Symposium 4: Against Storytelling

Journalism and the Triumph of the Story: A Personal ‘Narrative’

Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, 1515. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Journalism and the Triumph of the Story: A Personal ‘Narrative’

Jeremy Harding

When I started out as a journalist, I had the makings of a very poor one. The pieces I turned in didn’t tell proper stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. And I guess – thinking back – they were light on information, even when they were a bit like field reports, about incidents or events. This began to change when I was asked to write by more challenging editors. I remember when it happened. I’d been travelling on the rebel side during the war in Eritrea. It was an independence struggle that set the Eritreans against the colonial regime – as they saw it – in Addis Ababa; it had complicated causes and took many serpentine turns. I believed it was important to explain all this. I felt the need to pack in information. But when the editors got back to me, they said the historical stuff, the background, was too detailed: they found it hard to fight through my thickets of detail. I went over it again, thinning down, and trying not to travesty the story with too many short cuts. They read it over and now they said they weren’t sure they followed: the path was certainly clearer, but it seemed bland and uninflected. What were we to do? So I went back and started re-seeding it with thickets. After more to-ing and fro-ing it was sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. One of the things I came to understand, as I began to write longer descriptive journalism, was that I had a very tenuous sense of structure: I really had none of the narrative prescience that shapes a piece of non-fiction and keeps the reader alongside. I noticed, too, that I tended to think of this overall structure not as an element of composition in itself – you’d have to say an indispensable element – but more as a kind of clothes horse, or a bit of weather-beaten trellis. What mattered was the luminosity of the scenes I could bring to life or the crisp analogies that would allow readers to recognise where they were. And the point, as far as I could tell, was to deck that rickety trellis with as many of these shining moments as I could, without slipping into vulgarity.

The more I had to do with my editors, the better I became at anticipating their objections. And the easier it was to follow their crucial rule: tell me a story. Practicality was the order of the day, or a good part of it. And it dawned on me as I worked my way into storytelling that I’d never thought of writing – even rudimentary kinds of writing – as an activity that served any purpose other than its own. To talk of ‘practicality’ is to think of writing as a tool for communication, but also a process that eventuates in an outcome beyond the text itself, like a battlefield message from brigade headquarters, or a writ from a lawyer. I was too caught up with the sensuousness of words – their mobility, their playful disposition.

And perhaps at a young age I already sensed the materiality of language – I’d never have called it that of course – and maybe, too, as I grew older, the forceful, almost physical impression that language made on me obscured the fact that it was the defining social medium that shapes us all. Not that I’d have put it like that either, but like everybody, I was party to the many ways it went about this shaping: definitions, descriptions, pinning things down, all the tasks that journalism – for example – is supposed to perform.

And like everybody, I was already woven in, from infancy. I’m borrowing the image of weaving from an essay by Heidegger, ‘The Way to Language’.1 There’s a terrific passage where he suggests that as speaking persons, we are always part of something larger. ‘Language itself,’ he writes, ‘has woven us into its speaking’.

Two points about this weaving in – a notion I find very helpful: First, is there anywhere better to belong than in language? It’s a fabulous expanding cradle in our early years, which evolves into a labile home, and then into a city you know intimately, even though it reconfigures around you at every turn. It’s a world that’s always yours and always everybody else’s, a proper commons, a kind of ‘us’. All the same, I think Heidegger’s image, the idea of an enormous multidimensional weaving, is better than any I’ve come up with here.

The second point: I wonder if storytelling doesn’t diminish the glory of this rich fabric and our place in it. One way stories can do that is to lay it flat on the ground, like a kind of chequer-board, and then invent gods, and mortals, who charge all over it, square to square, according to the laws of destiny. Another is to abstract a handful of filaments from the weave and attach them to ‘characters’ so that temperament, action and motive seem to have precedence over the medium in which we encounter them. Or rather, they tend to make the medium inconspicuous, as if it didn’t really exist.

