Wednesday 03 April 2002

Don’t blame the storyteller

Burningbird used my previous post as the launching pad for a trenchant attack on Michael Barrish’s observation that “the same self-serving logic used to justify petty theft is used to justify the destruction of the planet. People do what they want, then find reasons to justify it.” She wrote:

Bullshit. This is absolute and total bullshit.

Yes, some people will do selfish acts and then seek to justify their actions. However, most people, and I count myself in this group, making me a “goddamn paragon of rightousness”, follow our moral codes without any equivocation.

What Barrish failed to realize is that by saying this problem is a global problem, he’s absolving himself of any responsibility for his action and his reaction to the criticism he received.

To the contrary, I understood the “moral” of Michael Barrish’s story to be exactly the opposite: the planet is being steadily destroyed because people, including myself (Michael Barrish, Jonathon Delacour, whoever), do what we want and then find reasons to justify it. I found his observation dispiriting because of its accuracy. Rather than absolving himself of responsibility, I assumed he was embracing responsibility.

If we accept, as Burningbird suggested, that most people follow their moral codes without any equivocation, and if we also accept that the planet is being destroyed, then either there’s a problem with the moral codes or—and this is Barrish’s argument, and mine—people aren’t actually following them. (If you don’t believe the planet is being destroyed, the whole discussion is moot.)

As it transpired, Burningbird had second thoughts:

Did I go over the top in the last posting? I did, didn’t I? Yes, you did. A little.

I do this sometimes, have you noticed that? Come to think of it, I think I have.

But I’ve also noticed Burningbird’s willingness to acknowledge her occasional excesses. In this case, she even confessed to stealing a blue plastic light cover from a parked police car at the age of 14.

So much for my high moral ground

(…she says as she slinks away, hanging her head in shame…)

The stealing doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the intensity of her initial response, which was based (I suspect) on an unfamiliarity with Michael Barrish’s work.

Uh, oh! I promised myself there’d be no more metablogging!

Barrish’s statement (about people doing whatever they want then justifying it) needs to be seen in the wider context of his website, Oblivio, which comprises a large number of entries, apparently based on incidents in the writer’s life. Besides being enviably consistent, Barrish’s posts are subtly constructed, artfully honest, acutely observed, wryly humorous, and gracefully written.

My guess is that Burningbird reacted so strongly because she assumed that the Sign story and its sequel, #1, were weblog entries. I described Barrish’s stories as “artfully honest” because I’ve never regarded Oblivio as a weblog, but rather as a collection of stories (even though the section called Archives contains about 160 entries while the Stories section lists just ten). My “blogroll” is captioned Favorites, not Blogroll, mainly because of Oblivio.

Yet, even though I don’t regard Oblivio as a weblog, others might. I suppose it could be mistaken for a weblog, just as Michael Barrish could be mistaken for a real person. He probably is a real person since he also uses the website to solicit web development work (though he maintains separate sites for each purpose, for reasons he explains in the story Motherfucker). But Barrish is also a character who appears in his own stories. As does Rachel, his girlfriend. Whether she really exists and whether she’s his girlfriend is impossible to determine, without knowing Michael Barrish. Even then, the real-life Rachel may bear only a fleeting resemblance to the Rachel in the stories. (Just like the women in some of my stories.)

Duck Crossing signAs for the Duck Crossing sign, we know that there is one, though the sign in the photograph may not necessarily be in Delaware, the scene of the story. And there may or may not be an email correspondent named Jay Perkins. In any case, notice the authenticity that the photograph confers on the story/post.

As it happens, there is a Jay Perkins with a website. But Jay Perkins was also the brother of Carl Perkins, writer of the 1956 smash hit, Blue Suede Shoes (the B-side of the record was Honey Don’t, which was a hit for The Beatles in 1964 with Ringo Starr singing lead vocal). Carl Perkins and Jay Perkins, on their way to a taping for the Perry Como TV show in New York, were injured in a car accident. In Delaware.

So, you might be asking, what’s the point of all this? The point is this: there seems to be an implicit agreement amongst webloggers to speak with an authentic voice, to tell the truth as they see it, to give witness, according to the dictates of journalism. That’s why so many bloggers are convinced that they are creating a new form of journalism, that the collective power of weblogs lies in their ability to cover all sides of a story, that weblogs can aspire to the highest goal of journalism, which is to expose then communicate the facts—so everyone can READ ALL ABOUT IT!

Michael Barrish has made no such promise. Indeed, at the beginning of Sign, he writes:

Had we succeeded, I wouldn’t be telling you any of this. This raises the question of what I’m not telling you. I’m not telling you a lot.

Michael Barrish is an artist, not a journalist; yet, paradoxically, stories like his are richer and more honest than most journalism. More persuasive too, as was revealed by Burningbird’s passionate response and the critical email messages he received (whether they were real or simply part of the story).

Today Jon Udell responded to a New York Times article about how the future of literate storytelling looks bleak as more and more glossy magazines are replacing 4,000 word articles with images. John wrote:

Funny. The future of literate storytelling has never looked brighter to me. I can’t say the same for the future of the glossy publishing industry, though.

Jon’s correct. Literate storytelling is on the brink of a resurgence, though not because weblogs are embracing journalistic values. Storytelling depends on a belief that an artfully constructed fiction is frequently more truthful than a carefully described fact. Or to quote Antonio Machado, from one of the aphorisms that appears randomly at the top of the Oblivio home page:

In my solitude I have seen things very clearly, which are not true.

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Oh, and I really didn't the email about the duck sign. But gosh, what a well written email it was.

Posted by Jay Perkins on 11 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour