The Evisceration of Storytelling

By Sujatha Fernandes, Professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney. She was previously a Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York and is the author of Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, published by Oxford University Press.. Originally published at OUP Blog

In his seminal essay “The Storyteller,” published in 1936, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin decried the loss of the craft of oral storytelling marked by the advent of the short story and the novel. Modern society, he lamented, had abbreviated storytelling.

Fast forward to the era of Facebook, where the story has become an easily digestible soundbite on your news feed or timeline. The popular stories on social media are those that are accessible. Complexity is eschewed in an effort to create warm and relatable portraits of others who are just like us. If modern society abbreviated storytelling, the digital era has eviscerated it.

In recent times, carefully crafted narratives with predetermined storylines have been used in philanthropy, diplomacy, and advocacy. From the phenomenon of TED talks and Humans of New York, to a plethora of story-coaching agencies and strategists, contemporary life is saturated with curated stories. “Tell your story!” has become an inspirational mantra of the self-help industry.

Narrative research centers have emerged to look at the benefits of storytelling in areas from treating depression to helping new immigrants build community. An avalanche of books on the topic like Jonathan Gottschall’s “The Storytelling Animal” and Jonah Sachs’ “Winning the Story Wars” present storytelling as an innate human impulse that can help us to navigate life’s problems and change the world for the better.

But are stories really the magical elixir we imagine them to be?

Not in the curated form of storytelling that has come to reign. Curated stories omit the broader context that shapes the life of the storyteller. This was the case with the heartrending stories of abuse told by migrant domestic workers in New York to legislators in Albany as they campaigned for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in 2010. At one legal hearing, a Filipina worker related how her employers accused her of stealing a box of $2 Niagra cornstarch. Another spoke about how her male employer frequently exposed himself to his staff. And one West Indian domestic worker recounted that her employer violently beat her and called her the n-word.

But these stories—limited in duration and subject to protocols—could not say why migrant women were so vulnerable and undervalued, and why they were forced to migrate for work. Instead, workers could speak only to the technical conditions of their employment. As a result, the stories encouraged the idea that the abuses were the result of a few bad employers who could be reined in by legislation, rather than a vastly unregulated global industry.

The Italian narrative theorist Alessandro Portelli says that when we tell stories, we switch strategically between the modes of the personal, the political, and the collective. The contemporary boom of curated storytelling has involved a shift in emphasis away from collective and political modes of narration toward the personal mode. An online women’s creative writing project features personal stories written by women in Afghanistan.

In one piece, Leeda tells the story of fifteen-year old Fershta. The girl is given by her father in marriage to a violent man who beats her and kills her seven year old brother. Leeda concludes that it is the father’s bad behavior that has led to this horrific situation. Other stories blame Afghan mothers for allowing violence to be perpetuated. Because the stories don’t often address the social or political backdrop of war and poverty, we have little means to understand the desperation that might lead a father to pull his daughters out from school and marry them off. As readers, we are helpless voyeurs without an avenue for effective action.

It has become increasingly common for stories to be harnessed for utilitarian goals – like a legislative victory or registering people to vote. For instance, during Barack Obama’s electoral campaigns, volunteers were trained to tell two-minute stories that they deployed when canvassing voters. While legislative campaigns and voter recruitment may be worthy goals, they require that stories be whittled down to a dull and formulaic soundbite that can be delivered in a legal hearing or a recruitment drive.

Immigrant families who visited the offices of senators to tell their stories and ask for the passage of Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) in 2010 seemed to be weary of reciting their stories all day long. And it’s not even clear that this strategy works. While activists mobilized to tell stories and extract promises for a bill that would never pass, legislators were busy passing anti-immigrant bills like SB 1070.

One response to this capture of storytelling has been refusal. Some prefer to remain silent rather than give in to the logic of the soundbite, to the reduction of their selves to a blurb that can fit within the lines of a grant application or legal protocol.

Others go off script. They employ their artistic skills to render their stories in all their depth and complexity. One group of domestic workers from the New York-based South Asian organization Andolan said that they did not want to speak any longer about simple narratives of exploitation and victimhood. They said that publicly telling stories of abuse can backfire for workers, who may have a harder time finding work. They preferred to go “off message” to talk about their families or the Liberation War in Bangladesh. These workers want to tell stories about the complicated nature of transnational lives.

