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1984

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The Death of Storytelling



"Uh...you ... Uh, Shep? You don't mind if I call you 'Shep,' do you'? Uh. . . How 'bout a piece on, say, The Death of Storytelling? Uh... How does that grab you?" After further involved philosophical decisions had been made, I thoughtfully hung up the phone, poured myself a finger or two of Jim Beam black label into my band-blown, Mexican, Danish-style martini glass (do Mexicans drink martinis?), and painfully began to mull over The Death of Storytelling. At first, the mulling didn't come easy, because my mind kept reverting to editors and their sneaky, dictatorial ways. Did Edgar Alan Poe get messages that began with: "Say, Eddie, we need some kind of poem as a filler, say about 1,200 words. We've been kicking it around at the office, and... How 'bout something, say, about ravens? They've been pretty big this year, and... ?" Yes, the sad fact of it is he probably did. Here, of late, I've been getting a lot of calls asking me if I'd care to write about the death of one thing or another, usually (a) humor, (b) conversation and storytelling, and I have been able to resist both the urge to tilt at windmills, as any such project involves, and the largesse that goes with the effort. But today's editor was so lovable and beguiling that I simply could not refuse. After all, I had a bad enough reputation in certain circles without adding churlishness - a fine word: churl, churlish (churliocity?) - to my other vices. The first thought that struck me was that the editor did not ask me to write a story; he asked me to write about the death of stories. And here he was an editor. He could print whatever he wanted. There's another editor whom I love dearly who keeps asking me to write about the demise of humor, the very bird who used to publish my waggish stuff. One day I asked him about this switcheroo, and his answer was as vague and as hard to grab onto as a quart and a half of quicksand. "Well, the reader seems to want more serious stuff about..." Serious stuff about humor! Now there's a kick in the butt for you. Seriously, sports fans, these editors do have a point. However, one problem is that most of today's audience under 36 doesn't know that anything has died, or that anything ever really existed other than the current disposable stuff that passes for storytelling and humor. Your average contemporary movie-goer hasn't the faintest idea that Buster Keaton could put more meaning into one 10-second moment on the screen than an the Steve Martin films put together, including the endless credits and the millions spent for hype. Does it matter? It's hard to say. Certainly not to the yo-yo _ who believes that Chevy Chase invented comedy, and that the four-letter word school (Murphy, Pryor et al) is dripping with insight and the true grasp of the human condition. Well, it's obvious that something is dying that once flourished, rich and verdant in the late years of the last century and the early years of this. I'm not a hand-wringer by nature, but have you recently compared a Nora Ephron novel with Willa Cather or Edith Wharton? Or anything by Stephen King with "The Fall of the House of Usher" or "The Telltale Heart"? Where did we go wrong? Now, that-is the tough question. It's fashionable to blame poor old TV, but we created TV. TV did not spring magically from the head of William Paley like some many-snaked Medusa (how's that for a metaphor, fans?). No indeed, we - all of us as a culture - put together this giant tar baby of tired clich and predictable rhetoric, this comforting melange of supportive fables where almost every ill imaginable can be cured by "love" or "care," everything from lupus to the mess in El Salvador. If Marx quipped "Religion is the opium of the people," it was because he didn't live to see Channel 4 or 7 or 13 .. No indeed. If he had, he might have said "video is the cocaine of the booboisie." Speaking of the booboisie, I wonder what the late H. L. Mencken would have made of "Real People"; "yahoos climbing greased poles after dollar bills, and ancient ladies playing rock music to the contra-puntal clatter of their dentures. H. L., where are you when we need you most? The times, they are a-changin'. Why? Maybe on the cosmic side we can blame Leonard Bernstein's "Age of Anxiety," David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd." Lonely, anxious people need comforting and cuddling. If there was ever a more successful security blanket than TV, it's yet to be invented. Where does the death of storytelling come into all this? Right in the center, the very core. True storytellers deal in black magic and anxiety. In a well-told tale, the reader/viewer never knows where it will all end, or . .if it will ever end at all. Storytellers require readers/viewers who will follow them inch by inch through the labyrinthine, shifting moods; nuances of foreboding, with total absorption to the very end. To the bitter end. To the funny end. Even to the bitter-funny end, but all the way. Have you noticed that most TV "stories" are filled with laughable illogic? "Why are they in that car, Mommy? When did they get in the car? How did they know the bad guys went to that warehouse, Mommy?" It's no mystery, child. It's because it's a TV show, or it's a movie. That's reason enough for unreason. I know from bitter experience that the people who put together these epics on a professional level are fully aware that the "audience" these I days spends most of its time going to the john, running into the kitchen to finish the dishes, buying more Good n' Plenty or whatever, and that the audience always figures that it missed a key scene when, mysteriously, Burt Reynolds knows the bad guys went to the warehouse, and what the hell's the difference anyway, since there'll be another movie on in 10 minutes, and what we're waiting for is the car crashes anyway. Anyway, anyway, anyway ... The producers are just as bad as the audience, to be frank. There's a deadly axiom in TV that no top-level decision-maker ever watches more than the first five minutes of the tape of any pilot, and if he buys that first five minutes, you've got a deal ("Mr. W. is too busy to watch the entire 90-minute tape, you understand. He's having lunch with Jane Fonda's agent, and . . ."). So the old pros who know that making a deal is far more important these days than making art concentrate on those first five minutes, and the rest of the show is stuck together with Band-Aids and Scotch Tape. ("After all, bubbie, Mr. W. bought it, didn't he?") Then there are those heavy thinkers who blame our education for the death of storytelling, hence literature. And why not? In most schools, survey workbooks have replaced actual books, and it is possible to graduate from many colleges without ever having read a single volume from cover to cover. We all