Normal human interest story
By Rebecca Wolff
[A condensed excerpt from a longer essay on the reading of fiction]
How do you normalize a human?
All you have to do is tell the story of the person, who is human. If it’s a real person, with a true story, then that story becomes human data.
Normalcy is a quality of being usual, on a data scale. If something occurs enough times, it is normal.
Data is not the material from which the average work of fiction or memoir is crafted. These arise from more ectoplasmic substances—experience, fancy, themata, language itself. Nor, it seems, is data, related to “truth,” a basis for pitching a news story. It is tough to sell a news story based on statistical frequency of a given phenomenon, say, the number of children born drug-addicted in a given low-income housing complex in the South Bronx. Instead you could sell a true story about one child, and how that child fails to thrive.
I sat in the audience at the symposium on Telling the Truth in a Post-Truth World*, while a panel of journalists, reporters, historians, and academics talked about “Race, Class, and the Future of Democracy.” I sat with my fifteen-year-old son, for whom it is hard to sit still for long. He was fidgeting with his fidget spinner and itching to get outside where he could use his phone in peace; I was riveted by the discussion and by the gravity that tilted the room and which each panelist brought to their responses to the moderator’s questions. My ears particularly perked up when Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, a journalist and MacArthur Fellow, spoke of her pained suspicion, after a long time reporting on poor families in the South Bronx, that human interest stories, while in demand by editors almost to the exclusion of other reporting on social issues, fail to produce meaningful attention to the social conditions they are meant to illuminate. They are not effective, she said.
On the same panel I also heard, with, to me, shocking frequency, the name of the President being invoked, and the antics of the President himself being rehearsed, again and again. That social issue, a human, sucked up a lot of energy from the panelists. Like moths to a flame, like lemmings to a precipice, like fish to bait, the speakers circled and marched and rose, and brought the conversation again and again to the exact place of least truth. The human interest. His tweets and his narcissism and his mental health, his dishonesty and his tyranny. All shockingly true.
I ask you, hoping not to distract you from whatever you’re doing: Is Donald Trump an exemplary human, or a normal human.
The categorical word “human” has been repurposed lately, via slang. On the internet now we use it to imply a quality of beingness akin to what Walter Benjamin cited as “aura,” although he developed this concept on behalf of artworks. He said artworks, though capable of being reproduced, originally possess auratic, indivisible qualities. He worried about what would happen to those artworks when they became reproducible, as were photographs, as were texts. Now as a species we feel a need to identify the undying individualist qualities of members of our species, and we use “human” as an appendance to some of our favorite adjectives like “special” or “beautiful” or “favorite.” We are trying to find ways to signal that which is unquantifiable and unreproducible in our humanness, qualities not reducible by algorithmic process and therefore not capable of being bought or sold or even sold to. Strangely, we most often apprehend other humans in their humanness through their presence on social media, wherein they represent themselves, some more frequently than others. This massive media representation is in accordance with a subsequent concern of Benjamin’s: “the legitimate imperatives of the ‘masses’ to reverse cultural privilege.”**
Trump is a human, and therefore humans find him interesting. Human interest, as amplified by journalism, is the interest human beings have in other human beings, and the things that they do, the experiences they have, which allow them to exemplify other humans, whole classes of humans. It is the opposite of their aura. We are told a human-interest story in the hopes that through it we can be taught a little bit more about what it is like to be, not exactly that human, but that human with specific social characteristics: they are poor, they are white, they are young, they are old, they are migrant, they are addicted, they are a woman, they are transgender, they are black, they are a soldier, they are an orphan, they have a set of circumstances that define them materially and that couch their individual true story in a realm of specificity that gives context to their outcome. Whatever their circumstances, they went from this condition to this outcome, starting out here and ending up there. It happened like this to that one person, and so from there you can extrapolate a whole other bunch of similar outcomes. Ideally, we are going to take what we learn about the social circumstances from this person’s human-interest story and we are going to be moved to work to improve those circumstances.
But it seems that human interest is like self-interest, only outward facing. Just as self-interest is a partial, even compromised, possibly corrupt form of self-awareness, so is human interest, the interest we have in humans, a compromised form of another popular and quasi-literary trope called “empathy,” or apprehension of a human not yourself. The difference between self-examination and self-interest is the difference between a news story and a human interest story.
