All this points to the nature of every real story. It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist in a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim. In every case the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers. But if today “having counsel” is beginning to have an old-fashioned ring, this is because the communicability of experience is decreasing. In consequence we have no counsel either for ourselves or for others. After all, counsel is less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding. To seek this counsel one would first have to be able to tell the story. (Quite apart from the fact that a man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak.) Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is wisdom.
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
last line of Orson Welles’ unproduced screenplay The Big Brass Ring
[Socrates asked,] But what would you like? Shall I, as an elder, speak to you as younger men in an apologue or myth, or shall I argue out the question?
To this several of the company answered that he should choose for himself.
Well, then, he said, I think that the myth will be more interesting.
The saddest thing about life is that you don’t remember half of it. You don’t even remember half of half of it. Not even a tiny percentage, if you want to know the truth. I have this friend Bob who writes down everything he remembers. If he remembers dropping an ice cream cone on his lap when he was seven, he’ll write it down. The last time I talked to Bob, he had written more than five hundred pages of memories. He’s the only guy I know who remembers his life. He said he captures memories, because if he forgets them, it’s as though they didn’t happen; it’s as though he hadn’t lived the parts he doesn’t remember.
I thought about that when he said it, and I tried to remember something. I remembered getting a merit badge in Cub Scouts when I was seven, but that’s all I could remember. I got it for helping a neighbor cut down a tree. I’ll tell that to God when he asks what I did with my life. I’ll tell him I cut down a tree and got a badge for it. He’ll most likely want to see the merit badge, but I lost it years ago, so when I’m done with my story, God will probably sit there looking at me, wondering what to talk about next. God and Bob will probably talk for days.
I know I’ve had more experiences than this, but there’s no way I can remember everything. Life isn’t memorable enough to remember everything. It’s not like there are explosions happening all the time or dogs smoking cigarettes. Life is slower. It’s like we’re all watching a movie, waiting for something to happen, and every couple months the audience points at the screen and says, “Look, that guy’s getting a parking ticket.” It’s strange the things we remember.
“Mistake me not,” said the Cardinal, “the literature of which we are speaking—the literature of individuals, if we may call it so—is a noble art, a great, earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. At the end we shall be privileged to view, and review, it—and that is what is named the day of judgment.
“But you will remember,” he remarked, as in a parenthesis and with a smile, “that the human characters in the book do come forth on the sixth day only—by that time they were bound to come, for where the story is, the characters will gather!”
There’s a wonderful article in the new Atlantic by Mark Bowden called “The Hardest Job in Football.” That hardest job is being the director of a television broadcast of a game. Bowden focuses on a man named Bob Fishman, whom he believes to be the best at this job, as Fishman sits in a control room before a bank of TV screens. Each screen shows what one of the many cameras scattered around the stadium is seeing, and Fishman’s job during the game is to scan that bank of screens and decide what the guy watching the game at home on his TV should be seeing at any given moment. It’s fascinating to think what cognitive skills make someone good at this. You have to be able to take in the import of an image in a millisecond — a moving image! — and, in a few milliseconds more, evaluate it in relation to all the other images you’re viewing. But can only do this well not by thinking of the intrinsic visual interest of a particular image, but rather by having in mind a narrative structure, a sense of what the game is about — and not just what it’s about in some general sense, but what it’s about at this particular moment. And that will vary according to whether a team is ahead or behind; whether they are deep in their own territory or deep in the opponents’; whether it’s near the beginning or the end of the game; even what stories have been in the news leading up to the game. The director’s narrative sense, then, needs to govern his visual sense. Fascinating stuff.
Since the first days of the [Telenovela] institute’s research, I began to notice common patterns in the way each country related to telenovelas, and, at the same time, the way in which a country’s relationship to telenovelas revealed something unique about it. A Canadian researcher, Denise Bombardier, described it perfectly with her phrase “Give me a telenovela and I’ll give you a nation.” In general terms, however, telenovelas implement what the critic Tomás Lopez-Pumarejo (my principal theorist at the Institute) described as “the drama of the subconscious”: They are stories that revolve around ontological questions: “Where is my son?” or “Where is my love?”
There is a clear relationship in the way in which the telenovela soap operas explore the social tensions of a country and convert them into collective therapy. This process worked very well in countries that had recently emerged from communism, where people were casting about in a psychological search to deal with the class taboos that had dominated for so long. As a result, a drama centered on the impossibility of love because of social or economic obstacles was extremely powerful. Several studies of the time during which Los Ricos También Lloran was broadcast in Russia indicate that programs simultaneously broadcast from the US (such as Dallas and Dynasty) were popular but never generated the same level of interest, because Russians could not identify with the family problems of an oil millionaire in Texas. The higher production quality of those programs didn’t seem to matter either, and so companies like Televisa did not overly concern themselves with investments in production. It was the drama, the emotions worn on the sleeve, and in part the exotic settings that gave the telenovelas a special attraction.
We enter into the work of cultural creativity not as people who desperately need to strategize our way into cultural relevance, but as participants in a story of new creation that comes just when our power seems to have been extinguished. Culture-making becomes not just the product of clever cultural strategy or the natural byproduct of inherited privilege, but the astonished and grateful response of people who have been rescued from the worst that culture and nature can do.
—Culture Making, p.227
This summer marks the 100th birthday of the late Joseph Mitchell, who helped to redefine the art of journalism. In 1938, when Mitchell wrote his first profile for the New Yorker, the notion of the reporter as stylist was still a novelty. By 1992, when the omnibus ”Up in the Old Hotel” hit bestseller lists, it was ubiquitous. The recent republication of Mitchell’s finest collection, ”The Bottom of the Harbor”, brings back into focus innovations that have faded into familiarity or fallen into neglect. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Our current crop of reporter-stylists would do well to study the qualities that make this book remarkable.
Chief among these is patience. Contemporary magazine journalism often seems torn between ratifying conventional wisdom and railing against it. The twin temptations of sensationalism and contrarianism hover over online discourse, in particular. Not that technology is solely to blame; as a newspaperman in the 1930s, covering the Hauptmann murder trial and interviewing George Bernard Shaw for the Herald Tribune and the World-Telegram, respectively, Mitchell was near the centre of the media circuses of his day. Once the New Yorker freed him from deadline pressure, however, Mitchell conserved his attention for (and lavished it on) subjects he felt it might dignify.
It turns out just about anything is fascinating if you look at it hard enough. What Mitchell chose to look at, in his increasingly lengthy “profiles”, were the remnants of Old New York that were disappearing beneath the city’s relentless growth: waterfront rooming-houses (“Old Mr Flood”), petty criminals (“King of the Gypsys”), Epicurean ritual (“All You Can Eat for Five Bucks”) and, in “The Bottom of the Harbor“, the maritime life of a city most people forget is an archipelago.
As things stand, though, it’s not easy to see anything beating the far more famous Indian novel on the list - which might be more of an injustice if Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie weren’t also the best book of the lot. Nearly 30 years - and at least three more classic Rushdies - later, Midnight’s Children should, in theory, have lost its power to astonish. In practice, rereading it instantly returned me to that original state of awed disbelief that so much exhilarating stuff can be packed into a single novel. (Rushdie, you feel, could have knocked off the entire plot of Oscar and Lucinda in one chapter here.) At times, the unstoppable commitment to storytelling seems almost pathological. Yet, in the end, the book is so thrilling that wishing Rushdie had trimmed it into something less wild would be as futile as asking a hurricane to tone it down a bit.