Sunday, January 31, 2010
I’m not exactly sure what those five Supreme Court justices were thinking, but the reasons for Scott Brown’s victory have been analyzed to death. Basically, Brown won because he told a better story while his lackluster opponent didn’t bother to tell a story at all. He presented himself as a man of the people, who drove an old pickup truck, who could show those corrupt do-nothing Washington insiders a thing or two. He promised to reign in government spending, lower taxes and kill the health care reform bill. Somehow this would produce jobs and security for everyone. Now you might argue that doesn’t make any sense, but Brown’s campaign told a story that made it feel right and people tend to vote with their guts more than their heads.
Progressives lack a cohesive and, more importantly, a compelling story. We tend to think speaking truth to power means providing people with the facts. If we only make the right information available, people will have no choice but to come to the logical and right conclusion. But speaking truth to power is more than spewing data; it is speaking the truth in a way people will hear it. They hear things like “public option” and fall asleep, but tell them you’re going to take away their “freedoms” and their ears perk up and their blood starts boiling.
How might progressives learn to tell better stories? For one thing, don’t be snobs. It’s amazing to me how many writers refuse to read some authors like Dan Brown or John Grisham on general principle. Well, why the hell not? It’s what people on the bus are reading. Don’t you want to be read?
The point is not to copy these authors word for word, or to flood the world with substandard literature (after all some stuff is popular because it’s actually good) but to discern the “rules” for constructing an engaging narrative for a general audience. People like to read about a black and white world. They like to read about people whose lives are more exciting than their own. They like snappy dialog without a whole lot of description. They like humor; they like pathos. They like good to triumph. They like a happy — or at least a fully resolved —ending.
More lessons in popular storycraft can be learned from watching top-rated TV shows, listening to the lyrics of country songs, etc. This is what holds peoples’ attention. Believe me, more people thought about the morality of torture watching Jack Bauer’s dark night of the soul on the last season of 24 than did reading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side.
Watch and listen with an open mind — and learn the language that appeals to the masses. I once explained taxes to one of my more conservative colleagues in terms of tithing — and he got it. But I never would have come up with that analogy if I hadn’t taken the time to find out what tithing was.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to appeal to people’s emotions, specifically anger and fear. Anger and fear are mind killers for sure, but they also run deeper than blood. Many PSAs against health care reform play to people’s fear of change. You might not be able to keep your doctor. You will be forced to change health plans. You will lose what little security you have. Very few ads have spoken to the fear of having no health insurance at all. What if you break your arm, can’t pay rent for a couple of months and lose your apartment? What if you lose your job and your health insurance and you have Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure? What if you get cancer (Delaware still has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation) and lose your job and insurance? Should you be so afraid in the world’s lone superpower? Should you be so fearful in a nation that bills itself as the greatest country on earth?
See? Sure beats talking about the “public option.”
Saturday, January 16, 2010
More . . .
Sunday, January 3, 2010
I recently read Susan Cheever’s book American Bloomsbury about the Transcendentalist writers Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville and how they interacted with one another, including others, like their muse Margaret Fuller. Among those others on the fringes of their circle, the names Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe also turned up in Cheever’s book. Whitman holds some connections for local current literary artists. Whitman lived out his final years in nearby Camden, New Jersey, where he’s buried. About 25 years ago a number of local poets, myself included, were invited to read at the Whitman graveside after local poet Douglas Morea earned an award from the Whitman Society in Camden. Poe had already earned an honored place in the history of Delaware’s literature, having interacted with his local contemporaries John Lofland and Robert Montgomery Bird.
The story of these local connections to the web of America’s literary history are buried deep in books which are rarely consulted for the purpose of making these kinds of local connections. These connections do not hold the same status as our local art history as, for example, Howard Pyle’s connection with Felix Darley before him and with the Wyeths and the artists of the Brandywine Tradition after him. Darley, who lived and died in Claymont, Delaware, illustrated works by James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Clement Clarke Moore, and Charles Dickens, thus finding for him an auxiliary place in America’s literary canon. This is a story that enjoys a firm place in the history of American art.
Our institutions of learning—our schools, colleges and universities—have an important role to play in preserving those legacies of our culture as well as in teaching them to succeeding generations. Yet, when it comes to filling in these local connections, educational institutions ignore what surrounds them in the communities in which they reside in favor of teaching about the greater figures who are easily served up in the lofty annals of the “canon.” In my opinion, this policy amounts to academic laziness justified by academic snobbery. Even though I am attempting here to shame academia at whatever level into changing their educational policies and I am trying to make the case for teaching elements of our local culture by whatever means I can present, I do not expect things will change. Why should they listen to some raving bumpkin like myself? Perhaps it’s time to take things into our own hands.
For those who wish to rediscover our local literatures, especially in those regions of the United States that have a history that is older than other regions and, therefore, closer to the origins of our earliest cultural history, here are some suggestions on how to continue the process of a kind of proletarian rediscovery of a nearly lost aspect of American literature.
A good first place to look is in the various state Tour Guides that were compiled in the 1930s under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA performed some very detailed research into many subjects on a state-by-state basis. The Tour Guides are especially valuable if one can find the original manuscripts that got boiled down for the writing of the final published versions. Usually, a state college or university or perhaps a state historical society has archived these manuscripts. Another good place to look is to look for masters or doctoral theses about local literary figures that gather dust in the libraries of local universities. Searching out the older members of a local literary community is also a good idea because old memories can often provide clues and leads that will lead to surprising corners of our local literary stories.
With a good concerted effort, we, as current literary artists and interested persons, can rediscover on whose literary shoulders we stand and why the ground beneath our literary feet is important to know, understand, and appreciate.