Stories are one very popular way we make meaning out of experience, order out of disorder, sense out of nonsense, matter out of particles, time out of mind. The poet Anne Carson blows our collective, tech-addled mind when she gently and dispassionately reminds us, in her book-length essay Eros the Bittersweet, that before there were coded texts, and alphabets, and of course before reproduction of sound, we apprehended language only as voiced and simultaneously embodied; a story was told to us by a person, always—cells and neurons and eye contact. There was no other way. Stories lived in people. Bards recited epics; parents told cautionary tales. Only later did scribes craft parables; moralists squeeze out fables; fabulists marry normalcy to magic, miming back to us our human unlikelihood. Realists crafted daily nihilism.
Stories, increasingly called “narratives,” are how we grab circumstances, conditions, even histories by the neck and make them do our bidding. Cities undergoing what is called “revitalization” for tourist consumption hire branding agencies to help them “tell the story of their city,” the better to eat you with, my dear. They who control the narrative control the buy-in, and expert marketing execs know this full well, as does even your average human, who is encouraged to get their story straight, and then to tell it on the Ted stage or at the Moth or in a pitch on a blog for a podcast. A recent post on Insta which I thumbed past at the speed of nausea caught a millennial apparently in the midst of a particularly satisfying morning’s round of creativity with the caption “I am always telling my story.” This is not to promise delight or enchantment but rather to threaten toxic oversell, a pernicious surplus of reproduced selfhood such that I must buy you. Not I am you but I own you. This compulsive narratizing is a mutual enslavement of the captive teller who cannot afford to live her own life (uber, airbnb, avatar) and her captive audience.
Experimental fiction writers and poets in the late 20th century played around with this control extensively, intending to develop means for, modes of, subversion. The agenda was to prevent or disrupt instrumentalization of language and narrative for the purposes of capitalist ideology. To that end they intervened in syntax, grammar, narrativity, and vehicles including the page and the book itself. Hypertext attempted a model of the brain’s capacity for associative proliferation of narratives, but then the internet caught up with itself and flung the exhausted reader back into her armchair, smelly old book in hand, “grateful.”
I don’t know about you but when I am sitting reading a fiction I am at least 150 percent more filled with blood than when I am reading a true story. This is because the humans represented in a work of fiction are metaphors for true humans, real humans, and that muscle in the brain, or in the metaphorical heart, that processes metaphor is working so hard when I am reading fiction—working so hard to understand how to understand—how can I take this story I’m reading; I know it’s not true, it didn’t really happen, but at the same time it is not exactly a fake story—it’s real on some level that I don’t even know how to process because it’s not like a dream I had, someone is telling me this untrue story but I somehow can believe it at some level. The metaphor is: this human being in the story is a metaphor for me. “I” is me. “She” is me. “He” is me.
Ever since the 90s, when memoir as a genre began to lap fiction, and Autobiography of a Face, a memoir by the late poet Lucy Grealy, introduced a renaissance of hyperliterary, hyper-individualist memoir—and then reality TV, and then documentary, and then blogs, and story slams, and Ted, and then social media, we as humans have been distracted from our capacity to learn, and likely to act. A host of vehicles for human interest, stories so endlessly true they lobotomize, cauterize, enflame, and immobilize: We are stuck in our chairs reading stories about Trump’s narcissism, about Trump’s latest word, his poor word-choice, his string of words, 20 words he put together in a row, a shithole vortex of attention, no aura reflected out of there.
The difference between fiction and memoir may be the difference—when it comes to meaning, that thing we all crave in our lives, and without which we become despondent and ultimately inert—between metaphor and referential mania. They say the truth shall set you free, but it seems rather to be the case that fiction, or, Stories About Fake People, who can be understood by means of the empathic engine of metaphor to be yourself, shall free you from that intolerable freedom we call meaninglessness. What matters is not that Donald Trump is president, his orange hair, his ordinary despicableness, his horrible personality and base base—he is the Ultimate Human, the epitome of a zenith—what matters now is that we look away from the blaze of ingloriousness so that we can catch sight again of the human aura.
*The 1991 initial iteration of this symposium on Telling the Truth featured a panel of esteemed fiction writers including Norman Mailer, Mary Gordon, and none other than William Kennedy himself convened to confront the possibility posed by this question: Is Fiction Truer than Truth? The three-day symposium is described as developing out of the iterative process of “thinking about and struggling with the fascinating and vexing problems presented by the ambiguous boundaries between fiction and history, journalism and autobiography.”
Rebecca Wolff is a poet, fiction writer, and the editor and creator of both Fence Magazine, a biannual journal of poetry, fiction, art, and criticism, and Fence Books.