Curated storytelling has extended deep into contemporary social life and political and cultural institutions. Curated stories package diverse histories and experiences into easily digestible soundbites and singular narratives of individual victims. The impact has been to deflect our attention from structurally defined axes of oppression and to defuse the oppositional politics of social movements. Perhaps, in response, we should heed Benjamin’s call for more deeply contextualized and complex storytelling—the slow piling up of thin, transparent layers, one on top of the other—that is so much needed in today’s world.

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  1. James Miller

    Some thoughts:
    Storytellers have no choice but to delve into the nature of their intended audience, and modulate their tone, their story length, even their vocabulary to fit that reality, if they want to catch the attention of their audience. Sometimes a bitter choice.
    Sometimes a multi-layered, nuanced story is the wrong choice in capturing the ear or eye.
    One could also make a case that the best story is the shortest that will accomplish the intended purpose. My university professor in creative writing used to have a rubber stamp that read simply, “ROT”, which he wielded with savage glee. He was usually right.
    A great deal of the context that makes a story live is implied, unstated, and is often the most powerful part of a story.
    That said, curated (I’d call it “commodified”) storytelling is a deeply political economic strategy that cannot be separated from a culture in which everything must be turned into a product, and marketed within the rigid framework of neoliberal capitalism. Sigh.

    1. Carla

      “Commodified” is an excellent word for this, even if spell-check doesn’t recognize it — thank you!

    2. Carolinian

      An old English prof said that stories could be boiled down to as little as two sentences–i.e. “The queen died. The king died of grief.” We fill in the blanks with our own knowledge of death, grief. Which is to say stories are an abstraction of reality based in part on our own experience and shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally. In the realm of politics they could be viewed as a form of propaganda just like poster art. Movies too serve this purpose and in the heyday of 20th cent propaganda Goebbels took a keen interest in cinema. Here in modern day America we get the propaganda blast in all its forms. They even have a name for one form of it: advertising.

      Perhaps the art form has been eviscerated in our own short attention span era but arguably even the sophisticated stories of the past had a certain propaganda aspect to them. Jane Austen wrote witty books about Regency England without delving into how the gentle folk came by those “incomes” they were always worrying about. Getting down into the weeds of your subject can be messy and not all that entertaining.

    3. lyman alpha blob

      Regarding your last sentence, it was when I was unemployed a few years ago and forced to sit through inane ‘training’ sessions as a condition of receiving a check that I learned about the 30 second ‘elevator pitch’ which is supposedly all the rage. If you can just tell the right story within the time limit of a TV commercial, the CEO on the elevator with you will be sure to hire you!

      Since I couldn’t just walk out, needless to say I had a few words for the woman who was feeding us this BS.

    4. Jim Haygood

      My university professor in creative writing used to have a rubber stamp that read simply, “ROT”

      Admirably concise. In former days I wielded two rubber stamps — BULLSH*T and UNACCEPTABLE — which disposed of 90 percent of the memos littering my inbox.

      Got red ink pads?

    5. Jeremy Grimm

      This post left a funny taste after chewing on it a little. I have trouble making sense of the quote from Walter Benjamin: “loss of the craft of oral storytelling marked by the advent of the short story and the novel,” and “abbreviated storytelling” followed by an assertion that the digital era “eviscerated” storytelling. What dynamic drives these changes the post asserts? Is it “just so”?

      I have trouble with the notion that the what the post calls “the curated form of storytelling” is storytelling at all. Some “curated storytelling” is little more than a carefully crafted composition of self-serving lies. In yet more carefully crafted form “curated storytelling” is just one of many forms of propaganda. Government propaganda, the propaganda called advertising, and now the propaganda created to sell the commodified self should not not be confused with storytelling. That diminishes the qualities of both storytelling and propaganda. I believe the commercial storytelling of paperbacks, movie screenplays, and television scripts is a peculiar hybrid form with deliberate aspects of propaganda and storytelling.

  2. Expat

    Humans appear to be hard-wired to process information in story form. We cannot remember a jumbled st of facts, but recall simple stories quite easily.

    There are two major problems with this. First, we create new facts which fit the story and better suit our beliefs. So, if you are a racist Trump supporter and hear a story about someone who visited Europe and was robbed in the street, the story morphs into an assault by a gang of Muslim immigrants.

