NARRATIVE AFTER NATURE
To the extent that the world is made up of narrative discourse these days, it seems to have two fundamental ingredients or axes: plausibility and syntax. I write, “To the extent..,” because I am unsure how great the influence of narrative on current existence really is—or, for that matter, where narrative is. But to the extent that narrative is still with us, it seems to manifest itself via plausibility, a quality, and syntax, a quantity. In other words, narrative has to have some persuasive valence and it has to put things in an order; these are the minimums. We are also apparently living in a time that flatters and elevates the minimum, a curious aesthetic point in itself.
Take, for example, the news, a narrative form. It has lately taken one of the more dramatic turns in our newest era of turns, implosions, inflations, and drops. And we could talk, in particular, about a turn, in style and tone, of one of the most read organs of narrative discourse in the English language, the New York Times. Uncertain mental paging backward suggests one signpost of the shift to a buoyant new reportorial voice and enthusiasm for visual media, i.e., video, occurred in mid-2016. In May of last year the Times’s Executive Editor Dean Baquet delivered a memo outlining a coming transformation of the time-honored publication of record, long the haven of “All the News…,” etc. No more would the Gray Lady focus myopically on incremental, event-based coverage; up-to-the-minute announcements, Baquet noted, are available all over the Web. Rather, the Times would focus on “authoritative journalism and information readers can use to navigate their lives.” Stories would “relax in tone.” Editors and reporters would develop pleasing new “story forms” attuned to the continually changing ways in which readers consume information and, I guess, live. Baquet’s memo of May 2016 is of a piece with March 2014’s Innovation Report, a document that begins with the Sheenian—and now, I suppose, Trumpian—assertion that, “The New York Times is winning at journalism.” This report admitted the newspaper’s urgent need to seduce new readers, along with an ambition to become more “nimble” and fluent in the ways of the digital age. More recently, in January of this year, the 2020 Report appeared. Things look a bit more sanguine (particularly following the so-called “Trump-bump” of increased subscriptions during the harrowing miasma of post-election days and the interregnum). Baquet’s May 2016 memo on the ubiquity of free up-to-the-minute information is expanded, in the 2020 Report, into a thesis about why certain sorts of journalism are less read, “The most poorly read stories, it turns out, are often the most ‘dutiful’—incremental pieces, typically with minimal added context, without visuals and largely undifferentiated from the competition. They frequently do not clear the bar of journalism worth paying for, because similar versions are available free elsewhere.” The Times must now dedicate itself to “All the News That’s Worth Paying For,” if it is to survive.
To return to my original contention, the Times now deals in plausibility, not fact. And it arranges this plausibility, employing a fun, multimedia syntax. These two gestures suffice, at a minimum, to give it a new narrative style. All this is particularly keenly clear to me because, from time to time, I read microfilm versions of the Times of yore in the basement of NYU’s Bobst Library. I awkwardly manipulate the little film reels and the required viewer for research purposes (this isn’t a case of nostalgia!). Though I do not doubt a single one of the eminently reasonable rationales for change supplied in either one of the Times reports or the memo above, I’ve lately been struck, as I scroll through old articles, zooming in and out, by the loss of the former fibrous, drab, newsy tone. On my way home from the library, I’ll take a look at the current paper, or, rather, update. My daily New York Times “Evening Briefing” appears in my inbox, concluding with a cheery image of some squad of adorable animals or a salute to a counterintuitive and amusing statistic. A sea lion has been rescued in a fuzzy sling! Losing your house keys is, paradoxically, healthful! In spite of myself, I often tremble as I come to the end of the briefing email. I know I’m being courted, entertained, if not pulled back from some imagined psychological brink. In someone’s eyes, I may be a bad reader. I may be distracted. I may not know what’s going on. And at this moment, as I am reading and recognizing a general plausibility overtaking fact, I often miss that former carelessness and professionalism, the hardboiled voice of the mean, old, strict, and somehow trusting paper, the one that talked about “unabashedly savvy real estate” and people who were “stalking a job” (this was the early 2000s, when the table was being set for another implosion), and so on.
If we are readers of realist novels, struggling with the gooey concept of the merely plausible, we might take a long view. We might indulge in some soft epochal categories. We might say that if the West’s 19th century was The Century of the Clerk, and the 20th century The Century of the Teenager, it has already begun to appear, if always prematurely, that the 21st century is The Century of the Troll. Each of the aforementioned figures has its own peculiar relationship to the act of narration. And another obvious tendency allies them: Each labors to reproduce culture. Bartleby, Bob Cratchit, and Bouvard and Pécuchet either did something repetitive or nothing at all; cinema and novels from The Magic Mountain to Lolita, from Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar to Infinite Jest, addressed themselves to individuals on the verge, exploited, ridden with angst, destined to embody whatever culture was, just before they became irrelevant adults; online expressions are relentlessly dissected, distorted, redistributed, but are there any good novels about this yet? Or is it that everything now is about this, including elections? We know well the clerk’s superannuated affect, either nonexistent or mystifyingly attuned to minutia. The teenager longs, weeps, rages, and ironizes, as the curtain of the most American of centuries falls on a pharmacologically managed excess of anxiety and deficit of attention. And now we seem to wonder if we should bother awakening into the next hundred years (who, anyway, is in charge of narrating it?).
