—from “The Death of Narrative,” a talk given to the Creative Non-Fiction Collective at Banff, April 2007
Many stories in a recent issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism, for example, lead with narrators reporting on themselves:
- I’m standing at reception in the X hotel…
- I first meet X outside the Y hotel …
- Standing inside Hotel X, I’m watching Y…
- I’m sitting in a government office in City X, waiting for Y…
- I’m standing inside the lobby of Hotel Y, looking for X…
We read these sentences and we can hear the imaginary cameras running.
Other stories in the issue pretend to the “objective” third person:
- X stands in front of a class…
- Y stands in the middle of the room…
- Z grins and looks out the window, his face turning red…
- “Hey!” X smiles, returning the greeting…
…as if to demonstrate that in the world of the Ryerson Review, first and third persons alike are to be found complete with stage directions, standing, watching, sitting, meeting, looking, smiling, grinning—and never doing anything.
The Ungendered Pronoun
Sentences beginning with It is and There are can also be found throughout the Ryerson Review, in sentences that do not (because they cannot) predicate anything of their subjects.
Harold Ross, longtime editor of The New Yorker, on the ungendered pronoun: “I never read a book that starts with It.”
In other words, the literary journalism found in the pages of the Ryerson Review consists largely of pronouns that don’t mean anything, combined with verbs that don’t do anything. Narrative has been usurped by the enumerative, and the materials of narrative are reduced to scripting notes for a documentary that will never be filmed.
Another name for literary journalism is creative non-fiction, the wearying effects of which (in these examples) must be suffered by readers, but apparently not by editors who promote it and teachers who teach it.
An analogous enumerative writing method can be seen in much of the fiction pouring from the creative writing schools: thinly disguised location notes and scripted dialogue accompanied by stage directions intended for feature films that will never be produced.
Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the great narrative writers in English, wrote in 1893 in a letter to Henry James: “I hear people talking, I feel them acting. . . my two aims may be described as:
“1st, War to the adjective;
“2nd, Death to the optic nerve.
“Admitted we live in an age of the optic nerve in literature. For how many centuries did literature get along without a sign of it?”
Two years later, on December 28, 1895, the Lumiere brothers mounted the first public screening of a moving picture.
The death of narrative finds its roots in the optical culture of the twentieth century.
In the September 2006 issue of the Walrus, several features seem to be preoccupied with the future: of the CANDU reactor, of Esperanto, of Iran, of Canadian Pinot Noir wine, of the Universe, of Alberta’s new-found wealth.
A single paragraph in the CANDU reactor story offers:
- 500 executives, scientists, and officials
- one evening
- one Asian fusion smorgasbord
- 27 reactors
- more than a hundred more reactors
- five decades
- $20 billion
And no transitive verbs, and no one doing anything.
Remember the old weekend magazines in the newspapers? They at least knew how to make stories of, say, the fate of the John Deere Tractor vs the Massey Ferguson. In those days a writer would go out and talk to the people who drove the machinery: in other words, the writer would turn to narrative.
In this issue of the Walrus, the sententious query stands in for the narrative that isn’t there:
- What will Alberta do with its new-found power?
- Are we alone in the vastness of space?—Or is the universe filled with life?
- Will Pinot Noir elevate Canadian wine to world-class status?
Even the fate of Esperanto cannot be known; but we are not to worry: “Fortunately, Esperanto doesn’t want to deprive us of our mother tongue.” In real narrative writing, Esperanto would not be allowed to want or not to want anything, but the writer’s optimism is nevertheless tempered by caution in sentences that contain no narrative subjects: “to be an idealist in 2006 requires a very tough, stubborn kind of faith.”
Here is the familiar formula of “on one hand and on the other hand,” of six of one and half a dozen of the other; of the nostrum standing in place of thought, obviating the need for narrative: “Learning a language as an adult,” we are informed, “can be discouraging,” but we are not told how language can ever be an adult. “Four centuries ago, attempts to expand our knowledge of the universe could be met with charges of heresy.” Later, near the end, we are solemnly informed that: “The universe is unfathomably vast.”
How Can Narrative Be Revived?
As transitive verbs and narrative subjects disappear from sentences, so does narrative disappear from the world. Good narrative begins with transitive verbs; that is, with real actions attributed to real subjects. See Narrative: Six principles and some examples, and Verbs: Avoid the quiet and the copulative, and other notes here in the Writer's Toolbox.