Asher looked up at all those stars again. It wasn’t right for such a sky to be shining above them when so many people had lost so much. But the sky doesn’t pay a bit of attention to the things that happen to us, the joys or the sorrows, either one.” –Silas House, Southernmost
I ordered the sweatshirt—the navy with bright yellow lettering—from Kin Ship Goods, the offbeat apparel store in Charleston. “West Virginia vs. The World.” I suppose I didn’t really need a new sweatshirt, although I felt compelled to get this specific one. Kin Ship only sells super soft sweatshirts and tees, with a whole line of WV-themed clothing. One place of several that feels uniquely our own.
Our. Possessive. The language of belonging to others, to someplace, even if that someplace tends to be a much-maligned and misunderstood corner of the world. That’s what it means, many times, to be from Appalachia. As the only state wholly contained within Appalachia, “West Virginia vs. The World” indeed. I attempted to, in an almost literal way, wear my heart on my sleeve, except the wording on my sweatshirt stretches over my entire torso. You can’t miss it.
In his novel Southernmost, Silas House begins with a flood biblical enough for a small borough of East Tennessee and its preacher, Asher Sharpe. “The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness for two days, and the waters rose all at once in the middle of the night …” As the waters rise, Asher tends to his soggy, wiped-out flock. Reading about the flood in House’s novel reminded me of two summers past, when, away for some training in New York City, I awoke to the morning news showing Joe Manchin III, a senator from my state, outside Clendenin, West Virginia, which, like many other places in the state, suffered severe flooding. Rains came down in such quantity and force that the creeks and streams and rivers swelled into every available hollow. From Clendenin, the cameras panned to images of Richwood, also flooded, a river through the local library, where, somehow, the library’s orange cat had been saved.
Meanwhile, Manhattan’s sun was bright, baking the flat grid of pavement below my feet.
The land in Appalachia rises and dips so close, so hemmed in, that if it rains hard enough, there’s nowhere for it all to go. “This one feels like judgement,” House writes of the flood that overtakes Asher’s little town. Reading it, I recognize that nugget, as true for the novel’s slice of Appalachia as it is my own.
Steve Almond believes in stories: “Stories don’t fall from the clouds, after all. They are invented and refined and promoted by particular narrators with particular agendas.” Almond explores what stories can do and explores darker aspect of stories through the lens of the 2016 election in Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. Just as stories have the potential to lift us up, they can also instill within us rather toxic beliefs. As “the basic unit of human consciousness,” Almond implores us to understand the underlying meaning behind the stories we tell ourselves as we struggle to make meaning in our lives and from that which swirls around us. Modern life proliferates stories with increased velocity, which makes pausing on them, let along parsing them, a particular challenge. “The stories we tell and the ones we absorb are what allows us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience,” writes Almond. “Only through the patient interrogation of these stories can we begin to understand where we are and how we got there.”
Problem is, we don’t live in a time where patience is the virtue it once was. Instead, we live in a time when the patience of which Almond speaks feels particularly undervalued, where instead, speed and sensationalism reign. Our politicians tell us we’re done reading books, favoring squawking television sets. Culturally, we prize that which grabs our fleeting attention spans. This, of course, makes the exercise of painstakingly parsing stories even more important. Can we truly value stories if we casually consume them, and can we find their flaws without painstaking investigation? We careen through unexamined lives, more concerned with the idea of protecting ourselves than submitting to more difficult, more examined, and ultimately more satisfying existence.
When Elizabeth Catte read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, she unpacked many troubling stories relating to her home region, Appalachia. One might say she harnessed her anger at J.D. Vance’s one-voiced, sloppy, and self-serving narrative through the salve of her own meticulous research and impassioned prose. In considering the book, Vance’s title is instructive; he considers the story of his experiences and his family indicative of an entire culture, as if the whole of Appalachia as well as Rust Belt Ohio (which he often conflates with Appalachia) should be viewed through his and only his point of view. It shouldn’t be a stretch to say that a 400-plus-county region extending across many states probably has more cultural nuance than a single man’s story, and in her slender but intellectually hefty book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte identifies Elegy as one of many “bad stories” to be debunked.
