Storytelling (1)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem of storytelling, particularly about the way that technology impacts the way that we tell stories. There’s a lot to say about it, but it seems like some throat-clearing is in order.

Over the last few days, a couple of rhetoricians have weighed in on Doris Lessing’s Nobel prize acceptance speech—seemingly without bothering to read it first. This tactic reminds me of the sort of snap judgments that first-year composition students make—they accept the consensus of their peers without question. I suppose it’s one of the hazards of the rapid-fire atmosphere of electronic discourse—it’s easier to twit than to perform any sort of analytic work.

Lessing's speech is also a wonderful example of the classic solitary originary proprietary model of writing, which might provide an interesting contrast to the newly emergent models of distributed collaborative authorship if more close reading were applied. But there isn't space or time for that at this moment; I'll press on with the reactive component, hoping I can return at a later date to the analytic problem.

Dennis Jerz and Clay Spinnuzi are not stupid people. I wouldn’t normally expect this sort of knee-jerk. I remember months ago, rr linked to a video of Lessing being ambushed by journalists when she won the prize. She couldn’t think of anything to say, apparently, and ended up asking the reporters to tell her what to say so that she could repeat it back to them—a tactic first suggested by Andy Warhol in one of his books as I recall. Jerz and Spinuzi didn’t misread the speech as far as I know, they simply parroted back the critique of Techcrunch and Ars Techica—which read Lessing as claiming that the internet makes you dumb or that it was the cause of our fragmented culture. Really? That’s not what I read. Here is the pertinent section, as printed by the Guardian:

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

Computers are invoked initially just as an example of the sort of trade or vocational education that is commonplace now, compared to a classical liberal arts education. To say that students “know nothing of the world” after years of education is a fairly commonplace trope. But in the paragraph that follows, Lessing shows some genuine insight into the problem of technological change:

What has happened to us is an amazing invention - computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: "What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?" In the same way, we never thought to ask, "How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?"

To suggest that the human race never questioned the transformations of print-based literacies is an oversimplification. I could dig out examples from Greek rhetoric where orators worried about what would happen if speeches were written down and delivered as written, without gauging the feedback from a live audience. Or at the turning of the nineteenth century, the complaints and controversies regarding the inanities of those “sickly German tragedies” as Wordsworth described Goethe, and Gothic novels. Or shjfting media, perhaps the dumbing down brought about by rock and roll in the mid-twentieth century would be admissible. Although cultural conservatives, then as now, didn’t exactly “accept” all these things, it seems difficult to argue that society was aware of the lasting impact and effects of those transformations. Media slip past us, envelop us, ust as they addict us—I might easily pass a day listening to popular music, surfing the internet, or reading a trashy novel. I think Lessing’s point is broader than most give her credit for. The impact of such transformations isn't the core of her argument— it's simply an aside painted in a broad stroke across the backdrop of history. The core concern is the future of literature itself.

The model of classical literature as the center for real education has been a persistent one for the last couple hundred years—and it is the passing of this model that Lessing is really mourning, not that the new media are becoming its replacement:

Very recently, anyone even mildly educated would respect learning, education and our great store of literature. Of course we all know that when this happy state was with us, people would pretend to read, would pretend respect for learning. But it is on record that working men and women longed for books, evidenced by the founding of working-men's libraries, institutes, and the colleges of the 18th and 19th centuries. Reading, books, used to be part of a general education. Older people, talking to young ones, must understand just how much of an education reading was, because the young ones know so much less.

To claim that the young know less is more than a little extreme; they simply know different. But there is far more going on in these lines than that. I think the details are worth examining closely: the privileged pretend to read, pretend to respect learning—but it is those that have found learning hard fought that truly appreciate it. This is what the long-form stories that follow in her speech celebrate. Lessing crosses a lot of boundaries regarding media in the course of the speech, never really demarcating lines—except to claim that historically, books are the best teachers.

