Recommended Reading: News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

de_botton_1The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Vintage, 2014
Paperback, 272 pages

If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”

“Oh, boy!” Indeed.

On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.

This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?

Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.

Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.

It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.

The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.

This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.

“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”

De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.

On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.

The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)

For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:

  • “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
  • “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
  • “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”

Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.

Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?

De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.

“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”

While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.

As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.

The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.

Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?

I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.

— Todd

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Scene v. Exposition

We all tend to use too little scene in creative nonfiction. We especially forget the possibilities of representative scene. Even when we’re reporting a typical rather than specific event, use of scenic elements . . . conveys a sense of character and situation far more effectively than summary does.

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

I’ve just started reading Tell It Slant and early on I’m pondering, When do you use exposition and when do you use scene?

When writing newspaper features — and to some extent freelance magazine features — I often felt limited to exposition. At times, when I had the space, I would beef a feature up with mini scenes, usually with short descriptive passages of place or a brief — very brief — description of a person. I rarely had dialogue. Much of what I wrote was expository or quickly dashed-off narrative summary, often out of necessity.

I was envious of writers I read at larger papers, or at alternative weeklies, who seemed to be given the space and time to write detailed, compelling features, alive with scenes, dialogue, characterization. And envied even more New Yorker writers like John McPhee (talk about detail) or Susan Orlean.

And yet, with my recent forays into creative nonfiction I find myself slipping into exposition and narrative summary more than scene. Often I’ll start out with scenes and then slip for pages into exposition. When I read and revise, I see the exposition, and in the back of my mind I think I should cut it, revise it, build a scene, but then, at the same time, the exposition seems to fit so well with the essay. And I think of some the essays and booklength works of nonfiction by writers such as Larry McMurtry or the wonderfully lyrical Diane Ackerman and those writers rely heavily on mixes of scene and exposition.

And I wonder, When should a scene be used, and when should you use exposition?

The Influence of Anxiety

When I avoid something that I know I must do, I end up feeling guilty.  So every year as summer approached and I had ten weeks of free time, my anxiety level would begin to climb. I knew I had two and a half months in which to write if I wished, and I was terrified to begin because I had a number of fears that I just did not want to face.

— Elizabeth George, Write Away

This morning I picked up and read for a few minutes in George’s book on writing novels to jump start myself into working on my novel, and came upon the above passage, coincidentally after I had been thinking about the necessity of anxiety to the writing life.

If you’ve followed this blog, you know that I’ve gone through periods in which I’ve felt detached from my old self, a faltering sense of self as a writer. A routine appendectomy almost a year and a half ago left me in such a state. Or rather the aftereffects of the surgery heightened a lost sense of self, a lost sense of purpose that had been creeping up on me after a 360-degree career change — launching from newspaper feature writer to adjunct writing The_Screaminstructor to textbook editor to no career at all.

From my recent studies of Buddhism I’ve gathered that a detachment from the Self is just what a body needs. I’m not sure how this is a good thing. It seems to strip you of purpose.

Which is what I feel — stripped of purpose. I should be revising my novel today. But I came to a point in the revision yesterday when I lost interest. I lost interest in the characters. I lost interest in the story. I lost interest, worst of all, in the process. I began wondering, Why am I writing this novel anyway? and Why am I writing at all?

When I first set out to write the novel, I knew why I wanted to write the novel.

First, I wanted to tell a story. A particular story. A fictionalized version of a romance. Though not a romance novel. Something along the lines of A Farewell to Arms or James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime (a grammatical aside: Why does “pastime” have one “t”?). A serious look at love and the relationships between men and women.

Second, I wanted to involve myself in the process of writing a book again. I had immersed myself into writing books before, completing two manuscripts, neither of which went beyond first drafts. This time I set out to immerse myself in the process, determined to stick it out draft after draft until I had something perfect enough to submit.

After a false start or two, I finished the first draft in about a year. Within another year I had teased out a second draft.

I set the book aside for various reasons after I finished the second draft. For the most part, I needed a break from the book, although a career change, then a period of unemployment, another career change, several moves, a marriage, and further unemployment, along with an extended bout with detachment from my writerly self also contributed to the manuscript gathering dust.