    Second, we invent stories to fit the facts. History is a story we have invented to create a seemingly logical narrative that explains why things happened. But we have living history today and no one knows what will happen tomorrow let alone in a year. The inevitability of history as we learn it is really just a back-fit to make things make sense and to conform to our prejudices and beliefs. WWI is an example. We learn that it was the assassination of the Arch-Duke that set it in motion. As if Europe was not already willing. In fact, at the time, no one really gave a rat’s ass about him (check the list of attendees at his funeral). Financial markets at the time up to the first shots indicate that few believed the war would happen. And certainly no one saw that it would be the carnage it was.

    Story telling is wonderful. It is a great tool for learning. Unfortunately, we tend to live in story land, not reality.

    1. anon48

      “…First, we create new facts which fit the story and better suit our beliefs.”

      OK makes sense

      “So, if you are a racist Trump supporter…”

      Perfect example

      1. ambrit

        Yes. I’ve met a lot of non-racist Trump supporters. Also, do not fall into the trap on conflating the group of Trump supporters with those that merely disliked Hillary more.

      2. Expat

        Yes, exactly. My use of this phrase makes my story all the more compelling. Had I said, “So if you are a Trump supporter, and therefore a racist,…” that would have been offensive. Certainly you are not implying that there are not racist Trump supporters, are you? They seem to define the media presence and epitomize the braying crowds at his rallies. I am perfectly aware that plenty of non-racists support Trump, but you might not know that if you don’t live in America.

        1. anon48

          “Yes, exactly. My use of this phrase makes my story all the more compelling.”

          Oh yeah, right.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Lots of stories just aren’t listened to or even reported. Take a look at the shock of so many people when Trump was elected President back in 2016. Flyover America had been ignored for decades and nobody wanted to hear their stories. Certainly the main stream media were never interested and never cared in telling their stories. And then the electoral map of America became an ocean of red as these people made their voices heard.
    It became insulting that after the election they started to go to these areas but it was done in the way like it was an anthropological expedition. I mention all this as nothing has change in the two years since then. Did the main stream media report on what was happening in places like the Bronx? Nope, which is why the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blind-sided them. How could the New York Times be so tone-deaf to what was happening to the people in their own city? Joy Reid tweeted that pretty much all of political journalism was taking a crash course on Ocasio-Cortez. Huh?
    This article talks about revitalizing storytelling but it has to be developed in tandem with a way to get these stories out to be told. Otherwise there is no point formulating deeply contextualized and complex storytelling if nobody is going to be listening that can listen to and make use of these stories.

  4. David

    I read this article when it first appeared and I thought it was a bit confused because it was trying to cover too much ground in too short a space.
    Human life is complicated, time available for recounting what happened is limited, and we tend to believe accounts, not because they correspond to reality or can be proved, but because they correspond to an easily-understood stereotype. Indeed, as time goes by people adjust their own recollections to conform to stereotypes, or to what they have read, or what other people have said. There was a famous study in which English people who had been through the Blitz and kept diaries were asked to recall their experiences a generation later, and actually recalled them differently, because in the meantime historian and the media had constructed a simplified narrative which they had unconsciously accepted.
    Of course “structurally defined axes of oppressions” are just as much stories as anything else, and are subject to the same caveats. Indeed, one of the problems of our time is the attempt by outsiders, journalists, NGOists, academics like the author, to impose on incoherent events a structure which they understand and which they feel comfortable with, irrespective of the reality on the ground. There have been lots of cases, ever since the fighting in Bosnia from 1992-5 when the variety of lived experience of the people was very different from the stereotypes peddled in the media.

  5. notabanker

    My son is in uni. He’s excited about one of his classes where the head of HR of a global corp is going to speak to them. Most of his presentation and talk is about being Chief Storyteller. At first, son is confused. What does this have to do with business? After digesting this, he says to me, “It sounds like bullshit to get people to do what you want them to do.”

    As Mrs notabanker likes to say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      It’s a consulting fad that has unfortunately arrived at my company too.

      Company ‘Values’ (usually boiled down to empty motherhood bullet points or vague words like INTEGRITY) are supposed to be conveyed to new employees during onboarding or C-level TED talks in the form of telling anecdotes or “stories”.

