’re perfectly comfortable sticking to the facts. We writers of literary journalism demand them, in fact. But we believe that anecdotes are facts, and that the real world is made up of such facts, of settings and characters with motivations. Link them together and you have a story. Without the link, the facts are just one damn thing after another.

Only the human imagination can link facts together to make a story. That is where we have the upper hand over the content providers. We often wish there were another term for what we do, something more positive, but we writers of literary or narrative nonfiction, of long-form journalism, (I will use these terms interchangeably) know that people will always prefer stories over mere aggregations of “facts.” 

Way back, as it now seems, in 2003, a study reported in the Newspaper Research Journal found that readers rated narrative stories more informative, more accurate, more believable than “straight,” just-the-facts-please reporting. More recently, according to the latest issue of the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, researchers from Pennsylvania State University gave half of a group of readers news reports on health-care programs for the poor, the elderly and those in prison; the other half of the group read narratives about the real lives of people suffering from the effects of disease and social stigmas. No surprise at all that those who had read the stories were more compassionate than those who read news reports, more eager to do something to help solve the problem.

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So I think we can safely say that the death of long-form nonfiction so glibly and even gleefully predicted is not in the cards. It’s even less than a mistake. It’s a lie. History is still on our side. With technology, if we can figure out how to use it, the times may even be spinning our way.

A year and a half ago The New Republic decided to ditch what one of its editors called “conventional pessimism” over long-form journalism and recommit itself to “old-fashioned” magazine writing. But in a new-fangled way. The magazine’s website began to showcase a series of online long-form “cover stories.” When Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who certainly must know something about where technology is headed, bought the venerable magazine this March, he put his personal seal of approval on the TNR’s strategy with the announcement that more and more of its long-form stories would appear on the web.

This is, if anything, the “golden age” of long-form, says Max Linsky, co-founder of  Longform.org. The website was created in early 2010 to gather new and classic nonfiction articles from diverse sources – Atlantic, Esquire, Slate – and make them available on Kindle-type devices. In March Longform added an app for iPad.

Everybody’s doing it. After a brief experiment that was cut short because of various technicalities, including the problem of finding an appropriate name, the mighty New York Times reportedly has plans to launch a service tweeting its own long-form stories. The New Yorker has been publishing short stories on Twitter. Can non-fiction be far behind?

Websites that regularly run original long-form or gather it from other sources are proliferating almost too fast to bookmark on one’s computer. The oldest might be Gangrey (gangrey.com), dedicated to “prolonging the slow death of newspapers.” Then there’s  The Atavist (atavist.com), publishing nonfiction stories, according to its website, shorter than book-length but longer than the typical magazine piece. The bi-annual online literary magazine The Normal School (thenormalschool.com) features a mix of fiction, poetry, criticism, something called “culinary adventure,” and nonfiction. The online literary journal Narrative Magazine (narrativemagazine.com) proclaims its “dedication to storytelling in the digital age.” Digital publisher Byliner (byliner.com) sells original work in the 5,000- 30,000-word range – “written to be read in a single sitting” - through Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore. And anyone interested in seeking words of wisdom coming out of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference about narrative writing should visit The Mayborn Reading Room on Facebook:  facebook.com/pages/Mayborn-Reading-Room/187933511306850

Nor have traditional ink-on-paper publications abandoned the fight. More and more newspapers are rolling out long-form pieces for readers who are impatient or bored by sound bites, tweets and factoids, however accurately reported. Narrative is finding new homes in dedicated journals such as Creative Nonfiction, and River Teeth, A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative. Meanwhile the series of annual Best American anthologies — Best American Essays, Best American Crime Writing, Best American Sports Writing — rolls ever onward in search of the best nonfiction stories produced in America, including those published in Ten Spurs.  We were thrilled to receive word that Ten Spurs, Vol. 4, was selected a “notable special issue” by Robert Atwan, editor of 2011 Best American Essays.

As Sports Illustrated star storyteller Gary Smith told Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach during a recent interview, “story is the original killer app.”

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Behavioral scientists from fields as diverse as anthropology, psychology, textual criticism and linguistics are deep into stories these days. The field is called “narratology,” and its aims — every bit as ambitious as those of Narrative Science up in Chicago — is to unravel how story structure and meaning help us to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

We storytellers should be flattered. Our craft is as old as the clan stories recited by a tribal griot, old as Homer chanting the tale of Troy, old as the inky copies of Addison and Steele’s Spectator hot off the press in an 18th Century London coffee house. As new as the stories in this journal. As new as whatever they come up with next to enable us to reach our audience, whether in ink on paper or electrons dancing on a screen or just the human voice, mouth-to-ear.

It’s a sign of the vitality of our craft that we are always reaching out, colonizing whatever is new, experimenting and exploring like those sages at MIT’s Center for Future Story Telling. We literary nonfiction types are learning from documentary film-makers and comic strip artists and our literary brothers and sisters over in fiction, just as they’ve long since been learning from us. (One of the masterpieces of 20th Century American fiction, John Dos Passos’ great trilogy of novels U.S.A., is filled with snippets of non-fiction, headlines, quotes and news items, and mini-biographies.)

Ezra Pound called literature news that stays news. How many of those tweets and blogbites are here in a minute, gone in a second. Yesterday’s news. The best stories tell us about lives, where we stand among other human beings, the world, the cosmos. And they do it in a way that sticks with us. A storyteller with nothing new to tell us soon wears out his or her welcome. What we need, writes Adam Gopnik in a recent issue of The New Yorker, are stories that are strange. “Good stories are startling.” They stay news.

Here, the computer doesn’t do so well. You can’t startle a computer. You can’t surprise it, you can’t move it to pity or terror or laughter. Dogs bite men: Given the right template, any computer can write that. But man bites dog does not compute. An algorithm doesn’t get the joke.

A computer cannot know the heartache of growing up with a sister who’s a paranoid schizophrenic. It can’t try to make sense of a family’s tangled heritage from of a couple of snapshots. A young teacher’s first experience with a room full of sixth-graders, the shock of seeing eye-to-eye with the dying bird you’ve just shot, the secret of an uncle’s death in a long-ago war – these are shocks a computer can never experience, much less write about.

For this we will always need flesh-and-blood storytellers. Whether they write, blog, tweet, or communicate by telepathy their continual surprise at what they witness in the world, nothing can replace them. Someday, perhaps sooner than you think, the Ten Spurs you are holding might be digital, a Ten Spurs on disc or on an iPad or on something that hasn’t even been invented yet. There will be faster machines, flashier platforms. The platform — what you hold in your hands — isn’t that important. It’s what you hold in your mind and in your imagination that counts. That comes from a storyteller.

Are you listening, Narrative Science, with your algorithms and your templates? 

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Bill Marvel on the humanity of storytelling
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