If I’m puzzled by my second point about the high-handedness of storytelling, or suspect I’ve tied myself in knots, it’s because the modernist writers whose work I admire – and I’d start with Laurence Sterne, born two hundred years before the early modernist appearance of the unreliable narrator – could also be thought of as un-pickers of the Heideggerian weave. But I suspect that the modernists were more interested in playing ingeniously across the warp, with formal surprises, deferrals, intervals in the fabric which make it look more like crochet than weaving. And whether these stories come to us in fine circumlocutions (Henry James) or rich associative movements of the mind across the surface of a self (Virginia Woolf), or ellipsis and ominous mumbling (Conrad), the effect is to privilege the medium over the ‘message’. So it’s possible, I’d suggest, for novelists to depart from the way a story ‘ought’ to be told, and fold us even more fully into language, as poets have to. And, of course, to remind us that language is all around us, that we’re of it, and that as readers we renew our sense of this belonging in the presence of inventive, unfamiliar forms of discourse.

But I’m taking this further than I meant to. Because if we want the medium to be palpable, we could well end up favouring the idea that ‘it is language which speaks, not the author’. I’m quoting, of course, from Roland Barthes’ famous essay in the 1960s on the death of the author – an idea triggered, incidentally, less by the prose of Balzac than the verse of Stéphane Mallarmé.2 But one of things that’s meant here by ‘language speaking’ is that books, stories, poems are susceptible to endless readings, and that the reader is the arbiter and maker – the sublime re-creator – in the realm of literature.

Saying that language speaks and not the author isn’t the same as saying that we’re woven in – all of us, readers and writers – to whatever language does when we perform it, or it performs us. And it can’t be fair to say about good story-tellers that their agency is like . . . basically footling, in the greater scheme of things. Who says there can’t be writing that tells good stories and alerts us to the operations of the medium itself?

But good, well-plotted stories can set off in a direction that readers may not always want to take. We might not want a window onto a perfectly intelligible landscape; and we might not want to read a story in which language becomes invisible in the telling, a story in which plotting and artful organisation are doing so much work that we seem to be having an out-of-body experience as we read – transported, as people used to say, taken out of ourselves, and maybe also, feeling we’re no longer woven in.

At a young age I had a couple of counter-intuitive insights about the density of language. The one I’ll describe here – please be warned – has to do with sex. My very odd grandmother used to have a gardener, a beautiful man in his forties, and this gardener worked around my grandmother’s ramshackle house, doing a lot more than gardening: he looked after the pump that drew the water from her well, changed the mantles on her gas lamps, repaired the roof, and all the rest. Often, he worked with a boy in his teens called Richard.

Richard was the son of a local artisan – his dad was a plumber. And this Richard of mine thought it was a good idea to tell me about sex – which, I mean, it probably was. And he set about this task with a grand, didactic passion. I was about six, I think. There was a stand of trees where my grandparents kept a rusting tractor, behind the gardener’s sheds, and that’s where these tutorials took place, over a couple of afternoons. They had three elements:

1) description: anatomy of the mature adult;

2) narrative: motives, actions and outcomes (first . . . and then . . . and then . . . and eventually);

and crucially – element 3) – they contained new, unfamiliar vocabulary.

I was allowed to ask questions and no doubt I did. But when I thought about these revelations in the evenings, as you would, I remember cycling through the descriptive and narrative elements in short order. They made a kind of straightforward sense, take it or leave it. I also remember settling down to meditate at length on the new vocabulary, its almost physical weight and its terseness, with words of one syllable doing a lot of the work.

Like every anglophone child, I was fascinated by the prevalence of certain vowel-sounds in this tour d’horizon of sexual activity between humans. But for reasons I can’t explain, I was even more intrigued by the consonants. I was so curious about the new profanities I’d learned – and felt such growing confidence in my mastery – that when I played around with them in my mind, I wondered whether Richard could have got some of them wrong: I began substituting consonants, and consonant blends, either side of the vowel sounds, to see if the words sounded more plausible. At the same time, I’m sure, thinking back, that it was the repetition of these words, rather than Richard’s description and narrative, that persuaded me I’d understood what he was trying to explain.