      It all comes across about as sincere and compelling as your LinkedIn feed. Empty virtue signalling by any other name would smell as sweet…

      1. ambrit

        What is so funny, sick funny that is, is how much time and effort goes into these ‘fads.’
        I have personally had that “Ah ha!” moment where, in ‘talks’ to a workplace superior, I have suddenly realized that the ‘superior’ is following a pre-scripted ‘story arc.’ The workplace has become one giant ‘Bed of Procrustes.’
        For said bed:

      2. marku52

        Stories used to have real value, not empty sloganeering. When I was at HP (in the last good years before Carly) the story used to be told of one of the founders who came to the plant on a saturday and found that lab stock was locked up. He went and got a bolt cutter and cut the lock off.

        Lesson: We appreciate off hours inventing more than keeping track of lab supplies.

        Then, in the Bad Carly years, they took away office supplies room and made us “requisition” them.

        Lesson: We don’t trust you with pencils.

        Another lesson–When your company starts getting wound up about office supplies, your company is in big trouble.

    1. JEHR

      diptherio, I loved your fable. Instead of the Author’s Note, I would have liked to have read the answer to the question “What now?” in the same fable form. I made up my mind about what the “crumbs” were until they weren’t anymore: obviously, the crumbs were capital. You do have a nice way with telling fables.

    2. ckimball

      I like your fable. I believe it comes from a truth you have gleaned from your personal experience.
      Because of this you describe the condition with crystal clarity. The complexities are implied between the lines of the metaphor so the space for personal recognition by others meeting the condition you describe is potent. It is authentic, not to be duplicated by a design process which puts the cart before the horse by having a goal and creating a story to implement it. The result
      is value for the writer and the reader.

    3. ambrit

      Nice work. Well presented and ‘accessible.’ (Boy, do I wish that I had a better word to deploy than that one.)
      A book of “Modern Fables” aimed at children would be a good way to disseminate the values useful to building a ‘better’ society. I fear that todays versions of ‘fables’ such as television shows for children and cartoons do just the opposite. A modern day “Grimms Fairy Tales” full of instructions for children about avoiding the evils the adults around them are practicing is more like what we’ll get. Was it ever so?
      The stories that we read to our children at bedtime, and other venues, (the Family Bible Study time as practiced by religious fundamentalists is one such ‘targeted’ version of that process,) mould their growing minds.
      Looking back on how Phyl and I read to and taught our children from this later vantage point shows that our choice of stories, indeed our control of what we let them watch on television and video, defined our own world views. We were trying to ‘imprint’ our children. Expand that to the kaleidoscope of sounds and images with which we all are bombarded now, and you get an idea of how insidious and controlling the public marketplace (agora) is.
      Do your friends in Nepal still have public storytellers?

    4. ambrit

      The Skynet Monster is very hungry this morning!
      I like your fable. Now to get it into the minds of children.

    5. Chauncey Gardiner

      Your story resonated with me and is very powerful, dip. Metaphor for a system from a criminological perspective, and the ideology of ruthless power that defines the law and what is or is not criminal behavior. Caused me to reconsider policies and behaviors from another perspective ranging from control of the monetary and financial system to transnational corporate crimes against our environment to a war-based economy.

  6. Randy Olson

    This valid (though mournful) article mentions the word “problem” once, and doesn’t mention “solution” at all. And yet the basic problem/solution dynamic is at the heart of just about all meaningful communication by humans — especially stories.

    Jonathan Gotschall’s book, “Storytelling Animal,” should have been titled, “The Problem/Solution Animal,” because long before humans were telling each other lengthy elaborate nuanced, contextualized “stories” they were simply pointing to problems like “how to eat and mate” and sharing solutions. Take a look at every epic story ever told — from “Moby Dick” to “The Wizard of Oz” — and you will find the problem/solution dynamic at the core.

    The other word missing from this essay is “information.” Today’s world is not the same as the good old information-depauperate days. Things have changed. And if you view this change from the perspective of “evolution” (meaning simply change with time in response to the environment) what you see is basic “narrative selection” — meaning directional change in how we communicate, shaped by the problem/solution dynamic of our world. Neurophysiologists are coming to realize the brain is built, not to crave “stories,” but simply to process the world in three parts: set up, problem, solution.

    The information-glutted world we have created has now selected for new and different approaches to dealing with information. The term “narrative” has emerged EVERYWHERE in places it was never, ever heard just two decades ago. From news to sports to politics, everyone is talking about “the narrative of …” The net result is the pattern bemoaned in this article.

