Those who know Steve Almond as an incredible short story writer might be surprised by the deep rigor and political analysis of this recent nonfiction book, Bad Stories. But those of us who read his Week in Greed column won’t, particularly those of us who read “To Behave like the Fallen World“ and were able to revel in his capacity to expose his own transgressions for the sake of a narrative that epitomizes the human condition. I consider Steve a mentor, and he’s had a great deal of influence on my work. We chatted over email about his latest book.
The Millions: Early on in Bad Stories, you say you believe that faith in stories has been integral to our survival, but you also believe this capacity poses the central risk to our species and that the 2016 election is an object lesson in just how much harm bad stories can inflict upon even the sturdiest democracy.
When I read that I was reminded of an interview Lauren Groff had with Brad Listi, wherein she likened Ayn Rand to someone who was given a pen to write with yet used it to stab us in the eye.
I agree so much with what you’ve both said here, and in this political era, I’m clamoring for narratives that promote collectivism, what you mention as the beautiful fiction known as the common good. But maybe there’s a different narrative approach that can be taken here.
I’ve had the good fortune of learning from you.
One of my favorite lectures of yours is one you call “Show Me the Gun,” about the amount of information we share with the reader. You urge your students not to hold back, to not be coy; perhaps all the characters don’t have the information, but our beloved reader knows it all.
Am I naive to think that collectivism is the narrative that will lead us toward change? Will it be satire? It seems there are a lot more dystopic narratives, stories about greed gone awry. We watch people on Westworld and Black Mirror and Handmaid’s Tale reaching for more than their fair share, and it acts as a portal into our present or our future, and maybe we’ll learn from it or maybe we’ll all suffer compassion fatigue. What do you think?
Steve Almond: I hadn’t made the connection, but my approach as a teacher of creative writing does have something to do with collectivism. What I often see from student writers is the withholding of vital contextual information from the reader. The writer does this for a number of reasons: She hasn’t figured out the context yet and/or she fears it will be boring and/or she believes withholding will build suspense and/or she’s been told “show don’t tell” too many times. Whatever the reasons, the most common result is that the reader gets confused. They really don’t know the character they’re reading about and what’s at stake for that person. And they usually stop reading that story—no matter how vivid the prose is. They can’t connect emotionally. Because we can’t feel what a character feels until we know what they know.
This is really at the heart of the essential human struggle between selfishness and collectivism. Are we, as individuals and as a culture, willing to recognize the humanity of other people? Are we willing to imagine our way into their struggle? That’s what our most powerful good stories help us do, stories such as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Gettysburg Address, or Their Eyes Were Watching God or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” or Song of Solomon. Great books—great art of any kind—complicate moral action by making us feel our responsibility for the suffering of others. In this sense, it’s the literary ally of collectivism.
Propaganda seeks just the opposite. It’s intended to help us disregard other people, to nurture our own selfish impulses, to anesthetize our mercy. This is what Lauren means when she talks about Ayn Rand. Her novels are properly understood as dogma, a kind of capitalist propaganda devoted to the childish fantasy that the rich are virtuous and the poor are morally defective. They hew to the basic moral logic of eugenics. And they portend a world straight out of Thomas Hobbes, in which life is understood as “a war of all against all.” It is this manner of thought that has animated the American right for the past half-century, and which our current president embodies—a mindset that is a precise repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount.
What you call “compassion fatigue” is the understandable exhaustion that people of conscience feel in having to fight such tireless greed and cruelty.
But it’s important to remember the stories in American history that have marked our moral progress: abolition, emancipation, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights. Long before we had a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” we had a “war on poverty.” All of this required Americans of conscience to turn away from their screens and get off their couches and take action, to embrace the burdens and privileges of citizenship. As you know from your work, Melissa, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But it’s the only way we can push the pendulum back in the direction of mercy. It’s not going to happen by us just sitting on the sidelines, hate-watching the demise of our democracy.
TM: You define bad stories as stories that are fraudulent either by design or by negligence. One of the first bad stories is our electoral system. You talk early on in the book about how our system of democracy has been rigged, structurally and logistically, by some combination of cynical partisan intent, class privilege, and abject negligence. You later go on to state how we are powerless to fix our broken institutions.
It was one of those rare, stunning summer days at a summer writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon, when a writer said she just wasn’t sure about voting, that her vote mattered, or maybe I’m remembering wrong—maybe she wasn’t sure about a specific initiative like universal health care or a progressive tax or a candidate—and either I looked at you pleading for help or you me, but that brings me to what I often find to be the worst bad story: What is the antidote for apathy?
If I were to channel my inner Steve Almond, I might say the narrative antidote to apathy is to invoke empathy, and the best way a writer could do that is to write honestly, with an open, unguarded heart. Much less a what to do than a what not to do…to not protect oneself from excessive emotional involvement. That emotional entanglement is the point. As Cheryl Strayed has said, be brave enough to break our own hearts. Today I get to tell my students that contrary to what we’ve been taught, the page is the one place where we are not just safe but encouraged to break our own hearts.