I realise that, in this symposium ‘against storytelling’, I’ve just told you a story.

But a child can’t depend on the sensuous encounter with words to accede to the world: that little person also needs narratives – even partisan, ideological narratives that can be discarded later – and she needs descriptions, whether they’re accurate or wide of the mark. The same is true for anyone trying to apprehend in detail whatever lies beyond their own direct experience. I can test what I’m saying – and I’m sure I’m not the first – when I look at Dürer’s famous woodcut of a rhinoceros. The creature itself was a gift to a Portuguese colonial governor in Gujarat. And the governor shipped this tragic animal to Lisbon in the year 1515. It was an early imperialist trophy.

Dürer never set eyes on the rhinoceros. But it would have been impossible, simply by repeating its name over and over to himself – punning and playing around with the word rhinocerus – for a draughtsman to come up with a reasonable likeness. Possibly Dürer saw some sort of sketch; we know for sure that he worked from at least one description, drafted in Lisbon. Even so, it requires craft, imagination, and a modicum of information, for a person to represent a thing they’ve never set eyes on with a measure of accuracy. Nowadays we’d say it’s about data. The right Artificial Intelligence programme could do it without much difficulty.

Part of my ambivalence about storytelling comes from the feeling that we already have the data. We know how a story might go, and how it’s set up to conceal the machinery of telling that’s at work. We’ve acquired this familiarity through a long, trans-generational assimilation of a literary past and other traditions as well: nursery rhymes, puppet shows, musicals, Hollywood movies. In a sense we know by heart how stories work and how descriptions are made; what things look like in the world of the story and how they behave. And for all these reasons, we no longer really need to flesh out the rhinoceros again – a reiteration of a reiteration – at least not in works of fiction. And it follows, I guess, that we’ve also learned to anticipate what language is being asked to do – moving around incognito, shifting the scenery as discreetly as possible. Or being foregrounded from time to time to embody a character’s voice or inhabit a narrator.

I’m in awe of this stage-managing if it’s discreetly done. Yet don’t we sometimes feel impatient, as the basics of storytelling are rehearsed with each exemplary production? As though we’d agreed not to notice, or to cover our eyes as a prop was dragged into position? Aren’t we sometimes restless when we find we know how something will end? And only vaguely appeased by a clever sequence of twists? And what of the problem of getting through the first three chapters of a book and beginning to see the movie or the TV version?

Where did we get this knowingness? It’s not an advantage for a reader to see through writing. I’m convinced it’s a curse. But we are where we are, our sensibilities still defined by certain strains of modernism. It’s a bit like carrying a virus whose symptoms keep reappearing. I recognise we’re in dangerous territory here: I’ve just used the M-word again, and I could take us onto even more shaky terrain by talking about ‘experimental’ writing. Still, there is – or was – a sort of modernism that forces us to ‘see through’, and perhaps ‘see beyond’, the machinery of storytelling. And open ourselves up to different challenges – eventually different pleasures.

The modernist writers who typify this knowingness have a disruptive interest in the formal properties of texts and indeed, in the habits of usage (here, I suppose, is the sense in which we could call them un-pickers of language, but I’d prefer to think of them as ambitious Penelopes whose every revision or refusal adds to the whole). Obviously, I’m not referring here to a modernism that makes radical claims about the human condition – the modernism of DH Lawrence, say, or – at the opposite pole – Kafka. This kind of storytelling observes most of the formal protocols; its power resides in ‘the content’, as people used to say. I mean a more self-conscious, experimental writing – writing driven by what Gertrude Stein called an ‘excess of consciousness’.