    I couldn’t agree more that actual “storytelling” has gone down the toilet. For starters, movies today are sad vestiges of days gone by, and yet more heavily praised than ever due to the escalation of marketing forces. But none of it makes any sense unless you bring in the word “information.” We created a glutted, short attention span world. The consequences were already clear by the end of the 1980’s with “Beavis and Butthead,” presenting the boredom and chuckling that now typifies today’s mass persona.

    The world has changed. You can thank science and technology for it. And you’re completely justified in asking, “Dude, where’s my stories?” We’re on a strange journey that probably culminates with where Henry Kissinger (of all people) warns of this month in the June issue of The Atlantic in a foreboding article titled, “How the Enlightenment Ends.” If you think the sadness and pessimism about storytelling in the article above is a bummer, you should ready what the old war criminal has to say. Yeeks.

  7. DanB

    There is a genre -if this is the right label- in English MFA programs called “creative fiction”. I’m a sociologist and I took a few writing classes at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts taught by graduates of this MFA program at Univ. Pittsburgh. It was interesting to me, as a sociologist, to see how making a story fit the intended message was justified by calling it “creative fiction.” Ideally, you add or alter “facts” only to enhance the “truth”, impact, and continuity of the story -not to “lie” about events. But distortions, exaggerations, and deceptions are tempting when you write for effect (affect, too). I always wonder how many Moth Hour stories might be thusly altered.
    My big takeaway from this essay is the reference to the neoliberal worldview in the background: we’re all individuals, society does not exist (there is no larger context), we must “sell” the story to the audience, therefore it must be “tailored” to gain the audience’s attention, sympathy, support, and so forth.

    1. Annieb

      The name of the genre is creative nonfiction and the writing methods are a lot more nuanced than your description. It doesn’t have much to do with getting across a “message” but more about using fiction writing techiques to embody an experience that has some basis or inspiration in fact. There is a huge difference between creative nonfiction and nonfiction writing and that distinction should be specified in the presentation.

      Although you make a good point to question how much of, for example, the Moth is creative nonfiction. The lines are blurred these days in language and imagery.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I haven’t listened to any of the “Moth” stories. I tried to find out where their funding line came from and only found REI Co-Op and the MacArthur Foundation. I guess I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth but after listening to NPR for years and feeling deeply disappointed by the degeneration of their content I have difficulty shaking off my skepticism about anything they produce. What are “Moth” stories really about? I left their website with a snap judgment that their stories fit nicely into the Democratic Party’s identity politics. I hope I’m wrong. In any case I doubt that I’ll listen to “Moth” stories in preference to my collection of audiobooks and audio shortstories.

      “The Moth Corporate Program offers customized workshops and private events. Using the Seven Principles of Moth Storytelling, developed through work with over twenty thousand storytellers, our workshops introduce a vocabulary for storytelling and develop practical storytelling solutions for business. The Moth works with their partners to design customized programs that harness the power of storytelling as a communication tool. Past workshops have been steered towards team building, fostering connection with audiences, setting up the why, leadership skills and keeping an internal culture alive. Programs range in length from 2.5 hours to one full day.”

      “Programs start at $12,000.”
      Other Corporate sponsors have their logos below this.

  8. Norb

    How storytelling is used by a society, I would guess, tracks the rise and fall of that civilization. On the upswing the narrative is able to inspire and inform the citizenry to positive action. When on the downside, narrative is used to obfuscate and justify the social position in interests solely of the ruling elite, while the rest suffer the consequences of poor decisions. At some point, the gap between official narrative and experienced reality is too great, and alternatives are pursued by the greater population. Revolution comes to mind. Or more often just a great decline into poverty and misery- followed by a struggle for everyday existence. In such a state, vision and culture begin to stagnate, then perish.

    In American society today, we are deeply into the misery phase and our elected officials and other elites have chosen to keep with the current narrative that the economic system and vision for the future is worth saving and indeed pursuing. We, the American public, have been “talking” about these dangers for close to 40 years, all the while moving the goalposts when the latest solutions prove grossly inadequate.

    The storytelling that is needed today is not a more textured and layered narrative tapestry. Complexity is not the answer, it is the problem.

    What is needed is a much simpler vision of the future and concrete means in order to achieve that reality. A new vision of Utopia, as all societies need in order to function. In a sense, it would be a true accounting of life on planet earth. Going back to a simpler time offers a solution for many if done right. Not out of fear or necessity, but as a goal driven by true accountability.

    Stories not of misery and blame, but of accountably and action. Exactly what we don’t have now.

  9. Rod

    “Curated storytelling has extended deep into contemporary social life and political and cultural institutions. Curated stories package diverse histories and experiences into easily digestible soundbites and singular narratives of individual victims. The impact has been to deflect our attention from structurally defined axes of oppression and to defuse the oppositional politics of social movements”

    I listen to NPR for the News. I still get some, but get a lot more stories now–delivered by those who consider it part of their “personal brand”.
    So I get currated stories by people who value their brand to “help me make sense of the world”.
    It helps me understand things by “humanizing the other”.

  10. Summer

    A co-worker of mine had an excellent description/definition of the type of short-form video content presented today (especially popular on outlets like YouTube:

    Branded random…

  11. Summer

    “But these stories—limited in duration and subject to protocols—could not say why migrant women were so vulnerable and undervalued, and why they were forced to migrate for work. Instead, workers could speak only to the technical conditions of their employment…”

    Those types of personalization are more like incident reports than storytelling. That’s why they can lack a lasting, inspirational effect.

  12. jake

    This review proceeds as if actual storytelling, i.e., fiction in one form or another, didn’t exist.

    What’s being described here is advertising, managerial campaigns and propaganda — small wonder this stuff persuades no one, however larcenously it may attempt to exploit the techniques of actual formally achieved narrative.

  13. Lambert Strether

    You know what we need? We need “a conversation.” That way, we can tell our stories.

    * * *

    [pounds head on desk].

    1. Carey

      Yes. “Conversation” means someone from the explaining class is getting ready to do just that, and not to the benefit of the many, ever.

      1. ObjectiveFunction

        “Explaining class”

        Brilliant! I think you just coined a new NC meme.

        Cf. Matt Taibbi, “people who make a comfortable living pushing words around, but need to call AAA to change a tire”

  14. Susan the other

    Great post. Three disjointed things: 1. reading Rilke and Kafka short stories from a book with english on one page and german on the other I keep stopping to consider how deeply self indulgent both authors are of their own nostalgia – or what seems to be nostalgia. I think maybe it is a German trait, to indulge minutely in details and when it comes to short stories they dive deep into their memories of things lost. Which, I confess, just annoys me. But I had this little epiphany out of the blue – that the agony of nostalgia is once again an entropy thingy. We do change every cell in our body once every 7 years, including brain cells. And every now and then we look up and try to figure out what went missing. The Germans are like patriarchs demanding that everybody never change and we must all go to heaven when we die. I think some details are just irrational. The second thing I thought on reading this interesting post was how the Utes tell a story of Coyote. Not “the” coyote. Just Coyote. It is a depiction of the cautious, predictable, clever behavior of Coyote – nothing more – no plot, all character. Kind of like no hat, all cattle. And too strange for a romantic westerner to grok. And thing 3 is about Sharon Stone – she has won an award for a documentary on migrants and her straightforward political opinions are killer – she is very direct and articulate. Did anybody else catch her? So that makes me remember how very powerful documentaries are – I guess they can be classified as storytelling.

    1. RMO

      “We do change every cell in our body once every 7 years, including brain cells” No, we don’t. That’s a myth with astonishing staying power. Many cells die and are replaced much faster, many simply aren’t ever replaced after the initial growth period – neurons in the cerebral cortex for example. When they die, that’s it.

  15. RMO

    Obama has said his job as president was to be a story teller. Trump is certainly a fountain of B.S. but has never to my knowledge claimed to be in office to tell stories but seems to concentrate on running the country. Trump certainly seems to accomplishing a lot more. His accomplishments are horrible but the strategy of “making things happen” rather than being “the nation’s storyteller” turns out to be rather more effective. Who’da thunkit?

    1. Whoa Molly!

      Evisceration of storytelling? Really? Surely you troll me.

      I’d argue we are in the golden age of storytelling.

