According to Wired magazine, always a hound on the scent of this kind of thing, a company that calls itself — apparently without irony — Narrative Science has already created templates for simple news stories: Local beauty wins pageant, Northsiders take championship, Man bites dog — the kind of stuff editors used the throw at cub reporters.
Ah, but Narrative Science has bigger ambitions. A company spokesman told Wired that with templates generated by “meta-writers,” its algorithms will soon be turning out long-form analytical pieces, explanatory pieces. Even, we can guess, narratives.
The kind of stories you hold in your hands.
Even Hollywood is getting worried. A few years ago some former movie execs got together with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study whether the traditional beginning-middle–end formula is still the best way to tell stories to a generation raised on texts and tweets. The Center for Future Story Telling, as the project is called, will be a kind of a futurological think-tank, a mini-Media Lab, “rethinking storytelling for the 21st century.”
Those of us who have dedicated our careers to punching a few holes in that wall – opening windows to let in some light and air, we like to think – don’t necessarily disagree with the old pros and the schoolmarms of J-school. We’re perfectly comfortable sticking to the facts. We writers of literary journalism demand them, in fact. But we believe that anecdotes are facts, and that the real world is made up of such facts, of settings and characters with motivations. Link them together and you have a story. Without the link, the facts are just one damn thing after another.
We can safely say that the death of long-form nonfiction so glibly and even gleefully predicted is not in the cards. It’s even less than a mistake. It’s a lie. History is still on our side. With technology, if we can figure out how to use it, the times may even be spinning our way.
As Sports Illustrated star storyteller Gary Smith told Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach during a recent interview, “story is the original killer app.”
Ezra Pound called literature news that stays news. How many of those tweets and blogbites are here in a minute, gone in a second. Yesterday’s news. The best stories tell us about lives, where we stand among other human beings, the world, the cosmos. And they do it in a way that sticks with us. A storyteller with nothing new to tell us soon wears out his or her welcome. What we need, writes Adam Gopnik in a recent issue of The New Yorker, are stories that are strange. “Good stories are startling.” They stay news.