Hyper-consciousness, I guess, is a better term, a tremendous attention to the world and the materials at a writer’s disposal, language above all, since the medium is the material. Then, too, there is the process of perception itself – what it is to know or to see – and the challenge of representing things afresh. Pound thought of this as making it new. Gertrude Stein herself is a good example; and there’s no shortage of poets – including Hilda Doolittle, who made it new; then a little later the Objectivists, including Lorine Niedecker, on and across to Black Mountain and up through the 1960s. This approach assumes we’re already familiar with the going conventions of various genres, and that we’ll have no trouble when we encounter ellipsis . . . juxtaposition . . . the gleaming fragment. But if the going gets hard, the texts seem to imply, then perhaps we need to put in more imaginative and intellectual work.

There’s another important strand, which you might call ‘blockbuster eclectic’: a lusty, highly ingestive approach which puts pressure on the boundaries of the text until they give way and we find ourselves in a glorious tangle of ideas and registers, and a complicity of genres. Men are better than women at this monumental ‘excess of consciousness’, which is why it’s a visible tradition from very early on; think of Rabelais, and later of Sterne and Tristram Shandy (1759-67), move forward a century to Melville (Moby-Dick, 1851) and ahead again to Ulysses (1922). We could talk later about why Proust, for all his loquaciousness, doesn’t fall into this garrulous modernist lineage. Or why Beckett, sparse as his work became, seems to be perched at the edge of it. Of course, there’s every shade of in-between and many overlaps.

For richer or poorer, I’m ‘woven in’ – as a reader – by these disruptive, surprising ways of telling stories. The more I try to compose coherent stories, as journalists must, the stronger my affection for stories that resist straightforward tellings, and tellings that stray from the stories we thought they were about to unfold for us. There are plenty of these around now, some of them written by people taking part in this symposium. It only enhances the stature of these authors when I say that I hear language speaking itself as they write.

Let me break off and read here.

My first extract is from Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’, part 2, The Cost of Living (2018). We’re into a passage about grief, and an allusion to Hamlet, that turns back to an address by Levy, or some kind of narrator, to the mother she’s mourning. We start with a quotation from Act 2, scene 2 of Hamlet, and go on from there:

Words, words, words
I think he’s trying to say that he’s inconsolable. [The ‘he’ is Hamlet.]
Words can cover up everything [the narrator goes on]

I don’t see ghosts but I can hear you listening

The war is over for you

Here’s some news from the living. I have been visited by birds all this year, in one way or another. Some of them are real and some of them are less real

[and a beat further on:]

I’ve stopped thinking about why I’m obsessed with birds but it might be to do with death and renewal.

* * *

The second extract is from something Amit Chaudhuri wrote. I thought at first to quote from an intriguing passage in his novel Friend of my Youth (2017), where the narrator’s interviewed by a journalist and talks about what fiction is and what it does. But Chaudhuri wrote something else in a piece for Granta that’s closer to what I’m trying to get at today.3 He was thinking back over revisions he did on drafts of his first novel, A Strange and Sublime Address (1991). He tells us he found the process painful. In ‘the second phase of revision’, he explains, he decided not to establish linking passages ‘between one salvaged bit and another. I arranged paragraphs that had no innate sequentiality in order to give them an appearance of linearity. Each participated in, and ignored, the onward current.’

We’re almost talking here about the evolution of a modernist canvas, with elements disposed according to the shifting rules of composition. I’ll take a chance and say that what Chaudhuri describes is not unlike the way in which Pound recast The Waste Land as a sequence of fragments. And because this kind of approach to composing is far from dead and buried, I’ve begun to think that I completely misunderstood what happened to storytelling in the 1980s. At the time, I believed it was the end of everything that interested me. I came to the view we’d all been forced back onto an idea of ‘nature’. Ultra-liberal market theories in the Reagan/Thatcher era suggested that we were indeed part of the animal kingdom. And that the new vision of political economy was thoroughly ‘natural’. Everything seemed suddenly to have been naturalised. Even in sport, ‘force of nature’ came to seem as indispensable as skill. And suddenly modernism’s habit of turning the mirror away from nature to look at representation itself appeared to be decadent.