      – Modern writers Robert McKee, and Shawn Coyne are doing the best analysis of storytelling since Aristotle. These guys *know* what makes stories work. Their techniques are available to anyone for the price of a library card, and a few thousand hours of intense work at a keyboard, or behind a camera and in a video editing suite.

      More stories are being produced than any time in human history.
      – Kindle Unlimited is awash with self-published novels and nonfiction books.
      – Anyone with access to a laptop can print a professional quality book at places like Blurb and
      – Vimeo and YouTube are chockablock with documentaries.
      – Anyone can start a blog and publish whatever they want.
      – Studios like Netflix, Amazon, and BBC are making compelling ten and twelve hour stories.

      Formal programs in storytelling abound. Again, more than any time in human history. Fiction, narrative nonfiction, journalism, dramatic filmmaking and documentary filmmaking are taught in hundreds of schools.

      And yes, stories do change the world. I’d argue that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged changed the world profoundly.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Milton Friedman’s propagandizing was vastly more influential. He was a brilliant promoter of the idea that “freedom” = getting rid of nasty government protection.

          The big vector for Ayn Rand’s real world influence was her relationship with Alan Greenspan. And that wasn’t dependent on that book.

          1. Whoa Molly!

            I believe that powerful memes work their way through cultures and change behavior.

            I suspect what Atlas Shrugged did was to create a meme that underlies much of todays society. Its the dividing society into ‘producers vs the moochers’ meme.

            Mitt Romney expressed it when he said 47% of the population is dependent on the govt. Margaret Thatcher may have expressed it when she said ‘There is no such thing as society,.

            I have a hunch that the book legitimised a worldview and gave a ‘compelling story’ to millions of people who dont know who Milton Friedman was.

            Yes MF was brilliant. A great story teller.

            A sufficiently powerful story seems to be enough to literally stop critical thinking.

            A recent example: the movie Zero Dark Thirty vs Sy Hersch’s reporting on same events.

            ZDT is great story telling. Hersch is great reporting.

          2. Summer

            Alan Greenspan had once been a jazz musician who played with Stan Getz and Quincy Jones.

            If only that would have been encouraged more…

      1. Plenue

        A whole lot of the stories currently being told are what I think Strether would dismiss as ‘excesses of memoir’.

        I would agree that we’re [still] living in a golden age of TV programming, the era of the prestige drama. But for all the great acting, clever writing, and artful direction, very, very few of those actually have anything substantive to say. I mean substantive on more than the level of an individual or a single family. More than an exploration of how a good man can slowly turn bad, to take Breaking Bad as an example.

        David Simon makes far reaching ‘novels in television form’ that make structural critiques. Sometimes period pieces like Boardwalk Empire will include some element of broader societal exploration (and then other times you’ll get something like Downton Abbey, whose creator is clearly utterly infatuated by his characters and doesn’t have any awareness of what awful people they are, and literally no conception of what a tumor of society their class is).

        And yes, the internet allows anyone to produce content. Some of it is good. Most of it is trash. And generally the truly good stuff gets a few thousand views at best. The internet could in theory revolutionize the4 dispersal of worthwhile content and radical thinking. In practice I don’t think the distribution has been much better than in an age of pamphlets.

        As for documentaries, those cost money. Look at who’s funding them, and what they have to say. A well crafted and slickly constructed documentary can be a great vehicle for lies and bullshit. Vice is largely built on this.

      2. jake

        Robert McKee, who’s never written a produced screenplay (Aristotle wasn’t produced either, for that matter) is esteemed chiefly by people who don’t actually write … producers looking for the holy grail, investors searching for the secret of success without actually having to know anything, etc.

        He also accounts for much of what we know as formula, in commercial movie-making today — all the blather about “plot points”, “conflict”, “story arc”, then add some half-baked Joseph Campbell (who was half-baked to begin with), a dollop of “The Poetics”, the latest wisdom from the marketing department and the executive suites, etc. Meanwhile, the Hollywood types understand storytelling so well, they turn to commercially successful comic books rather than risk a dime on their judgments.

        For the rest — it’s certainly true we’re awash in stories and TV (at least) has never been so good. But quality also depends to some extent on scarcity. Evaluation becomes impossible if the arts are just another marketplace.

  16. Roland

    I agree that this is a golden age of TV drama, thanks in part to the cable networks like HBO. The Sopranos, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul(the spin-off is arguably better than its progenitor), Longmire and many others feature complex plots and characters.