As I think about it, I set the book aside because I felt detached from my writerly self. For some reason, my desire to write had grown stale. The energy I got from writing had flattened. I tried to galvanize my desire: blogging more, writing a long piece on my first experience under the knife, writing and submitting a short piece about my struggles with religion, writing a couple of freelance pieces.

These things briefly electrified my system. Still, something was missing. Time? No, I had plenty of time, especially because I wasn’t working.

When I first set out to write, I always felt anxious about finding time to write. I chipped out times to write, scheduling around work schedules and family. Once I set a schedule to write, like Elizabeth George, I would feel guilty if I missed a set time to write. Anxiety would build up. The anxiety would get to me. It drove me to the desk, to the keyboard. I had to write. Otherwise I would feel guilty, and overcome by the anxiety that I had failed myself as a writer.

Now I have time to write (and yet that free time creates another form of anxiety—the stresses of not having a job). For several months now, I’ve been writing, a set schedule, working around time spent looking for a job.

Up until a few weeks ago, I worked enthusiastically on revising my novel. A renewed sense of purpose came after receiving a critique of my manuscript and some encouragement from debut novelists Karen Harrington and Joe O’Connell.

That renewed sense of purpose spurred a whole new vision of the novel. I still had a vision of a serious novel about romantic relationships, but one that was funny, and not morose and bordering on the nihilistic. Now I have a vision of something closer to Nick Hornby’s How to be Good.

Over the past few weeks, however, several things have overwhelmed my psyche.

Like the band Styx, I think I have too much time on my hands. Paradoxically, all the years I that I worked full time and scheduled in time for writing, I craved working independently as a writer: I wanted writing to be my full time job. At the moment, I don’t have anything to schedule around. I’ve been losing the feeling that if I don’t write I have failed myself as a writer. I miss and crave the anxiety of making time to write.

Also, not working has conjured up a whole new state of being, a whole new state of anxiety, one that’s not good for the writing life. Or for the self at all. Almost daily I experience a free floating purposelessness, as if I’m living in a nihilistic vacuum. There are moments when I really have no idea what I want. In this state, I’m numb to writing.

Over the summer, one event numbed my psyche against writing more than anything since: the hope of returning to work, to my old newspaper job, got crushed by an absurd rehire policy. Rejection by my former employer — a place where I developed my writing more than anywhere else — was a kick in the sternum. Besides easing the stress of not having a job, this rejection cast more doubt than anything else on my ability to write.

A new anxiety cropped up. Each time I’ve sat down to write since the rejection, doubt has cropped up.

Yesterday it surfaced again as I started working on my novel. My imagination seemed to fail. I lost interest in the process. Suddenly I’m facing a fear I’ve neglected to face: The question of whether or not I’m a writer at all.

Booking Through Thursday: My Own Question

Today’s Booking Through Thursday asks readers to ask their own question. My question is about online media in general more than it is about books:

Do you prefer online publications (newspapers, magazines, etc.) or reading devices like the Kindle to actual print?

I think this question in one way or another has been asked before, but it was recently brought to my mind again as I tried to navigate the online edition of the Austin American-Statesman, and found it, well, really unwieldy. There was little pleasure in it.  The experience made me crave a hand-held paper newspaper. (I just went to the page to make a link to it and found another annoyance — a drop-down ad that flowed over links to stories.  You have to close it to make it go away.)

At the same time, I like the additional features such as videos, Twitter pages, blogs, etc.

But, I really hope I never see the day that I use a Kindle, especially if it’s being monitored by marketers waiting to plunge deeper into our private life.

I like online previews, though. It’s nice to get a sense of a book by reading a few pages before buying it or checking it out of the library.

The Sunday Salon: Well Wishing to Garrison Keillor

Earlier this week humorist Garrison Keillor had a stroke. According to reports yesterday, he’s now at home recovering. Which is good news to hear. It’s also good to hear Keillor plans to carry on with  “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show.

I also hope he plans to continue writing for Salon. His columns underscore his trademark understated humor and insight, as a recent piece on the New Media/Old Media divide demonstrates.

