Posts Tagged ‘narrative’

Yesterday, I went to the Third Tuesday Vancouver meeting to hear Shel Israel talk about his new book, Twitterville. I have a love-hate relationship with technology pundits constructed equally of envy, scorn, and (since I have been occasionally been called one in my own small field of free and open source software) fellow-feeling, so it was the presentation that interested me, not the hope of any revelations about Twitter. And, sure enough, what I learned was not about Twitter, but about story telling.

I probably wouldn’t have learned the lesson if Israel hadn’t described himself as a non-fiction story teller near the start of his presentation. This offhand remark, so peripheral to the actual topic of the presentation, ended up framing my reactions to Israel remarks.

Israel is an enthusiastic story teller, and he collects stories about the subjects he was researching as though he was a folklorist, or a geeky Studs Terkel. He also has a knack for apt phrases, such as “lethal generosity” (generosity that forces rivals to respond in kind or lose) and “braided journalism” (reporting through a variety of sources) that help to make his stories memorable.

However, as I listened, two things started to irk me about his presentation.

First, his stories seemed to entirely about people winning – that is, accomplishing something through their use of Twitter. This tendency bothered me for two conflicting reasons. On one level, it bothered me because part of the structure of non-fiction narrative is usually an attempt to look at both sides of an issue. To hear Israel, Twitter is an unalloyed good, with no negative effects whatsoever. In fact, Israel appears to have not even looked into situations where Twitter proved limiting or handicapped someone. As a result, his narrative seems not so much non-fiction as mere ad copy – and, as such, contrary to the genuineness that social media participants need if they are going to be accepted by their communities.

On another level, the emphasis on winning seemed to lack morality. Israel did not talk about whether people did good with Twitter, and when someone asked a question that tended in such a direction, he evaded answering. This emphasis got up my nostrils (to use a wonderful phrase I first heard from folksinger Eric Bogle) because it seems to be that all kinds of narratives are essentially about morality. Except in poorly constructed narratives, the morality is not an subtle confrontation of good versus evil. At times, it may be ambiguous. But a sense of which side is right – or at least deserves our sympathies the most – seems embedded in the whole concept of narrative. When such a perspective is missing, the way it was in Israel’s talk, it is like stepping on a stair that isn’t there, jolting me and making me uneasy.

Second, Israel consistently resisted drawing any conclusions from his narratives. I suspect that he would argue that making generalities was not his job, that his role was to report as accurately as possible. And I agree that outright editorializing would have been out of place in his talk. However, I believe that part of reporting is to make implications and relationships clear. Without such efforts to see the pattern, Israel’s presentation struck me as directionless. The effect would have been much the same in a piece of fiction that excluded plot.

I suspect that what I am saying has less to do with general tendencies in storyteller than with what I look for as a member of the audience, or with how I try to tell my own non-fiction stories. Still, in an unexpected way, I am grateful to Israel for having provided the starting point for me to figure out these things – even though what I took away from the evening was almost certainly not what he would have wanted me to take away.

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When crossing the moors,
never mind the witch;
be wary of the king’s men.

The gingerbread on her house
is only architectural excess
not culinary, the consequences
of gnawing no more than splinters.
Her worst eccentricities are earnest ramblings
on herbs to her old cat
and a lack of belief in bathing.
At times, she cheats at cards.

If you go by road
you fall in with the tollkeeper first.
He swaggers with his helm and two-handed sword,
says he is a gentleman, and lowers himself
if he hurries to help you.
All day he props over
hot pastries and ale
and his indigestion
(and hence his temper)
is not of the best.
He taxes you once for the king, he says,
and twice for himself;
the third time is for practice.

He keeps six hounds
hungry and well-lashed
and loosed at night
to take toll of another kind.
Bluff past him with your blade or bow,
and he semaphores, they say,
to bandits in the swamp.
The bandits, like the dogs,
strike only faces and hands
and after the dead’s clothes
are sold to second-hand merchants.

In his village
(where they do not travel
and are fond of fashion)
he passes for an honest man.

If you go overland, the foresters
lounge in the bracken.
Dour in dun hoods, they
preserve the forest and wild pigs for the king’s pleasure
(which he takes elsewhere)
and for their own
forbid crofters any firewood except
branches fallen from the bracken.

They arrive at the crofters’
doors near dinner
with dogs they say can sniff out
purloined hams and pork chops.
Their hands fall like a pedophile’s
on the shoulders of crofter children.
“The law is your friend,” they say,
“Tell us where your mother
cuts firewood.”

In the lonely places on the moor
they saunter in from the shadows
and mistrust travellers at random.
Sometimes, they plant
sausages or pig’s feet
in the packs of those
grown querulous at their questions.
Such wayfarers, they say,
become careless in their custody,
falling face first in the fire.

But in nearby villages, the burghers
(honest men, all of them)
say you must not believe
the bitter ones with broken fingers.
They declare the foresters upstanding men,
their only fault (and that occasional)
over-dedication to duty.

The coachman of the royal mail
empties your purse for passage, then
flings you off with the luggage
in his flight from trouble or fancy.

The army whose members
maneuver on the moor says
you can always lose your virginity somewhere.

Better the wild dogs and night-walkers,
the barrow guest and the quaint
cannibalisms of the turf cutters or
the one who walks behind.
Better take a stone from
the strange-arched ruins or
whistle at
the third milestone at midsummer.
Play riddles with
the watchers in the reeds or
thank the hanging man.
Let your voice reply
to the women who sing at twilight
before you trust
in your city polish and manners
the customs of the king’s men.

When crossing the moors,
never mind the witch;
be wary of the king’s men.

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