Becoming a storyteller is hard, particularly when there are few books with which to model oneself against. A hundred-dollar laptop would not perform the same function as intensive reading of a few books; reading is a skill that comes from concentration, not from diversion. Newspapers are not substitutes for libraries. Education should be deeper than that. Storytelling persists, with or without books, with or without opportunities for education—because those who need it most seem to always seek it out.

The conclusion of the speech is incredibly powerful and more deserving of a close read—I will not recite it here. Shame on the privileged writers that pretend to read, but cannot get past their own new-media goggles to consider substance beyond the glib one-liner. A reduction of a reduction is not particularly insightful nor rewarding in most cases, except perhaps when it addresses the reason why such reductions seem to proliferate. Obviously, they must fulfill some sort of need.

The easy answer to that, I suppose, is that it represents a variety of straw-man argument (a thing that no writing teacher should ever let a student get away with) painting technology/new media as an us vs. them struggle. That’s too pat a master narrative for me.

I don’t accept the old vs. new polarization as usefull—we understand and use the new through old eyes, with old hands, and with old souls. Those souls are united through stories, but commonplace story of the triumph of the new is getting pretty old by now. Lessing’s story is more than a little different, but just as common—the triumph of the spirit against the lack of material wealth under the noses of the disinterested bourgeoisie. Technology is nothing more than a bit-player (pun intended) in this play. The real “story” is the triumph of the storyteller against the odds.

What other sort of story would you expect a storyteller to tell, especially at a moment of triumph and recognition? I think the interlude is priceless, and quite telling.


December 12, 2007 9:34 AM


True, I had only scanned Lessing's speech when I blogged about what Nate Anderson published in ArsTechinca, but I though of my entry as a response to ArsTechnica, rather than Lessing. You're right, it was a quick response instead of a studied analysis; such is the nature of blogging.

I am preparing for a course next term that traces the shift from oral to manuscript culture, from manuscript to print, and from print to digital, and I will likely include the Lessing speech on the syllabus. Books are technology, which enable the rise of the novel. As technology continues to change, so, too, will the forms that storytelling takes. In fact, those digital forms are changing so rapidly that our culture doesn't have the luxury of decades to master any of them and produce something that will, like Beowulf or the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, outlast the natural life of the literary genre that gave them birth. And if we don't spend energy preserving the digital texts we are producing, then future scholars won't have any way of tracing developments that we who are working in the trenches haven't yet noticed. That was the spark that made me want to blog that item.

I didn't put all that context in my blog entry, so I can see how it looked like I wasn't giving Lessing a far shake -- or Anderson, either, for that matter.

Jeff Ward said:

Dennis, I empathize with your project. There was a conference in San Francisco earlier in the year about digital preservation with presentations from Bruce Sterling and Stewart Brand, among others, available on video-- but every time I look for it the links have moved or have been destroyed. I find that oddly telling as well.

As I noted, this little rant is part of a larger consideration of storytelling practice in the digital age that I hope to unfold here as I can. Several web events prompted it, and I've been stewing on it for a long time. It was hard not to write this as an attack on shallow short-form response (blogging, twittering, etc).

Inevitably, the biggest impetus for this was a vapid discussion on an unnamed listserve about "the death of the essay." Feh. As long as people feel the need to weigh in on issues, there will be a place for essays. The shape of the container will inevitably change, but the function is an entirely different matter.

Agreed. The essay is useful, important, and necessary. But it's artificial -- the form is consciously constructed to meet a set of needs. As those needs change, and as the tools for creating, distributing, and storing text changes, the forms will develop, too.

I'm rereading some of Peter Elbow's writings on the necessary immediacy and ephemerality of some forms of writing -- he was thinking of freewriting, but much of what he says applies to blogs, too. Sometimes the rough or inadequate expression of an idea is an invitation to dialog. I certainly think of my blog that way.

But I continue to teach the essay, and to assign academic monographs, and to expect my students to develop the ability to write sustained linear arguments, even though the subject of their inquiry is likely to be cyberculture, and even though the methods they use to get to the final paper are likely to be far more collaborative and iterative than the methods that you and I developed as undergrads.

I'm glad my thoughts helped provide you with an excuse to articulate something that was on your mind.