When her unwavering eye is trained on Vance’s book, Catte pulls apart his flimsy arguments much the same way Steve Almond confronts other bad stories: by seeing how the narrator constructs narrative to serve an agenda. Catte unpacks narrator J.D. Vance by showing us how he wants us to read him: “He is simply an individual burdened with the dual identity of both cosmopolitan elite and hillbilly everyman, performing what he calls his ‘civic responsibility’ to contribute his talent and energy to solving social problems.” She identifies a crafted persona and cautions against his agenda: “Perhaps it is wise to consider if this humility is just a strategy.” We should beware Vance’s humblebrag lest we miss the manipulation he pulls us through, his personal pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-type memoir as the only way to “save” a region. Vance ignores any other viewpoint than his own; Catte rightfully takes Vance’s case study of one to task, unmasking the personal myth with which he underpins the entire book, and challenges its claims to cultural ethos. In this way, Hillbilly Elegy is best-seller and a bad story.
In a similar way, Catte pulls apart another “bad story” from the region, one she calls “Trump Country” pieces, journalism that privileges outside writers-as-experts on Appalachia to explain Donald Trump’s appeal as a presidential candidate and later the support of his presidency. “Trump Country pieces share a willingness to use flawed representations of Appalachia to shore up narratives of an extreme ‘other America’ that can be condemned or redeemed to suit one’s purpose,” she writes. “This is the region’s most conventional narrative, popularized for more than 15 years by individuals who enhanced their own prestige or economic fortunes by presenting Appalachia as a space filled with contradictions only intelligent outsider observers could act on.” She articulates this bad story which emanates from Appalachia by using the Almond formula of seeing what particular narrators and particular agendas invent, refine, and promote. It becomes far easier to blame the working class and the poor voters in Appalachia for Trump than other, more genteel-seeming places for the Trump phenomenon, despite the impossible math. Take West Virginia, for instance. We only have five electoral votes.
J.D. Vance, while not specifically writing Elegy as a “Trump Country” piece, has fashioned himself into a news-segment Trump Country whisperer, manipulating his persona as hillbilly insider and intellectual outsider (as if Appalachia couldn’t have intellectuals inside its borders) as a clever tactic to get rich. All the while, Vance continues to improve his own position without complicating the narrative within existing “Trump Country” pieces. He is, as Catte describes, “a well-educated person with a powerful platform who has chosen to accept a considerable amount of fame and wealth to become the spokesperson for the region,” and he’s telling America the story it wants to hear.
When I read Elegy, it struck a pervasive false note, the same way Trump Country pieces magnify only the small part of the region necessary to tell the author’s prefabricated story without looking for intricacies that would complicate a narrative or challenging easy notions that might exist. For instance, when a reporter writing a Trump Country piece for Vanity Fair came to Morgantown, he failed to report on the patrons at the local coffee house The Blue Moose, where one might find West Virginia University professors grabbing morning coffee, or students writing everything from poems to doctoral dissertations, or business colleagues meeting up. A place like The Blue Moose might reveal an interesting range of opinions and impressions rather than just supporting the bad story that’s become an accepted one. The author doesn’t cite anyone from the university, the state’s flagship land-grant institution, a Research 1 university, where he could have talked to experts in regional history and politics. Instead, this writer chooses the seedy Blue Parrot, a local club that boldly advertises “all nude” dancers on its marquee. As you might imagine, he finds the source he’s looking for: a gun-toting Trump supporter who, for the purposes of the Vanity Fair article, becomes representative of my little corner of Appalachia. To show a potential dichotomy of views could have proven intellectually and culturally valuable. To seek only the one view that fit a prevailing outsider narrative reveals manipulation, a sign of a bad story. The Vanity Fair article came out before the West Virginia primary, where Trump did win the Republican bid, and where Bernie Sanders carried each of the state’s 55 counties, a fact often missed, or conveniently omitted, in reporting about our region. I would never argue that Trump didn’t enjoy support here, but he wasn’t the only candidate that did.
Steve Almond writes in Bad Stories that “so long as our free press operates as a for-profit enterprise, its managers are duty-bound to sell whatever we’re willing to buy.” Reading this reminds me of all the Trump Country pieces I’d read in national publications about West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. Trump Country pieces were what those other Americans were willing to buy. The story of the region, its role as the “other America,” is preserved in these stories. Even as the historic teachers’ strike happened, the reporters had their agendas for poverty porn. And this extends beyond journalism, to book publishing, television, and film. What continues to perplex me is why so many people are so willing to buy into this one narrative without any curiosity. Good stories often force us to reexamine our preconceived ideas. They open us through more plurality of perspectives, or surprise us with what lies beneath the surface. The typical Appalachian story unfolds to the taste of those outside our borders.
Asher Sharpe, at a crossroads when we meet him in Southernmost, changes from judgmental preacher to judged man. Raised by a fundamentalist Christian mother, he’s grown up to be a preacher according to her narrow understanding of scripture and doctrine. His mother, so steadfast in her beliefs, runs her other son, Luke, out of town by putting a gun to his head and threatening to kill him to put him out of his misery. Luke had just come out to her and Asher as a gay man. Asher says and does nothing, and it’s the nothingness of his response that haunts him later. At the story’s beginning, Asher is married to Lydia, a woman born and bred to be a preacher’s wife. In the aftermath of the flood, Lydia refuses shelter to two gay men—two gay men who helped saved Justin, her own son, from rising flood waters. The men’s home has been destroyed and they have nowhere to go. Asher does not contradict his wife, but he feels shame at her behavior and at his own cowardice. He can’t see her in quite the same way anymore. “She had grown afraid of everything,” writes House. Perhaps Asher is losing fear as he recognizes it in her.
Lydia’s litany of anti-gay beliefs, “We have to stand up for what’s right,” or some version of it, is parroted by most of Asher’s congregation. They feel their position is a moral one ordained by God.
Using the imaginative power of fiction, Silas House dares to imagine a straight, Appalachian preacher going through a significant change of heart on an entrenched issue in his faith community. House belongs to both the LGBTQ and Appalachian communities—born in the region, living and writing in Eastern Kentucky. Southernmost confronts the tensions of these two communities, and it does so through the eyes of the least likely character. It is the magic alchemy of fiction writing—and fiction reading—which allows us entree not just into what is but what could be. This, perhaps, feels most significant about Southernmost. In a novel, unlike in memoir, we can see the world how it could be. Where J.D. Vance tries to imprint his own experience on others, Silas House invites us to imagine what actually changes a person’s beliefs. House explores what makes people change and grow through Asher.
Against the idea of faith used as judgement, Asher confronts his flock: “He plucked his Bible up from the pulpit and held it in the air. ‘You can use the Word to judge and condemn people or you can use it to love them.’” Later, Asher sees his own role in the judgment he saw in in his church: “He thinks about the man he had been, just a couple years ago. Judging and preaching and telling others how to live, filled up with the weight of thinking he knew what God wanted.” Some characters change. Asher Sharpe converts to a whole new mode of understanding.
Reading House’s novel, I began to understand Asher’s journey, in part, as the unraveling of a bad story, one deeply entrenched but not impossible to pull apart to find a new, better understanding. And in fact, Asher articulates the magic that reading does: “For most of his life Asher had devoted all his reading to the Bible, of course. That had been expected of him, to read the Bible and nothing else. His congregation had hired him because he had not been to seminary. Only recently had he realized the way books could give a person wings.” Being inculcated with only one set of stories—in Asher’s case only reading the Bible—narrows the view. But by embracing how stories help grow our understanding, he imagines them as wings—that which allow a body to soar.
Steve Almond asks of us, “What happens when we treat hope as a sucker’s game?”
House gives us gives us a sideways answer: “When people lift their voices at the same time, when they join together to pray, God pauses.”
For Elizabeth Catte, it’s about recognizing what’s in front of us to notice: “Appalachia’s images of strikes and strife and land hollowed out for coal, but it is also images of joy and freedom.”
