May 7, 2013

LITERATURE MUST CHANGE...AND ALWAYS DOES: How I learned two "old" technologies were forerunners of social media influencing storytelling

We seem to be facing what Seth Godin might call an obvious cul-de-sac where literature is concerned. A confusing time, in fact, is now faced by all the humanities. The problem in a nutshell: people are so busy checking email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and the Next Now Thing that they don’t have time to read books or philosophize about anything other than…the Next Now Thing.

The New York Times recently started a series of debates regarding whether reading literature truly makes us better people. I happen to think it does, but that’s not going to be the premise of this article. What I want to say, instead, is that in a Web 2.0 world, literature will inevitably change.

I am typically reading both a fiction and nonfiction book on the same day, and sometimes it is a wonderful serendipitous moment when the topics they cover seem to converge for me on the level of a problem I’m grappling with in my own life. Today was one of those days. (I am reading The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories by Frank Rose [2011] and The Famished Road by Ben Okri [1991].)

My career has been making an 80/20 shift over the past year, away from 80% academic work toward 80% content marketing. And while I am still involved in both arenas, I also continue to work on a book of fiction, so the future of literature is always on my mind. Since I teach communication, all three parts of my professional life revolve around storytelling. And, reading works by other professionals in all three areas, I have come to realize that we are indeed struggling with changes brought to “storytelling” by social media and the digital revolution.

Yet, if you look at any period of history in which there has been a major shift in how information is brought to the general populace, you will see that the medium always changes every level of how we think and communicate. The storytellers who first take advantage of a new technology will be met with resistance from critics--that criticism only being tempered by enthusiasm from a population that slowly, like the 100th monkey, begins to influence the whole species.

When you are an explorer looking for new ways to tell stories, it's often impossible to see if you’re on the right track or if you’re just whistlin’ Dixie as the old expression goes. That confusion often kills a good idea. So I offer these two excerpts from the books I'm reading that jumped out at me this afternoon, to illustrate that you’re never alone in your conundrum as an innovator or first adapter.

1.  From the North British Review, 1845
(as quoted in The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose, 2011)

This first excerpt explores the serialization of Charles Dickens’ work in the mid-nineteenth century. 

While we'll remember that the printing press had been around for over 500 years in 1845, we might forget that printing and papermaking reached a heightened point of sophistication only after the Industrial Revolution. New manufacturing technologies allowed the printed word to become incredibly affordable and thus truly mass-distributed around this time. (We might even call that period of history "Print 2.0".) The availability of cheap popular magazines allowed for serialization and completely changed Dickens’ style of writing, helped shape the modern novel, and was met with disdain among the cultural critics of the time.

A scandalized critic at the Northern British Review warned about the hallucinatory powers of the new serial fiction when he wrote:
The form of publication [serialization] of Mr. Dickens’ works must be attended with bad consequences. The reading of a novel is not now the undertaking it once was, a thing to be done occasionally on holiday and almost by stealth…. It throws us into a state of unreal excitement, a trance, a dream, which we should be allowed to dream out, and then be sent back into the atmosphere of reality again, cured by our brief surfeit of the desire to indulge again soon in the same delirium of feverish interest. But now our dreams are mingled with our daily business (Rose, p92)
I think you can see parallels between this critic's warning and today's catastrophic predictions regarding the ubiquity of social media, gaming, and other forms of digital narrative and imaginative "telling." While the Web has been around for at least a couple decades (depending on where you designate its starting point) and while digitization has been around even longer, it has only been because of a social media revolution that storytelling has begun its most significant transformation. No longer does the Web imitate the media that came before it. No longer are narratives stable in straight-up streamed video, static websites, and text that while digitized, basically sits still on the page. Today's web is about collaboration, customization, empowerment, and immediacy. At last there is a proliferation of material distributed online--think about what you could and couldn't find in 2003 that now you can. And now it is often distributed in real time. That changes the structure of storytelling for its users, and naturally this has begun to feel threatening to us lovers of old literature. 