know that illiteracy is rampant. In one state of our blessed union, 40 per cent of the teachers tested failed to pass a literacy proficiency test that was pegged at the seventh-grade level. And the teachers had the gall to protest that the test was "unfair." How "unfair" can a literacy test aimed at the seventh gTade be? God only knows. I sure don't. But the teachers bitched, and the test was eliminated. No wonder the kids in their classes pass everything in sight with a B + average, as long as they know how to blow their noses, and don't defecate on the floor. The blind leading the blind? The other day, I had a hair-raising experience in the main public library - of a giant American city. Innocently, I showed the cover of a novel to _the young woman behind the check-out counter (computerized, of course). The dialogue went like this: Me: "This book is pretty well shot. I want you to know that before I take it out, so you don't blame me. Maybe you have another copy around that's better." Young Woman (peering blankly at the cover of the novel, her brow furrowing and sweat popping out on her nose): "Uh .. . " Second Young Woman (lurking behind counter, in helpful voice): "Let me take a look at that, Olive. Oh, yes. 'Rabbit Redux.' I'll get it for you. We've got another one ready to go on the shelves." (She disappears with the volume.) First Young Woman (looking relieved): "Thanks, Flo.'' (She moves away to take care of another customer.) Second Young Woman (returning with new copy): "This is brand new." (Then, leaning forward toward me, speaking in a confidential whisper): "She has trouble reading." Me (astounded): "She can't read, and she works in a library? What the hell is this?" Second Young Woman: "All I know is that half the new ones can't read." I left the library in a very thoughtful mood. If the librarian can't read, why the hell should the readers be expected to hack it? Maybe it's computers. I don't know. If the clerk at Gristede's has trouble figuring out how much a dime, two nickels, three pennies and a quarter add up to without his computer, where will it stop? I predict that the widespread panic that will occur when the next statewide power blowout happens and all the computers wink out and stare back at us with cold, gray faces will be because we know our entire economy could collapse in four hours. No one remembers how to add or subtract, or multiply, or, God forbid, divide, which is the hardest of all. In the long run, I suspect that the death of arithmetic is even more serious than the death of storytelling, but that's a topic for other and more learned broadsides. Back to the subject. What does illiteracy actually do to the mind? Psychologists say that it breeds Jack of concentration, inability to follow a complex idea from alpha to omega, and lots of other pernicious side effects that make EDB poisoning look like kid stuff. There are all kinds of illiteracy, and in my considered opinion the worst is the illiteracy of the educated. I have a friend, a highly qualified surgeon, the head of his department in a major medical center in the New York area, who, to my knowledge, does not own a single book other than medical texts. He just doesn't read, spending his time doing such intellectual things as deep knee bends, and taking trips to Aspen on his BMW motorcycle. One day, I casually asked him n he had ever heard of Nathanael West. He thought for a moment and finally said: "Yeah. Doesn't he write for Car and Driver?" "How 'bout Graham Greene?" I asked. He laughed. "Oh, yeah, he's great." ''What does he do?" I countered. The doctor chuckled. "He does the food column for the Living section in The New York Times." Yes, the truth was there for all to see. My surgeon is as blissfully illiterate as your average Hell's Angels recruit, or one of those ding-dongs who move their lips as they struggle to decipher the headlines in The New York Post on the EE train. And bliss is a good word, because ignorance is truly blissful. That look on Alfred E. Neuman's face: ''What? Me worry?" Bliss, pure bliss, a face never troubled by an idea more meaningful than how much mustard to put on a Shea Stadium hot dog. As concentration as we once knew it withers inexorably, like that expensive plant you bought three weeks ago, and our attention span approaches that of a Dalmatian, it was inevitable that new forms of entertainment or, if you will, "storytelling," have evolved. A good example is "Hill Street Blues," ironically hailed as realistic, and yet, never a more unrealistic police station ever existed, to the knowledge of several police lieutenants of my acquaintance. Fistfights, shoot-outs, wrestling matches, perpetual screaming is but the daily grind at the good old Hill Street station. The "stories" contradict each other endlessly. Whatever happened to Fay's new baby? Who takes care of it while she spends her day bugging Frank amid the gunfights? Howard tries suicide and never mentions it again. Whatever happened to that Asian prostitute he loved so mightily? Oh well . . . It's all TV, and "Hill Street Blues" is tailored to the fitful, sporadic attention of today's viewer. Another by-product of this advancing know-nothing age is the "instant" everything, from flapjacks to ideas. Gratification here and now. Even the shortest short story withholds gratification to the very end, so who needs it? Hell, Melville could have put "Moby Dick" in one good sentence if he wasn't all the time padding, all that stuff about God and the ocean, that unnecessary stuff that they don't put in The Reader's Digest. After all, it was just a story about a crazy captain who got his leg bit off by a white whale, so he went out after that dumb whale and the bugger killed him. Moral: Stay away from white whales, especially if you have a wooden leg. Most serious art forms have died along the way, not just humor storytelling. How about tragedy? How long has it been since you've seen a true, stalking, hollow-eyed tragic figure on any screen? Where is Willy Loman today, when we need him? He's been replaced by " . . . A heartwarming tragic story of a girl who overcame knee braces to become an Olympic skater and marry the sweetheart of her dreams along the way. Parental guidance." But does all this matter anyway? Who knows? It's my guess that the average Roman selling dirty postcards next to the Coliseum is just as happy, more or less, as were the heroic Romans who marched out and built an empire. Life, such as it is, goes on.

Radio and TV personality Jean Shepherd's latest book, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash," was adapted by Shepherd for the recent hit movie, "A Christmas Story." His TV series, "Jean Shepherd's America," will return to the PBS network in the fall.


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Published approximately March 25 to June 30, 1984


Copyright: 1984 Newsday

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