The troll, broadly defined, is not a critic or satirist, so much as a weird method actor. The troll has traditionally participated by defining participation itself in an ambiguous if not absolutely negative light. The troll establishes the terms of others’ commitment to truth (which is to say, to any idealized and apparently unmediated entity) and reflects these back as image and/or text, and incessantly. But the troll’s either antisocial or paradoxically altruistic (or, both) interventions have already been extensively analyzed by individuals more qualified than I, and I would merely like to draw from this somewhat hastily defined category a general sense of why the plausible is so important—and how we can possibly give this category a more active, if not positive, valence.
Looking into a series of fragments I’ve jotted down in a notebook, I come across the following vague question, “Given the variety of temporalities that exist, solutions?” I’ve also written a phrase, “Lack of a preexisting commons.” And another strange question, “Does what we cannot forget take the form of an event?” In my own thinking around narrative, I’m familiar with discontinuity. It’s taken me years to learn to write a legible paragraph, and I still approach prose with trepidation, as it’s a highly artificial undertaking for me. (The way I think feels nothing like what I am doing here.) All the same, I am interested in the aspects of narrative that occur at the intersection of technique and reflection, and in prose, though of course not all narration occurs in prose.
Plausibility probably seems, at face value, like an extremely, even depressingly, insignificant quality of narrative. Indeed, it is. But plausibility, as a mere or minor way of addressing what is the case, of reducing the copula from hard-and-fast equivalency to a dotted line, offers us something by way of method that should not be ignored. Much as the troll proceeds from categories in which truth and the sublime are not merely under erasure but the tortured disillusionment leading to said erasure itself constitutes a risible piety, those who manipulate the plausible begin from an analogous point of liberty—a liberty that may also double as disaffection, alienation, boredom, despair. Yet those who play upon plausibility rather than actuality rescue contemplation from foolhardy ideals as well as from paranoid excoriation and embarrassingly principled condemnation. Or, rather, in the weird light of the subjunctive, such writers might, under the right conditions, permit contemplation to occur. (Plausibility need not, for example, be a species of pandering….)
I am not really much on optimism these days, but I did want to say something about why I think it’s particularly worth paying attention to weirder forms of narrative prose right now. I interviewed the writer Dodie Bellamy over the summer, and she said something to me that stuck. She said that there are reasons not to throw out narrative, and I’ve been thinking about this. I’ve thought about this in relation to Renee Gladman’s great new book of short prose, Calamities, in which refrain, repetition, and digression are treated as significant narrative forms—or, they become narrative forms, at least in the sense in which I find myself coming to understand narrative. Narrative does not have to be about moving things forward. It can be about going farther into what one has wanted a word or a sentence to be able to do, describing that wish. One could narrate writing itself, though of course the act of writing has a tendency to become a bit different from what is being talked about. Gladman opens each of her short “essays” (her term) with the incipit, “I began the day….” From here, a variety of things can occur; we might learn about a language game some academics are desultorily running their hands over, or we might hear about the effects of recent reading on the present, about the proximity of old loves. Plausibility is a gentle mist that squires us around. Someone is talking in these essays. Or, rather, someone is writing. I struggle here to express to you the elegance of the thought that is presented in Calamities. I think of the staircase, that fantastic human invention. I guess I would like to ask you to think of a staircase that has some sunlight on it. There is no anxiety in this writing about conviction. A step is offered; you go down. Syntax rises to the occasion, as style.
Perhaps it doesn’t make sense that I see the lightness of such plausibility and gracefully proffered syntax as becoming realer than the labored references of realist prose, but maybe you will understand what I mean. There is something that I want narrative to do now, which is, simply, to believe that I am here and will read, that my presence as a reader is a plausible one. The writer and artist Madeline Gins, for one, often worked with a fantastic sense of obviousness in this vein, so clear and energetic. In her first book of prose, of 1969, WORD RAIN or A Discursive Introduction to the Philosophical Investigation of G,R,E,T,A, G,A,R,B,O, It Says), Gins writes, “I give you this book for a present. It comes with a room, light, a country, sky and weather. I will arrange for you to be made aware of these in detail. You may look at everything. You will see only what I see. Look at this sentence.” This will never happen, but I might like it very much if tomorrow’s “Evening Briefing” concluded with this such a series of sentence-based announcements. And if the New York Times began exploring this sort of story form.
Date: April 6, 2017
Publisher: The Poetry Foundation