In Defense of Writing as a Storytelling Art
I recently finished watching the fourth episode in How Art Made the World (previously mentioned here) and I feel strangely disquieted. What made me wholly dissatisfied with it was Spivey’s implication that the ultimate in storytelling to date lies with movies. He exerts that movies engage in the senses (visual and auditory) and the emotions. It’s so real that you feel that you’re in the story. And if you’re watching a really good movie, you don’t want to leave the world you’ve been immersed in even when the end credits roll.
This directly contradicts one of his assertions in the first episode: in art, people don’t want real. Real is boring. You can already get “real” with life around you. What people want in art (and perhaps storytelling too) is something more than real.
I’m going to put forth an alternative theory: that the ultimate in storytelling has been around ever since writing had been invented. Reading a story engages you in a whole other level. It’s not something that can be quantified into something mundane and concrete with your eyes or ears. Instead, it’s your brain that’s engaged–and who’s to deny that one’s imagination is hyper-real in a sense that a bunch of images on a theater screen isn’t?
Let’s say we live in a Star Trekian universe where holodecks have been invented. Spivey would say that these holodecks would now be the ultimate in storytelling–not only does this new technology exploit the visual and auditory senses like movies, but it also includes taste, smell, touch, and real physical interaction. But I think this lacks an essential something that prevents it from being storytelling at all. A holodeck, instead, is merely just a fancy stage on which you play one part. You’re playacting yet you’re still you. If you wanted to truly immerse yourself into the story, you might as well just take that flight to Borneo and live out the adventure yourself.
What the holodeck and the movie lack is the ability to get into the characters’ heads. You can see expressions and actions on a visual medium, but you can only infer what the characters are feeling–just as you can only infer your boss’s displeasure after you’ve accidentally spilled hot coffee on him. You don’t know what these people are actually thinking. With a really good writer, he or she will be able to outline character actions and motivations with some well-placed words. The rest of the work will take place with your imagination–giving you the ability to empathize with the character on paper and create the entire scene in a hyper-real sense in your brain. And all for the price of a paperback rather than the millions spent on self-indulgent actors.
There is the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. And considering the fact that not everyone can read, one could argue that pictures are far more accessible than words. It might be accessible, but it also has the blunt style of whacking someone over his head. While interpretation of a work, whether as a viewer or a reader, is a problem, I would argue that a picture lacks the subtlety and preciseness that a written work possesses. And it’s exactly this subtlety and preciseness that makes a story alive and fantastic in an imaginative sense. For example: what if I had drawn this essay instead of typed it out? (Granted, considering my miserable art skills, it would look more like a couple mangled panels of xkcd rather than Michelangelo.) I think that in the course of translating this into a drawing, the finer points and an aspect of my literary voice would be lost.
This is not to say that the visual medium is completely superfluous. Images can be used to enhance and supplement a story. Certainly, images alone have the ability to convey a story. But is it the sort of medium that can consistently engage everyone’s higher cognitive senses–something that in itself recognizes that the story is an artificial construct with a beginning, middle, and end–and has value beyond its most literal interpretation? Or does it only invoke those visceral, inarticulate responses common to our lizard hindbrain–content with its imitation of life?
I admit, I’m more of a cerebral person. I like analyzing things to death. Another person can say that I’m just full of hot air; this person can be perfectly fine with solely stimulating his physical senses. But really, how satisfactory is it to have a relationship with a physically beautiful person who doesn’t have anything going on upstairs? I think the imagination, as triggered by the written word, is really what puts a book over a movie in storytelling terms. To read, you must work at it and as a result become more invested in it. A movie is just an info dump. After you’ve gotten your eyeballs bombarded for approximately two hours, you walk away feeling entertained (and perhaps inspired if it was a good movie), but it’s superficial. In effect, a movie watcher is a voyeur who happened upon a hole in the fence. But a written story allows the reader to become a completely different and much more intimate voyeur–one who sees into invisible and intangible thoughts.
Hmmm.My thought is that the two mediums – movies and writing – have inherent strengths and weaknesses. Visual stories (think “The Matrix” or “Alien”), or stories that are “made” by the interpretation of a character (think Heath Ledger’s Joker in the recent Batman), are better as movies, because they are a thrill to the part of the mind that revels in such things.But stories that are complex, contain multiple viewpoints, contain a lot of philosophical musings, or are not really (forgive the made-up word) separatible(able?) from their words (think anything Kurt Vonnegut) are stronger on the written page.As for holodecks, I imagine that they would have an audience like gaming does today. But most of us wouldn’t want to be that immersed in most stories, where you’d be able to smell the bad breath or the blood, or be too cold or hot. The distance of the flat screen or the page is often the only way you’d be able to handle a story. Think of being immersed in “The Matrix.” (Or porn, heaven forbid.) Many folks wouldn’t be able to stop vomiting.