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Narrative Lost and Found

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Posted 04.02.10

Literary historians will look back at the late twentieth century as a dismal period in American literature because it failed to support the story of the country. How did a single bookstore chain nearly control the reading habits of a nation, they will ask. Why was the publishing industry so slow to adopt new technologies, and why did it rely on antiquated distribution methods? And perhaps most damning: How did so many American newspapers collectively lose their narrative?

Loss of narrative is one of the most ruthless criticisms a person can employ today. It suggests that the subject–a person or an organization–has somehow lost their sense of place in the world. In the January 2010 New Yorker article “One Year Storyteller-in-Chief,” novelist Junot Diaz wrote:

All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric.. But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all.

Why is the loss of narrative such a serious charge? A narrative suggests that there is direction and purpose in place; it allows us to see ourselves and the world in macroscopic wonder and microscopic detail. Narrative is one of the most powerful tools for perceiving the human condition. To say that narrative has been lost is to suggest a dissipation of value, identity, wellness, spirituality, and hope. Loss of narrative is loss of life’s meaning.

Imagine Huck Finn stopping mid-journey, giving Jim a tearful hug, and then returning home to a church-going life. Or Atticus Finch suddenly passing off the case to another attorney and vacationing in Florida. Neither of those scenarios happened because a good writer was in charge of the narrative; they kept the story alive with a sense of purpose and intrigue. And it is exactly at this point that America’s writers find themselves. In the current narrative of American literature, American writers have watched as their local papers veered off course, abandoning their community’s story. Is it any wonder that the industry is toppling under duress? Last year saw a number of magazines and newspapers fold, and the forecast is no better this year. Many American cities are now reduced to having one anemic, narrativeless newspaper.

Newspapers, magazines, and publishing companies are all hierarchical, and necessarily become the voice of their captain. The resulting message the organization issues becomes radically narrowed by the editor-in-chief, who must not only judge the merit of the message, but must also deem it profit-worthy and timely. Rather than tapping into the narrative of local communities, newspapers have become billboards for business and vehicles for public relation firms. The last thirty years in local newsreporting is yearning for a Howard Zinn-like retelling of the community, this time without all the pandering to commerce and political powers.

Let’s take Tulsa, my hometown, for example. Our only newspaper, The Tulsa World, began losing its narrative as soon as it lost its only competitor, The Tulsa Tribune, in 1992. At several points the in the last decade, you could see the World completely losing its grip on the story of our community. Most of the so-called stories that appear in the “Most Popular” section of its website are thin, encyclopedia-like recountings of the most banal sort: “School Board Proposal May Pass, ” “Crowd’s Behavior Denounced,” and “35 Officers Back on the Job.” Few articles breach the thousand-word mark, and rare among those are the ones that extend over various issues. Other than a standard design, nothing connects the content from last month’s stories to this month’s. Continuity–a fundamental element of narrative–no longer exists. Under the stewardship of the World, the story of Tulsa’s community reads like a book in which one chapter has virtually no relation to the next.

What do newspapers have to do with the future of writing? Newspapers were created to satisfy the need and appetite for local stories; they have since relinquished their role, leaving little more than a pile of clippings from which cities are supposed to compose their histories. The writers who recognize the grand failure of newspapers will be the same ones who, rather than run from the mess, will step onto the unexplored avenues and begin assembling the community’s narrative. Readers today are barraged by a surplus of globe-spanning stories from special interest outlets–but where can a reader go to find the Shakespearean dramas unfolding in their own backyards? More than ever, we are starved for our own stories; we are all looking for someone to take up our narrative and make sense of our microcosm.

The modern writer will arrive in the guise of an old-fashioned scribbler, meagerly threading together the frayed story lines around her. Her writing will focus on communities, and soon she will find her name comingled with that of her city. Writers who become students of their community will develop the life experiences, insight, and relationships necessary to tell the narrative. A staff writer for National Geographic might be able to write about Oklahoma’s tall grass prairies, but only a local writer is going to know how to rectify the often maligned history of their neighborhoods. As writers begin to embrace their local narrative, new media entities will naturally assemble themselves. In doing so, these hybrids of print, video, and audio will inhabit new roles in the community–roles that were long given up by newspapers, alternative weeklies, and glossy community magazines. Writers will reclaim the dignity of the craft, embrace new areas of expertise, and will find their communities hungry for their stories.

Amid this foggy, narrativeless wasteland, the new American writer should be smiling, because it represents a fresh opportunity to reclaim and rectify the maladies of the previous system. Today, (I don’t have to summon the “through the magic of technology” phrase, do I?), an enterprising writer with a few hundred dollars can achieve a readership just as vast as a New York publishing house, and a fan base at least as big as their local paper. Imagine, then, what a team of them could do. The loss of narrative is so pervasive throughout America’s communities that there’s a profound need for the best writers of any given state to assemble and commit their endeavors toward recapturing the stories around them. They will find themselves in collaboration with other artists, they will utilize and implement technologies far more quickly than large institutions, and their efforts will even be championed by their peers at competing agencies.

The moment is opportune. Writers are poised to become community builders on par with urban planners and city developers; their influence will be as grounded, profound and lasting. It is with this new sense of adventure and possibility that we–writers and readers–should cultivate a collaborative and supportive relationship, one that demonstrates our commitment to each other while at the same time addressing the chief need: clear narrative, to be written well, and to be read with delight and wonder.

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