Even problematic books increase our understanding. While I did not enjoy nor agree with Hillbilly Elegy, it opened my eyes to a narrative of the region I call home. It’s one I don’t always want to see or confront. I felt I was being duped. Despite lacking in the artfulness I admire and seek out in the books I read, the let-me-tell-you posturing behind the story struck me as a snake-oil-salesman tactic. But I cannot ignore that this story exists and that it speaks to others.
I believe the books we’ve previously read can influence the books we come to read. An impression of Elegy comes from my reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not in style, of course, but by the “invented” quality of the character Gatsby. Jay Gatsby has fashioned himself into the man he believes will win over his beloved Daisy—a prize, it’s important to note, not worth winning. Gatsby commits himself fully to his own myth making. While lacking in the charm and better qualities of the fictitious Gatsby, JD Vance channels the powerful force of mythmaking, crafting himself through story into a one-of-a-kind hybrid of Appalachian country boy and Yale-educated cultural elite. With just enough truth in each, he stakes his claim through persona and story, as invented as James Gatz into The Great Gatsby.
He ultimately fails because for his narrator to work, I recognize that my own story and voice would have to be silenced. It goes back to his subtitle, which says his story is the story of a culture in crisis. He takes the mantle only for himself. There’s no room in Vance’s narrative for an educated woman of Appalachian roots to return to the region and to carve out a life where she hopes to help others. My way, I suppose, is both too simple and less best-seller-worthy. It does have two benefits: authenticity and honesty. I live and work in Appalachia, and I have deep family roots here. My story is one of many stories that make up this place. I continue to read Appalachian writers and stories of this region because place shapes people. I yearn to better understand this place that shapes me. I hope to make a positive mark on it.
One of the things I liked best about Southernmost is that Asher Sharpe and other characters are people I could know. Eastern Tennessee is not West Virginia—we share some cultural overlap, and we also have our particulars and peculiarities, as different parts of a whole. However, House’s description of the tight community, the landscape, and the slow-changing attitudes toward LGBTQ people struck a chord of recognition as I read. Soon after the book’s release, many writers and readers of Appalachian literature began talking about the significance of Southernmost. Often, the praise for the novel includes the adjectives “brave” and “important.” The book was not reviewed in The New York Times despite House’s good literary reputation and the articles about Kentucky—particularly Appalachian Kentucky—he’s written for the Times’s op-ed section. House continues to support other writers from Appalachia and to speak from the heart about the region’s struggles as well as its splendor.
If Almond shows us how to parse bad stories, which perhaps leads us to recognize good stories, and Silas House serves as example of the importance of region, story, change, and growth, then Elizabeth Catte reminds us that stories are about power. She issues a directive to Appalachians to “write about your people as an act of power.” If not, stories will end up in the hands of those who might craft them into just the kind of bad stories Almond also warns us of. Catte implores us to write about our people to establish our own ethos and to overcome the source of bad stories about Appalachia:
It reflects how credibility falls easily to those given the privilege of defining who or what Appalachian is. It also shows the rewards that fall to individuals, universally men and exclusively white, regardless of the company they keep. It is the power to grant yourself permission for continued exploitation of vulnerable subjects. It is the power to have your work selected as emblematic of a cultural moment by individuals and organizations that didn’t care one iota about Appalachia until their gaze could fill the region with pathologies.
“People believe what they need to believe,” writes Almond. “Our stories about the world arise from the panic of our inner lives. Beneath our lesser defenses—the swirling rage and paranoia and indifference—are human beings somehow in pain.” In two very different ways, Silas House and Elizabeth Catte channel that pain. It’s in these stories that we learn how we might change a narrative’s trajectory for the better. Not in the easy, Pollyanna-ish ways of sloganeering and whitewashing, but in the harder way of living through the difficulties of our lives and crafting authentic stories from experience: what people might mean when they say they “speak truth to power.”
When we write or when we otherwise imprint our stories into the collective narrative we might call culture, we can choose acceptance and equality and authenticity. We can choose hard-earned redemption. While we can’t flee the past, we can imagine beyond it. We can imagine joy, even through the grim. There is a way, even, to rescue that most tenuous of feelings—hope. The stars above may be indifferent to our plights. We do not have to be like the stars. We have the ability to open books.
Image credit: Pexels/eberhard grossgasteiger.
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.