    It doesn’t have to be political to be good drama. All the series mentioned above contain a lot of implicit social commentary.

    As a proletarian and a reader, I don’t demand that novels or stories suit my class politics. I have spent many happy hours engaged following the stories and points of view of people who belong to other classes. The aristocrats in War and Peace are about as far removed from my circumstances as can be, but they’re still fascinating. From Bede’s Life of Cuthbert to Burrough’s Naked Lunch

    There is a lot of interesting documentary material on platforms like YouTube but it can take some finding.

    I stumbled across C&Rsenal, a channel with excellent low-budget documentaries on the history of the small arms of the Great War. They bring together the stories of the engineering, the tactical doctrines and training issues, the manufacturing process, the politics surrounding the procurement contracts, and so forth, and then finally exhibit the weapon from the standpoint of a shooter.

    C&Rsenal documentaries have a nice dense information flow. The 70-min show on the Mosin-Nagant rifle was 95% content.

    The people of C&Rsenal are gun buffs and antique gun collectors. I am neither. So it goes to show that when people know and love a topic, and do a good job presenting it, they can stimulate an interest in those who previously had none. That’s education.

    Another good YouTube channel is the one that posted many interviews with US Vietnam War veterans. I believe the videos were originally made for deposit at the Library of Congress. The quality of the interviews is variable–some of the interviewers were not knowledgeable enough to elicit the most valuable information, while other interviewers have a tendency to interrupt or sidetrack the subject. But at their best, there is some superb oral history being collected. If only someone were doing the same with NVA, VC, and ARVN participants!

  17. Wukchumni

    I’d mentioned a few days ago in regards to a turf war here in the forest for the trees between a jet black 300 pound black bear that was the terror of tiny town for a fortnight, breaking into 8 cabins, about half of them while somebody was inside…

    I’ve gotten 4 different stories in relation to the incident since, all word of mouth varieties and all different in scope, depending on whom the source is, and what they heard, or first person accounts, etc.

    If this flow of information was on say Facebook, it would sway people with perhaps a picture of said bruin or show damage done by this late bad boy (NPS euthanized it last week, it already had a tag in it’s ear previously signifying that it was a bit on the recalcitrant side, with a list of priors) or perhaps just inform people that all black bears exhibit this sort of behavior (they most certainly don’t) in a tidy package where you don’t have to think.

    Ran into a NPS ranger whose abode isn’t far from ours, and she told me the bear tried to break into her cabin 3x in the course of a week, to give you an idea how rebellious this character was.

    I much prefer a good word story of a picture these days, than the actual image itself, as photography has been so cheapened-everybody is an Ansel Adams, but few are storytellers…

  18. Altandmain

    Whenever there’s an article on storytelling, I always show people this article:

    Chief among the common misconceptions about the way official propaganda works is the notion that its goal is to deceive the public into believing things that are not “the truth” (that Trump is a Russian agent, for example, or that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, or that the terrorists hate us for our freedom, et cetera). However, while official propagandists are definitely pleased if anyone actually believes whatever lies they are selling, deception is not their primary aim.

    The primary aim of official propaganda is to generate an “official narrative” that can be mindlessly repeated by the ruling classes and those who support and identify with them. This official narrative does not have to make sense, or to stand up to any sort of serious scrutiny. Its factualness is not the point. The point is to draw a Maginot line, a defensive ideological boundary, between “the truth” as defined by the ruling classes and any other “truth” that contradicts their narrative.

    In short, official propaganda is not designed to deceive the public (no more than the speeches in an actor’s script are intended to deceive the actor who speaks them). It is designed to be absorbed and repeated, no matter how implausible or preposterous it might be. Actually, it is often most effective when those who are forced to robotically repeat it know that it is utter nonsense, as the humiliation of having to do so cements their allegiance to the ruling classes (this phenomenon being a standard feature of the classic Stockholm Syndrome model, and authoritarian conditioning generally).

    Basically that is what storytelling is today.

    A lot of storytelling has been reduced to little more than a marketing exercise or an attempt by elites to get people to believe whatever the elites want people to believe.

    I wonder though if they are reaching what might be called the limits of propaganda. Certainly the endless self-platitudes about America “already is great”, the economic recovery, and similar propaganda no longer works. Not when the bottom 90% have suffered immensely.

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