In the 1980s, we saw a flurry of neo-classicism in architecture, a conservative retreat in jazz, and – in quite a lot of fiction – a return to the fully naturalised story that seems to mirror the ‘real’: good narrative arc, true-to-life characters, exemplary use of perspective. Something like a life class. That coincided, by the way, with a vogue for travel writing: the well-meaning white man was venturing out again among ‘remote’ peoples to test the truths which unregulated free-market capitalism claimed to understand. But the point I kept missing was just how resilient those modernist strands I’d thought were severed actually turned out to be.

In the 1980s, I was living in New York. I was befriended briefly by Kathy Acker. Over a couple of months, we played two, maybe three games of chess in her apartment, a bolted bunker-like affair whose whereabouts I’ve forgotten, maybe somewhere around Gramercy Park. During our first game I thought: if I lose this, she’ll cast me into outer darkness. And moments later: what if I win? But her apartment already felt like outer darkness to a sheltered European like myself. New York was in many ways the place I feared to be: so many modernisms seemed passé or insignificant, dwarfed above all by the ultra-liberal politics of the period, a crushing blow to the very idea of a literary avant-garde. And yet my generous host, who took to me because I was a waif in the city, was an avant-gardiste of the first water, even if I never grasped what she was doing in her novels. Or what her marginal books – as they seemed to me then – would amount to. But I do now. ‘There is no master narrative,’4 she wrote years later, ‘nor realist perspective’ to adumbrate ‘social and historical facts’. And so she’d just gone on writing because there was always a ‘real’ in need of inventing.

The business of writing, the narrator tells us in Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth, ‘is not about life. It is a form of living. The two happen simultaneously.’ I can see that. And there’s something else: the writing I make sense of best is also a conspicuous form of thinking. It’s almost as if I was following the movement of thought itself. Restless and elliptical or fluent and discursive . . . jagged bursts with curious interruptions, or alternatively a constant, gentle pressure like a breeze coming off the hills. If poems can do this, so can prose. That includes stories that are often about their own making: scavenging, allusive, Ackerist projects that aren’t quite the same as storytelling.

I know, as I’m talking, that I’ll have to start writing a story of my own a day or so from now. That’s journalism. It’ll be as clear and economical as I can make it. It will spell out as many difficulties as I think need spelling out. My editor will send me back to make a passage more explicit. Perhaps the piece will have to be cut to fit the page. Someone, possibly me, will introduce a spelling mistake in a last-minute change. It’s a working life and I really enjoy it for most of the time. But when I take a break and turn to a book for pleasure – maybe two weeks from now – what will I want to read? Will I go for a conventional work of fiction – maybe a rollicking story? Because for all I’ve said today, I can find myself immersed and impressed by a compelling narrative, with its mastery of all those not-so-secret arts.

But what if the curse of knowingness descends again and I see through it? This risk is always present when I find myself in front of a well told tale. So perhaps I’ll go for a different kind of book, and a different order of artifice, which won’t be aiming to sweep me off my feet: something writerly that will reassure me that I’m woven in, as the author explores the vast fabric of language, and I hear the reassuring clack of shuttles working back and forth.

1 The final essay in Unterwegs zur Sprache (1959), translated by David Farrell Krell in his edition of Heidegger’s Basic Writings (Routledge, 1978).

2 Written in 1967 and translated by Stephen Heath in Image-Music-Text, an anthology of Barthes’ essays (Fontana, 1977).

3 ‘First Sentence’, Granta, online edition, 22 June 2017.

4 Pussy, King of the Pirates, Grove Press, 1996

Jeremy Harding is a writer and journalist based in France. He is a contributing editor at the LRB. His books include Border Vigils: Keeping Migrants Out of the Rich World and Mother Country, a memoir.