Thursday, November 27, 2008

Why stories will never die

Storytelling is under assault in schools, universities and from the Internet, but the power of narrative shows no sign of waning

Vancouver Sun: 2008 November 27
Ian Lindsay

"Tell me a story." It’s a plea that echoes through the ages; not only the ages of human civilization, but the ages of man.

While the Internet is good at providing some types of information, books are still much better for storytelling.

As a child, tucked up and ready for bed. As an adult, settling deep into a popcorn- scented cinema seat as the house lights go down. In old age, becalmed, combing your memories. Telling stories is as old a game as language itself.

So it’s odd — not to say alarming — to read reports that some people seem to think we’re on the verge of running out of narrative. A group of academics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in cahoots with some Hollywood moguls, have announced the opening of a “ Center for Future Storytelling.”

“The idea as we move forward with 21st- century storytelling is to try to keep meaning alive,” explains its founder, David Kirkpatrick.

Baffling. Are they hoping — like Sarah Palin prospecting for oil in Alaska — to find fresh reserves, another two basic plots, maybe? Or are they proposing a more efficient use of our existing narrative resources — a prohibition on excessive use of plot twists, or an annual allocation of tradable deus ex machina credits to the larger Hollywood studios?

Their announcement does not tell us, offering instead a feast of bilge about “ next- generation synthetic performer technologies.” But there we are. The Center for Future Storytelling is a sign of the times.

The notion that the narrative arts are under threat from information overload, shrinking attention spans, text messaging, social networking sites and slam-bam CGI blockbusters is one widely given voice. What’s so odd is that the remedies proposed, as often as not, seem to involve a massive increase in just such things.

The eggheads at MIT have, in this respect, more than just a prose style in common with the governing body at Meadows Community School in Chesterfield. The closure of the library at this 759- strong comprehensive in central England is being explained as “a move towards the relocation and redistribution of nonfiction and fiction resources in the light of the new developments in a virtual- learning environment and interactive learning.”

Every clause is doubled- up into redundancy in the hope of sounding grand. How does “relocation” differ from “redistribution” — and don’t they add up to “ relocating from the library to the skip”? What are “nonfiction and fiction resources” — other than a fancy way of saying “all the books we have”? How does “a virtual learning environment” differ from “interactive learning” (what learning isn’t “interactive,” come to that) — and is it just clever- sounding verbiage for the Internet?

The thing is, the Internet does some things very well, and the codex book does other things very well. There is an overlap — they are both means of preserving and sharing information — but it’s foolish to see the two as interchangeable, or the former as supplanting the latter.

One of the cliches about education is that it should teach you not what to think, but how to think; and a vital part of that is understanding the shape of knowledge — being able to evaluate categories of information and degrees of authority in sources. If the educators themselves can’t or won’t think about these distinctions, God help their pupils.

The examples aren’t too hard to come by. The Internet does academic apparatus, at least potentially, better than books ever could. Concordances can be compiled in seconds, rather than in lifetimes. The work of footnotes — embedding explanatory material or further reading — and bibliographies is done wonderfully well by hypertext links: Entire fields of further reading open up at the click of a mouse. It does reference, in some cases, at least as well as a book. The online Oxford English Dictionary is a glory; the book version is unwieldy and comparatively expensive. The Dictionary of National Biography online, by now, should have fewer mistakes than the book version — and the ease of searching and cross- reference it offers is unarguably superior.

Some of the weaknesses of the online world have to do with authority. Many of the most popular online resources, like Wikipedia, are collaborative, and therefore tremendously useful but vulnerable to the bad faith of malicious users, or “trolls.” Even those resources that are more monolithic are vulnerable to hackers. And all is not, on the Web, what it seems.

These dangers can be exaggerated — one much-cited ( and much-debated) study found Wikipedia’s accuracy compared favourably with that of the Encyclopedia Britannica — but on the Internet the good stuff is often drowned out by the garbage. The printed word may preserve errors longer (the DNB can correct errors in its online edition instantly), but because the bar to entry is higher, it is less likely to make them in the first place. Books — the right books — are slower but more often trustworthy than a Google search.

Leave that aside, though, to consider an area in which authority is less — or at least, differently — important: storytelling. Prose narrative is one of the things that the book still does much, much better than any computer or the sluggish and buggy electronic readers available.

Reading a full-length novel on a screen is next to impossible. Your back aches. You mouth parches. Your eyes fall out. For portability, browsability and ease of annotation the book is the best form of technology we have, and has been since its invention.

That alone explains why it is a mistake to abolish a school library (with its librarian; a professional guide to the shape of knowledge) in favour of the “ virtual learning environment.” Writing to the headmistress of the Meadows in protest, the author Philip Pullman protested against what he saw as a decision to “relegate the whole activity of reading fiction to the status of a trivial and innocuous activity, like stamp collecting or playing with a Frisbee.”

I’m in agreement with him: Reading fiction is not a trivial activity. Not only does narrative pleasure sugar the pill of learning in all sorts of areas, it is a good in and of itself.

The old theory that there are only a handful of basic plots in all literature points to something. Storytelling is underpinned by myth. The characters in Beowulf, and in Henry James, and in Joel Schumacher’s latest slam- bang movie extravaganza, all participate, with more or less elaborate variations, in archetype.

One of the first people to look into this systematically was a Russian folklorist called Vladimir Propp, whose book The Morphology of the Folk Tale sought to distill a sort of universal genome of myth. He got pretty far with it.

You don’t have to be a crazed Jungian, a structural anthropologist, or a seven- basic- plots believer to agree that storytelling is something of universal importance in human experience, and something that exhibits deep and suggestive similarities across cultures.

Myths, it has been said, are “good to think with.” Storytelling is a way of trying out situations imaginatively, of preserving knowledge and social value, of attesting to a commonality of experience. Stories are central to how we think about the world, from the individual to the wide sweep of history.

The ability to put yourself in another’s shoes is the foundation- stone of all morality. And what is that but an imaginative process? Where do we learn it but in stories? “In dreams begins responsibility,” said W. B. Yeats. He wasn’t kidding. It’s no accident that the great boast made about the Bible is not that it tells you how to behave, but that it is “the greatest story ever told.” It has a beginning — an “in the beginning,” in fact — a middle and an end.

We may well run out of oil. We are in no danger whatever of running out of narrative.

Changing technologies have affected the means by which stories are told. You can follow the story of a person’s life pointillistically through a Twitter feed or voyeuristically through a webcam. You can read a self-contained novel; one with an alternate ending, or a choose-your own adventure book.

But when you strip off all the bells and whistles, these stories will be in all the important essences no different from those of the Bible or Homer.