I think he’s spot on here about a chief illness making Old Media sick:

I’m an old media guy and I love newspapers, but they were brought down by a long period of gluttonous profits when they were run as monopolies by large, phlegmatic, semi-literate men who endowed schools of journalism that labored mightily to stamp out any style or originality and to create a cadre of reliable transcribers.

As someone enamored of Old Media, it’s a shame seeing it crumbling; it’s a shame especially to see the demise of stylish — and substantive — magazine features. Of seeing once-great magazines like Rolling Stone shrink — it literally shrunk in size, but its features have been shrinking for years. Could you imagine a 6,000-word piece by a literary journalist like Tom Wolfe in Rolling Stone‘s pages now?

The style and compactness of some features now would make Hemingway feel constipated,  and his prose transmogrify into something Faulknerian.

And what will the next version of Gay Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” be? “Paris Hilton Has a Brain Cell”?

Keillor’s also spot on about one of New Media’s chief cancers — tumors of information on superficialities:

What the new media age also means is that there won’t be newspapers to send reporters to cover the next war, but there will be 6 million teenage girls blogging about their plans for the weekend. There will be no TV networks to put on dramas in which actors in costume strut and orate and gesticulate, but you can see home video of dogs and anybody’s high school graduation anywhere in America. We will be a nation of unpaid freelance journalists and memoirists.

This, of course, as Keillor adds, may not be that bad. Maybe in a decade all our brains will be able to handle will be videos of dogs or reading updates on teenage girls’ plans. And we’ll be unable to laugh along with Jay Leno when some college graduate can’t identify the Gettysburg Address. We’ll scratch our heads along with the graduate, and go on to the next text message.

I wish Garrison Keillor good health.

Publishing News: Graphic Novel Receives Monstrous Bid

In the Sunday Books section of the Austin American-Statesman, I read a review of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by debut author Reif Larsen. According to the review, the book is a graphic novel in a similar vein as Nick Bantock’s Griffin & Sabine. It follows the narrative “of a 12-year-old boy on a secret trek to Washington, D.C., who speaks in a mixture of Victorian formality and eighth-grade goofiness.”

Somehow T.S.’s scientific drawings receive an award from the Smithsonian Institution, according to the review, and he’s on his way to Washington. The review applauds the artwork and narrative, except for a large section that recounts a story about his great-great-grandmother. That story, the reviewer says, falls short of T.S.’s voice. The reviewer also says the final quarter of the novel “evaporate[s] into gassy sentimentality.”

I haven’t read the novel so I can’t pass judgment on it, but the review also notes the manuscript received almost $1 million when New York Publishing houses bid on it. This bothers me. While I think writers should receive vast sums for their work, I really can’t see how such a huge bid can help publishing at a time when publishing is suffering gigantic woes.

Such a sum seems a greater risk on a debut work than, say, on a J.K. Rowling manuscript. From the description, this book is a piece of experimental fiction, rarely high-bid, bestselling work. Do the publishers expect a monstrous return on their investment?

And just in case anyone out there is interested, I’m pretty sure my novel manuscript is worth at least $1 million. Any takers?

Sunday Salon: Bigfoot Dreams

When I was a reporter, I covered religion, an under reported part of the human experience, covered sometimes it seems only when it bleeds, shows its flaws.

Unless there were flaws, sometimes covering religion wasn’t very exciting in the way other news could be, and I would joke with a colleague about the headlines of the now defunct Weekly World News — those headlines were fun, things were action-packed in the world of religion:  people found slivers of God’s beard, people found the Garden of Eden, the devil got locked in a tool shed somewhere in Argentina.

The tabloids had exciting stories of talking dogs, UFO abductions, and Bigfoot.

And Bigfoot is a favorite of tabloid writer Vera Perl in Francine Prose’s novel Bigfoot Dreams, the latest selection for my hundred-novels reading project.

Vera writes for a Weekly World News sort of tabloid in New York, and thinks she’s making stories up until weird things start happening after one story she writes appears to be true.

I’m about halfway through the novel, and as always, blown away by Prose’s prose, her storytelling, and her gift for satire and parody. And it’s a plus that Bigfoot will probably make an actual appearance, if what I suspect is true — that Vera’s fictional news is starting to become real.

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Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.