SA: Yeah, look—it hurts to touch the inner life. Our best stories are not the ones that try to soothe that hurt, but ones that articulate that hurt and remind us that we’re not alone in that hurt. Apathy, like alienation, is a defensive response to thwarted desire. It’s people deciding—consciously or unconsciously—that they can no longer shoulder what Sarah Manguso calls “the burden of hope.” So maybe the question we should have asked that woman in Portland is: What do you desire? What are your hopes? Who are you worried about? Where are you hurting? That’s what our best stories do: they peel back our grievances and reveal our vulnerabilities.
TM: My most damaging unreliable narrator is the one I’ve manifested over time by way of capitalism. I’ll wake up and think of all the ways I’ll lose everything I have. All the things I have not yet acquired. I have to catch myself and say, no Melissa, that is not a true story; those are the little capitalist elves taking over your mind. You articulate this so well when you say Trumpism is predicated on the zero-sum model; in order for you to win, the other guy has to lose. What do you tell your children when they are entertaining that very American ideology of compare and despair?
SA: Gosh. Yeah. I mean, my kids are constantly doing this. It’s a natural human impulse, one that capitalism has amplified in ways we hardly ever discuss. Look at the manner in which we fetishize wealth and vilify poverty. You can’t blame that on “pop culture” because we’re the ones who create pop culture. What I’ve found with my kids is that it doesn’t work to scold them for bratty behavior, because these behaviors arise from shame—the shame of feeling that you have less because you are less. And here’s the thing: You can’t shame shame out of existence. You can only love it out of existence. What I try to do is recognize that a bratty kid is a kid in need, but one who can’t articulate his or her needs. My wife and I also try (emphasis on try) to model generosity.
One of the curiosities of the 2016 election was that the psychodynamics revolved around shame. Donald Trump presented a kind of unprecedented figure in American politics because he didn’t just appear immune to shame; he weaponized shamelessness. And this made him irresistible. Not just to his base, who saw in him a kind of wish fantasy of moral impunity, but also to his haters (like me) who reveled in repudiating him. We all fed the oxygen of attention into the Trump Express; we all let him set the agenda. It was a kind of shame-based Ponzi scheme in which Trump would say something despicable and people would express disgust and Trump would say, “See, the lying media looks down upon you!” and his supporters, feeling looked down upon, would convert their shame into greater devotion.
It’s the precise opposite of the lesson you try to impart to children, which is that shame should lead you to question and modify your own behavior.
TM: One thing I find to be most difficult about political writing is that heavy lifting of unpacking the backstory. The exposition. How can I write political history in dramatic scene? What does the reader already know? How much should I share? You do this genius thing where you give the reader a bunch of information, but you respect us—by prefacing your statement with “We know”…as in:
We know Fred Trump was arrested at a Klan rally as a younger man, that he didn’t like renting apartments to African-Americans, that he was sued by the federal government for discriminatory practices and forced to desegregate his properties. We know he used to take young Donald around with him to collect rents, and later employed him in the family business. We know that he urged his son to be a “killer” and shipped him off to a military boarding school at age twelve.
And I was like holy shit—I didn’t know all that, but I was glad for the extra props. Can you talk a little bit about the craft of writing a political essay?
SA: A lot of it resides in simply providing the relevant dramatic context for the reader, like we were discussing before. In this case, you have to understand that Trump was raised by a racist father who failed to love him. You can’t understand Trump—his instinctual racial animus, his inexhaustible masculine shame, his need to project his weakness onto others—unless you give the reader the full story. I wrote Bad Stories in part because nobody is giving Americans of conscience the full story. We get all these half-baked hot takes without any sense of the bad stories that led to particular bad outcomes. It’s all panic and no reflection, all present and no backstory, all symptom and no cure.
TM: You tell a story of your time as a young journalist, a pretty incredible one actually. You discuss how you wrote about an assignment to cover the city of Meriden, Connecticut, how you were not from the city. You were honest about how you simply sat in coffee shops and in your Mercury rather than getting to know the city, scheduling ride-alongs, talking to some people who work graveyard shifts, going to the hospital, things like that. You turned in the story, and here is the best detail: Your boss hands you an envelope with $350 and instructs you to buy something nice for your girlfriend, to go get her some cocaine.
First of all that, is such a great fucking line to a story I don’t know how you’ve gone this long without using it (unless you have, and I suck for not remembering). This story is all about what is wrong with journalism. And I agree, wholeheartedly, but I have to disagree that journalism could not awaken the conscience of the powerful, nor rescue those most in need. I have to believe in something.
I am part of a nonprofit called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It was founded by Barbara Ehrenreich with the aim to enable writers who experience poverty to write about it. So rather than parachute some cocky 20-year-old out to Meriden, Connecticut, a local warehouse worker in Meriden could tell her own narrative. I often report on lived experience, and one of the greater challenges I’ve found is that news outlets don’t want to entrust someone with lived experience to tell their story; they fear we may have a bias. For example, the child welfare system has been my beat, but as a former foster youth, people may think that could cloud my judgement in some way or another. But that brings me to the point you were making here: What exactly does that say about who we do entrust with the story? Who does get to shape our narratives?
SA: Yes! That’s it! The problem is one of privilege and cynicism and sloth—and I was a party to all three back in Meriden, though I had no idea at the time. Who gets to shape the narrative? We should all be asking that, every minute of the day. Who gets to shape the narrative? Look at all those rich old white men in front of microphones. Are they telling the story of every American? Can they possibly know the story of a child of color who grew up in foster care? Why are we allowing people who can’t see or understand such lives to make policy that profoundly effects (and usually harms) such lives? You can draw a straight line between Ronald Reagan talking about “Welfare Queens” and Trump calling immigrants “rapists” and “animals.” This is why I tell so many stories in the book about the limits of my own experience, the way in which I would sit on my porch in El Paso sipping coffee while below me I could watch young women crossing the Rio Grande from Juarez to come clean American toilets for 12 hours a day. They’d stand there, shivering in the dawn, having to strip off their wet clothes and change into dry ones, hoping an INS van wouldn’t chase them through the low desert scrub. That’s just a stone-cold picture of American privilege. I can’t witness that. I can try to imagine what those women are thinking and feeling, but I have no fucking clue. Only they do.
One of the foundational bad stories of journalism is the bad story of “objective journalism,” which Hunter S. Thompson called “a pompous contradiction in terms.” It’s just a little ethical fairytale that reporters tell themselves so they can sleep at night. It makes much more sense to let people tell their own stories, because even the most sensitive journalistic account is really just an approximation from without.
TM: This brings me also to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. You describe this book as an elegant polemic against television; Postman outlines that as a result of television, serious things are handled (and received) with the same essential lack of seriousness.
What do you think Postman would make of social media?
SA: I suspect he would see it as the final step in the disintegration of epistemology, the moment in which the very idea of “the truth” became so decentralized and subjective as to be irrelevant. And that’s really most of what you see when you look at social media: Everyone is crafting a public fiction that conforms to their inner life. The tech greedheads have this whole utopian rap about how the whole point of social media is to connect people. But that’s marketing, which is to say bullshit. The point is to aggregate attention on behalf of the sponsors. That’s why Facebook was happy to become a sewer of Russian misinformation during the election. That’s why your Google search feeds you results that confirm your biases and nourish your bigotries. It’s why so many Russian bots haunted the digital halls of Twitter.
Any sensible government would regulate these huge companies, to prevent them from spreading bad stories. That’s what the Fairness Doctrine was about: putting a spoiler plate on for-profit propaganda. The whole point of the Fairness Doctrine was to make sure the public airwaves were used to serve the public good. When Reagan’s FCC repealed it, right-wing radio went wild. For-profit propaganda became the media’s central growth industry. The modern media echo chamber was born.
The folks who spew this propaganda sound serious as poison. But they are completely unmoored from reason, science, verifiable truth. Which is to say: They are entertainers who are paid to appear serious. And because there is no Fairness Doctrine to keep them honest, actual scientists and professors and journalists and workers are never allowed to call them out on their bullshit. They enjoy the ultimate epistemological safe space, where they can craft enthralling fictions about how white people are the true victims of everything and are constantly under siege by dark others.
In fact, they get to inject this poisonous rhetoric directly into the American political bloodstream, which is how you get Trump as president.
But here’s the thing: We’re not just witnesses to this process. We’re the needle. The attention we give to the bad stories spewed by these hatemongers distracts us from the stories we should be focused on—the story of climate change, of income inequality, of systemic racism, the stories of our most vulnerable citizens.
This is why, in darker moments, I see America as engaged in a kind of disorganized descent into fascism, because rather than housing the Joseph Goebbels of our age in a dungeon or relegating them to the fringes of our public discourse, we’re amplifying their paranoid and fraudulent hate speech.
TM: Can we do a throwback Thursday and I ask Steve “Sugar” a question that kind of relates to all these bad stories?
So I was teaching a writing workshop to young women at a camp in the Pacific Northwest. I talked about being a teenage girl in foster care and developing an ache: the don’t-get-too-attached-you-can’t-spend-eat-fuck-your-way-out-of-it ache, as it were. My talk was the one thing between the young campers and their lunch. So I gave my talk, and we all scattered our own way, but later in the food line over trays, a young woman approached me and sheepishly asked, “Did you ever get rid of the ache?”
I felt like I was at a fork in the road; one direction could lead to a bad story. What should I have told her?
SA: I would have told her that she was brave and beautiful for asking that question and that the only honest answer to give her is that we’re living in the ache. The ache is the astonishing sorrow of the examined life. The ache is how we know we’re alive. And when we’re telling good stories, the ache is how you know you’re not alone in this life.