Why the storytelling model doesn't work

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Driving along on Tuesday, I heard CBC-Radio's Jian Ghomeshi interview U.S. performance artist Laurie Anderson. She's opened a new show in Calgary at the annual High Performance Rodeo. "Politics is all storytelling," she said. "They're doing what I'm doing. If you like their story, you'll probably vote for them."

I took it as performance art, something she floated to see if she wanted to use it. But it had a note of despair. U.S. artists, most of them leftish, or as they say, liberal, were shaken by the Obama experience. They thought he'd make big change, as he claimed, but it's mostly still there: the war-making, internments, servility to big money. So you grow showily cynical: it's all just storytelling that doesn't really matter except some are more entertaining and well-told than others. Courage my love, and keep on creating --

I never much liked storytelling as a model for Life Itself and this may be a hint that it's due for retirement. In Canada it had a particularly strong run as a model for Canadian culture. Peter Gzowski, Ghomeshi's precursor on CBC radio, saw his role as helping Canadians tell each other their stories. Sheila Copps, in her long reign as federal culture minister, tirelessly insisted that Canadian culture was telling our stories.

What's surprising is how inapplicable that model is, even in culture. Some music tells stories, like opera and ballads. But the rest, including most pop songs, don't. It expresses a feeling, or tries. Visual arts -- not usually, except in pre-movie days. Lyric poetry, no. (Nor pottery.) Most art is more a matter of finding a few meaningful moments in an utterly plotless flow.

The model is even less apt elsewhere. Journalism has been especially burdened. Numerous articles begin with the equivalent of Once upon a time. ("Helen Q. Citizen stood in front of a vacant lot... ") Sometimes they are story-equivalents -- like Paul Watson's report of a rescue from Afghanistan in the Star. But often they veer in another direction: historical, analytical, statistical. I've never understood why it isn't okay to start an article: "This is about your chances of dying whenever you enter a hospital... " And let the reader decide if that's gripping enough to continue.

As for politics, Ronald Reagan, as U.S. president from 1980 to 1988, turned almost everything into a story. Strangely, it wasn't because he was The Great Communicator -- as we were often told. Reagan's son says his dad was incapable of seeing the world in other terms. He lacked the ability to generalize. Storytelling was perhaps the only role in life he was truly suited for.

Storytelling doesn't even properly work in the case of stories -- at least those for adults, known as novels. British critic Frank Kermode, who died last August after a numbingly productive career, made the point in his finest book, The Sense of an Ending, 46 years ago: That what we want isn't a neat plot finished up with a tidy ending and moral. That's kidlit. We want the "sense" of an ending but without the neatness, so that it's more like the inconclusiveness of real life, that tends to fritter away, but with hints of meaning. Then it feels true. You could say we want the sense of a story without the literal damn tale.

British novelist Julian Barnes wrote a novel last year called, exactly, The Sense of an Ending, which sounded like an homage to Kermode. But in fact it ties up neatly at the end, there's a surprise revealed, all the clues dribbled out along the way add up and Bob's your uncle. It's less an homage to Kermode's theory than a finger at it. I'll stick with the original. Barnes' book won the Booker prize, though, raising the question (again) of whether those judges read the books.

I still don't understand why I find veritable storytellers, the kind you find gathering people around them in Kensington Market on car-free Sundays, so irritating. Maybe it's the word itself. There's often something precious and self-congratulatory about it, like they've found the secret of drawing virtue from a simpler time. The true storytellers today are probably found in standup clubs, just barely managing to survive. Or not.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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