I  worry about our children being driven to distraction by digital media. But I hear in that quote from 1845 similar fears I hear in academia and the media today, and it makes me pause. Perhaps digitization and social media change the structure of storytelling, but it’s not a given that the new way won’t have positive effects on literature even as it is having potentially negative effects on our attention spans. I hope there will always be book lovers and readers, because we know that reading a long, linear narrative uses and shapes the brain differently from reading tweets. But remember, people did not stop reading books after popular magazines hit the streets. And books changed in Dickens' time, probably for the better--or at least in keeping with the desires and needs of his audience. In fact, Rose points out, before he published the stories in book form, Dickens read and reacted to feedback from readers of his serial work in magazines, reworking the narratives to appeal to his audience. Today, few of us would say the revolution begun by Dickens ruined literature forever.

2. From THE FAMISHED ROAD (Book 2, Chapter 8)
by Ben Okri, 1991

The second excerpt I’d like to share is from a marvelous book of fiction (now difficult to find because it needs to be digitized!) written by Ben Okri. The Famished Road has been called magic realism by some, while others suggest it merely reflects a typical community in Nigeria’s past where people believed in forms of magic and imagination that don’t exist now in the Western World. The narrator is a “spirit child”—a boy who sees and hears ghosts. During a time of political unrest his village’s first-ever photographer begins to chronicle events in the boy’s town, and while the photographs are impressive to the villagers, the photographer is unable to make a living at his work.  

The story recalled attempts I’ve made in the past to use technology to my advantage as a storyteller only to be met with the big "dip”—a point at which I didn’t have the right resources or the right connections or the right software (it hadn’t been created yet) to make the intended product come together successfully. If you are a producer of content in any new media, I think you’ll see parallels, too. I hope you'll also take time to appreciate the beauty in Okri's writing as well. Though I might have shortened this narrative for you, it is so wonderfully written in the complete original that I decided not to abridge it:

Across the street the photographer bustled about with his camera, undeterred by the sleep-making sunlight, looking for interesting subjects. Sometimes he hung up the photographs he had washed in the glass cabinet outside his studio. We often went over to look at the wedding pictures of people who were complete strangers to us. He pinned up some of the pictures of the celebration of my homecoming. Beside them were the lurid photographs of the chaos unleashed when the politicians came round with their rotten milk. The rest of the cabinet was taken up with images of defiant women, milk heaps, street inhabitants pouring away the milk against a grainy backdrop of poverty. He was very proud of the photographs and when we gathered too close to the cabinet he would rush over and drive us away, saying:  
‘Don’t touch the cabinet or you will spoil the photographs!’  
The more he drove us away the more we gathered. The cabinet outside the studio became our first public gallery. Every afternoon, after school had ended, we went there to see what new subjects he had on display, what new funerals, what parades, how the thugs were harassing the women traders at the marketplaces, what newborn baby he had captured crying at the world. He was our first local newspaper as well. 
It was the children who first showed interest in his photographs. Then the adults, on their way to work in the morning, began to stop to see what new images the industrious photographer had on display. They also stopped in the evenings when they returned. He always surprised us and began to play up to our expectations. He became very popular with the children. Whenever we saw him coming down the street with his camera we never failed to cheer him. He would smile, pretend to take pictures of us, and would disappear into the secret chambers of his studio. After a while we forget his name and he became known to us simply as 'the photographer.' 
In the afternoon after being driven away from his glass cabinet, I often played with the other children....When I got tired and hungry I would ask the photographer for food. Sometimes he would complain that I was disturbing him, but mostly he would give me a piece of bread, saying:  
‘Your father hasn’t paid for his pictures yet.'  
On another day, with a glint in his eyes, in a tone of conspiracy, he said:  
‘Worry your father for me. I will give you a shilling gif he pays for his pictures.’  
He went on pestering me like that, asking if I had in turn been pestering Dad. He then threatened never to feed me again or speak to me till the pictures had been paid for. One day I saw him looking hungry and miserable and when I asked him what was wrong he snarled at me, snatched up the tripods of his camera and, screaming that no one ever paid for their photographs, pursued me down the street. He was quite fierce that day. His hunger and bitterness made him ugly, and I avoided him for a while. 
His hunger got worse. In the mornings he no longer bothered to change the photographs in the glass cabinet. He no longer bothered to surprise us. The old images turned brown and sad and curled up at the edges under the bleaching force of the sunlight. In the nights we heard him raving, abusing everyone for not paying up, shouting that it was people like us who drove honest men to crime and corruption. His clothes became shabby and his beard turned wiry and brown. But even his hunger couldn’t extinguish his spirit and in the afternoons he still went up and down the place, taking pictures with demented eyes and in a constancy of bad temper. 
The children stopped gathering around his cabinet. We invented new games and played football. One afternoon, while playing, we kicked the ball too hard into an unintended goal, smashing the photographer’s cabinet. He came out waving a machete, his eyes mad, his movements listless, his tongue coated with white sediments. He trembled in the sunlight, feeble and ill. He came to the cabinet, looked at the destruction we had wrought, and said:  
‘Don’t touch the cabinet! I kill anyone who touches it!’ 
And so the football remained in the cabinet with the smashed glass and the browning photographs. The adults who went past shook their heads in bewilderment at this strange new form of photography montage. The football was still in the cabinet when it rained. Water flooded the images. Insects bred in the cabinet and curious forms of mold and fungi grew on the innocent subjects of his industry and we all felt sad that the photographer had lost interest in his craft. He wasted away in his tiny room, trembling in the grip of an abnormal fever, and when we saw him he was always covered in a filthy black cloth.  
I felt so sad about his pictures that I began to pester Dad, who always got into a temper whenever the subject was raised. So I pestered Mum, but she got bonier the more I pestered her; so I stopped, and forgot the sadness altogether. And in the afternoons, because I couldn’t go to Madam Koto’s bar, nor look at the pictures in the broken glass cabinet, my feet started to itch again and I resumed wandering the roads of the world.
Sometimes I played in the forest. My favourite place was the clearing. In the afternoons the forest wasn’t frightening, though I often heard strange drums and singing and trees groaning before they fell. I heard the axes and drills in the distances. And every day the forest thinned a little. The trees I got to know so well were cut down and only their stumps, dripping sap, remained.  
I wandered through the forest, collecting rusted padlocks, green bird-eggs, abandoned necklaces, and ritual dolls. Sometimes I watched the men felling the trees and sometimes the companies building roads. I made some money running errands for the workers, errands to young girls who rebuffed their advances and t married women who were secretive and full of riddles in their replies, errands to buy cooked food and soft drinks. With the pennies they gave me, I bought bread and fried coconut chips and iced water for myself. And then I saved some of the money and offered it to the photographer for our pictures. But when he saw how much I offered he burst into a feverish temper, and chased me out, thinking that I was mocking him. 
(Okri, Anchor/Doubleday 1st paperback ed., p141-144) 
You can see the irony in those last two paragraphs, that resigned at last to failure, the photographer does not even recognize his good luck when the boy offers to pay him generously. Later in The Famished Road, however, the photographer captures another village tussle on film. The prominent political party has given milk away to the inhabitants to gain votes, but the inhabitants become sick on the milk and end up rioting and destroying the party’s van during their next visit. The village photographer’s photographs of these incidents are finally published by a national newspaper. Suddenly then, the photographer is famous and a hero to the villagers, who thrill to see their faces and their story in the newspaper. Unique in his ability to tell the emotional side of a news story in the faces of the victims and oppressors, he wins commissions from other newspapers.

How Seth Godin explains "The Dip" in his book
As Seth Godin expounds in his little book The Dip, it is often at the point of our greatest sense of futility that we need to push on. If the producer pushes through the most challenging times, only then can she hope to reach the pay off and see her efforts snowball. The gist of The Dip is that the more difficult the path, the more rewarding it is to get to the destination…and the less likely that everyone else will be there crowding you out. When there’s a window of opportunity, those who stick it through (not just start and quit at the first or second or third complication) are the ones who’ll benefit. On the other hand, when a goal is easier to accomplish, everyone else joins in, and then, the window starts to close because you’re surrounded by a mass of competition.“In a competitive world, adversity is your ally,” Godin explains. 

“The harder it gets, the better chance you have of insulating yourself,” Godin says. “It’s human nature to quit when it hurts. But it’s that reflex that creates scarcity.” So, if you want to be a superstar, you have to find a field with a steep dip and get to the other side.

In conclusion…two lessons from the past lead to the same truth: adversity is not a bad thing. We grow, and our work grows, from conflict and struggle. Persistent producers will grow in this time of uncertainty, as will literature and the arts.

So read a good book. And then get back to work.


Last 9 in-stock copies of The Famished Road at Amazon:

Frank Rose: @frankrose on twitter and his blog on narrative in the digital age (Deep Media) at

New York Times article by Gregory Currie on literature being good for you:

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