Narrative is narrative

One wants to trust ones paper.

I’m probably old fashioned in the sense that I believe what I read in the paper. I grew up in a time when the newspaper and the radio new were the only sources of reliable, credible information about the world. (For whatever reason, I have always discounted television as actual news.) I was also a young adult in the Time of Reagan, so I was pretty much afraid that the world would come to an end, and, if I went camping or something, I would miss it.  

And so when I heard Malcolm Gladwell talk on This American Life about his time at The Washington Post—a paper that not only was my hometown paper but was also a significant source of income, since I had been a carrier (in those days, a paperboy, a proud moniker)—I assumed he was being pretty much entirely, though believably, facetious.

It’s a fun story. He changed the world by fudging facts. What person who’s interested in the power of narrative wouldn’t adhere himself to that and connect?  

But of course there is what a poet friend of mine once said about narrative–you have to have a willing dupe. By that, I think he meant that in certain kinds of narrative, poetry for example, you had to be willing to be duped. And of course Malcolm Gladwell is nothing if not an engaging writer and engaging speaker. And you would be a fool and have a heart of ice not to be willingly duped–even if you were actively questioning his veracity–by a Gladwell yarn.  

And so I was trying to engage a colleague, who takes the journalistic ethic very, very seriously, into listening to this talk. I glossed it, and he said something to the effect that he was one person who wasn’t going to be listening to it, largely because it violated his sense of trust. I said, But No! The idea is he’s kidding. And that’s part of what’s funny and engaging about it.  

He still didn’t get my take on it.  

I’m not sure that I do, either. At least in any precise way. I think we tend to want to be fooled. We like the shaggy dog tale, the tall tale, the narrative of impossibility made possible, because it’s reaffirming in some mysterious way. We want to believe in the powerful narrative. We like the shaggy dog tale, the tall tale, because it seems rational in the face of the irrational. It’s the thing that powers conspiracy theories. It’s, in an odd way, the thing that gives us hope. But then there is also the issue of the willing suspension of disbelief.    

And so, to me, it’s reaffirming. I want to be lied to, now and then, because it gives me the sense of the power of words. And yes, sometimes I also want a schoolmarmish reaction to such flights of fancy, because that is reaffirming in its own way, because that reaction reminds me that, yes, sometimes you can pull off the rational highway and sit, where no one who knows you is watching, and order the double cheese burger with bacon and fries and eat it with gusto, knowing, somehow, that you will not be scolded, or, if anything, patted on the back for your courage in swallowing such nonsense, even when you know that the last thing in the world it is is good for you.
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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

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