I’ve been on a Paul Auster kick.
In the last month, I’ve read two of his books, Oracle Night and The Book of Illusions. The two techniques that Auster masters that most draw me in to his tales are 1) the seamless infusion of synchroncity/meaningful coincidence into his characters’ lives and 2) his ability to weave stories within the larger story without the reader taking too much notice. In both books, the narrator engages the reader in the present, but quickly moves to describing incidents that took place in the past. Before we know it, we’re there, in the past, from the perspective of the narrator’s younger self. No longer focused on or even caring what’s taking place now for the narrator or even what has propelled him to tell his story. We don’t even question his motivation for telling us. We just go along for the ride.
It reminds me of the Middle East.
We have lost track of the present. We are mindlessly listening to stories within stories. Thousands of them. We don’t ask questions. We devour these stories as they appear, almost immediately, as if they were true. And not just any truth, but the truth. The only one. Or we write off the stories as soon as the narrator begins because we don’t trust him or because he is painting a landscape we don’t recognize or favor. He is using language that makes the hair on our back stand up. He is unattractive or forcing us to stomach something we can’t bear to stomach.
These modern storytellers will tell you there are two, maybe three narratives in the Middle East. They’ll split the stories into perspectives and call them Palestinian and Israeli or Right and Left or Arab and Jew. But that’s like saying Moby Dick is about a whale and a man. I don’t know what Moby Dick is about — I still haven’t read it. But hundreds of thousands of people have and I can’t believe it’s because it’s a story about a whale and a man.
So it is with the Middle East.
There are so many stories. People. Lives.
It used to be there was only a small selected group of storytellers in the news, and most of them were trained journalists with a standard of professional ethics to uphold for fear that their stories would not make it through editing and publication. The journalists were trained to listen to and observe their subjects objectively. Other story tellers, before the age of social media, included academics, who had spent lifetimes studying the cultures, conflicts, peoples involved in the stories that made the news. Or they were policy makers or authors of historical nonfiction who were bound by publishers’ demands for footnotes and bibliography.
The storytellers of news weren’t the people themselves, in the middle of the conflict, in the middle of despair, in the middle of life-threatening fear. They weren’t bloggers who happened to be travelling in the region. They weren’t amateur photographers with filters on their phones. They weren’t comedians seeking to deseminate the quickest and wittiest headlines using the trimmest word count.
It’s not that these people (we people) don’t have the right to tell stories. Of course, we do. But having the right or the urge to tell one’s story does not make one a reporter of the news.
And while there is some good that comes out of this excessive and quite literal freedom of speech — freedom without standards, freedom without limits — I’m afraid that we skipped a crucial step in our transition from old journalism to new journalism.
We as readers did not acknowledge that we were moving from reading the news to reading creative nonfiction … sometimes even fiction. For that is what much of the “reported news” has become. Most of it is now creative nonfiction.
Remember the James Frey scandal? It’s one oft-quoted in memoir writing classes because it’s a good example of how a memoir or creative nonfiction writer must be mindful in how he positions his story. Frey wrote a book he called “memoir” titled A Million Little Pieces. It was a good book. A popular book. A well-received book. Readers trusted the narrator. Later, Frey was taken to task (to say the least), most notably by Oprah, for “fabricating” some of the details in his story. The Brooklyn Public Library went as far as recataloging Frey’s book as fiction. People who had stood by his book were upset. They thought they were reading someone’s truth. Publishers and book outlets thought they were selling “the truth.”
Well, what if I were to tell you: That book was James Frey’s truth?
Without getting too deep into Frey’s story, I want to suggest that all stories exist on a spectrum between fiction and nonfiction. Up until now, “news” was presumably as close as you could get on the spectrum to nonfiction.
I’m suggesting “news” has moved.
Once you start reading stories from anyone who has not been professionally trained as a journalist or acts within a set of professional ethical journalistic standards or “rules” to write by, you have moved into reading Creative Nonfiction.
This is what “the news” has become in the age of social media. I’m not just talking about random tweeters or bloggers with a platform. I’m also including “journalists” writing for popular news publication in democratic nations under news headlines, not op-ed. You can see it in the language used by some reporters; you feel their first person inside their news feature. You can see it in how newscasters interview — grill, sometimes — their subjects with an obvious biased agenda.
“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.”
— Aaron Altman, Broadcast News
As you read news today, I invite you to ask yourself the same questions you might subconsciously ask yourself while reading memoir.
1. Do I trust the narrator? Is he reliable or not?
This matters much more in “news” than it does in memoir because the news continues to shape our opinion about world events even though it’s not the news as we used to know it.
2. Why am I reading this? Is there a purpose or intent?
This matters much more in “news” than it does in memoir because it delineates our necessity for action. Are we reading this because we want to experience another person’s reality? Leave our own reality for a few hours? Do we want to educate ourselves? For instance, I follow a wide spectrum of “news” and opinion from the Middle East because I want to understand better; I want to learn; I want to expand my worldview and my range of compassion for human beings. That said, I understand that I have an emotional connection to this region. I live in Israel. So reading “news” about Israel is a different experience for me than reading “news” about the Ukraine. At some point, the news from Israel will likely drive me to action.
3. Most important, what about this story is attractive to me? Is it the truth? Or is it the narrator’s voice? The emotional depth he conveys?
This matters much more in “news” than it does in memoir because we often will adopt the voice or the truth of the narrator we trust and his voice becomes ours. We perpetuate his truth. His version of the news. Once we finish a memoir, we put it down. We forget about it. Not so with the news.
The news becomes our perception of reality.
As the bulk of news we watch, listen to, and read shifts from responsible journalism to creative nonfiction, we must wear filters, not blinders.
Or admit to ourselves that we have stopped caring about “the news.”
And all we want, really, is a juicy story.