Earlier this year, writer Steve Almond offered rich commentary in The New York Times Magazine about the state of fiction (and other writing). His piece sparked conversations with writer friends and I’ve been distilling both his thoughts and those they’ve stirred in others.
A writer and former college writing teacher, Almond observes that much of current writing lacks an effective narrator – if it has a narrator at all. Why would it even need one?
In the cultural shifts of the last decades that turned many of us into viewers rather than readers, “we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us”, he says.
Narrators serve the role of portraying big things, conceptually: how individual fates collide with history. More than just awakening readers’ sympathies, they help enlarge their moral imagination as “they offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it”, he says. The perspective that narration offers helps us make meaning of a story, and of our lives, and also find a sense of place for ourselves in the scheme of things. Without them, so much writing today, often more cinematic than literature, can feel free-floating and disconnected, like many lives today.
In times whose only constant seems to be constant change, we need narrative more than ever, even as it’s fast disappearing. In times when publishing gets downright pedantic that writers “show, don’t tell”, a well-developed narrative and its vital contribution to a story, like nutrition in a diet, becomes endangered through ignorance and oversight. Narrative is as essential in human life as purpose. It’s the one thing that, when time is shrinking, spinning, rushing past us with ever-increasing speed, points faithfully to what is timeless. We don’t need it to spoon-feed us, naturally. But we do need its signposts.
Almond notes that media has created increasingly passive audiences, able to absorb and react, not to imagine. That’s a pretty low (survival-based) level of human experience. And, accordingly, the focus of a lot of current writing is on the instinctual aspects of human beings – survival or perpetuation of the species (chase scenes and preoccupation with the sexual, often voyeuristically so).
Curiously, author Nathan Rutstein, predicted this more than 25 years ago. He had worked in television and other media and authored many books when he made the observation that human society was increasingly losing sight (literally, as if not seeing it) of the higher possibilities and qualities in human potential as it grew more fascinated with and gripped by materialism, both in media and in the rest of what was called culture.
Almond’s article describes the approach of most media as that of “minimizing sustained attention”, which results in a flitting, easily distracted behavior that doesn’t ever engage with any depth – becomes incapable of doing so, perhaps. That’s almost the exact opposite of what a novel (or painting or play) was designed to require and invite. Or a spiritual, contemplated life.
Reading, unlike scanning and surfing, requires involvement and commitment, both from writer and reader. The narrator, and a story’s narration, is what facilitates this, helps create a book’s world, then lends it meaning. Many books now feel as much like packaged entertainment as most commercial television, and as unsatisfying and lacking in nourishment for our inner life. Much in publishing seems to train attention on mechanics, a shock-value, attention-getting and contrived writing style, and manipulative repetition of “tropes” and cookie-cutter approach to more of the same. So much more of the same. Preoccupation with the lower nature, particularly if a series might be wrested from it. In order to have more of the same. Where is the room for discovery, depth, mystery? Soul?
Almond describes how although some current works reach for these, “still work heroically to make sense of the world”, they find themselves “on the margins of a popular culture dominated by glittering fantasies of violence and fame. On a grand scale, we’ve traded perspective for immediacy, depth for speed, emotion for sensation, the panoramic vision of a narrator for a series of bright beckoning keyholes,” he says.
We’ve bartered away the riches of our indwelling higher nature, what brings meaning and depth to life, for the indulgence and absorption of our instinctual one. In a way, that is the only aspect of human being that seems to get the attention and focus now, perhaps with a thin veneer of the intellectual applied over it, or emotion that’s dealt with mainly in sentimentality, hyper-dramatization or other superficiality.
Narrative, and the meaning it serves, can restore the breadth and depth of human experience and bring it back home whole. Ennobled. True expression, in any form, and always, in its highest one, is incomplete without it.
Find Steve Almond’s excellent article at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/magazine/once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-person-who-said-once-upon-a-time.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
(Apologies if the link now requires cutting and pasting into a browser, but worth the effort.)