We rely on stories to make sense of the world around us. When writing was first invented in ancient Sumer, about five thousand years ago, it was because the Sumerians needed to create tax and property records (which makes me wonder if writing is really a sign of an advanced civilization). However, among the clay fragments that have survived five millennia of war and weather, we can also read the words of the poets, women and men, who were our first storytellers.
Stories typically have beginnings, middles and ends, because our lives are structured in that way. We need stories to make sense of our journey from beginning to end, of our times of loss, of our times of joy. We need stories to give us hope, and to give us understanding.
I have been wondering, lately, what kind of stories will survive the age of the Internet, which could also be called the Age of Fragmentation. We are awash in information, but we aren’t awash in the truth.
But in the Age of the Internet, the problem of information and how to evaluate it has become magnified. We are pummeled from all sides by snippets of news, all purporting to be facts. We go to websites, get soundbites, move on to the next, and we end up carrying around confused images of wolves, terrorists, censorship, milk, mortgages, pregnancy, life, death.
If we live only with sound bites, then we are at the mercy of the person who creates the most compelling narrative out of these jostling fragments,. This happened with the narrative about Saddam Hussein, 9/11 and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. When we don’t check for facts, when we don’t pay attention to the whole arc of an event long enough to build a reliable narrative, we end up being controlled by unreliable narrators.
Fiction doesn’t pretend to dig into the truth about public affairs, but, at it best, it helps us understand the human heart, the ways we make sense of the events that shape our lives. It gives us the heroes we all would like to be, and the ordinary people who look away, or don’t speak up in the moment—as most of us, or at least as I, too often am.
Lately, I’ve been wondering what happens to the novel in the Age of Fragmentation. If we only have time or attention enough for a single paragraph, I guess we could go with:
A silly woman with five daughters, who wants them all to marry well, finds her wishes partly realized when the two elder marry wonderful wealthy men. Sadly, her favorite, the youngest girl, runs off with a scoundrel and is forced to marry him. The fate of the remaining daughters is left ambiguous. The End.
Or: The great soul of the Russian people helps them endure war and suffering and also teaches the French a thing or two about invading and nation building. Artistic women like Natasha, who break their hearts over noble officers, don’t understand that their true need is to retreat to the land with a peasant-like lout and have a dozen babies. The End.
If you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice or War and Peace, these little summaries will save you the trouble. But will they help you understand life?
Every day, we chop our lives into bits. On the college campus near my house, I see young lovers arm-in-arm, both talking on their cellphones. We text while driving down the highway, we cruise the Web while on the phone with our friends and children, we create more and more of a jumble in our minds. I am as subject to these distractions as anyone, although, since my own fears include a terror of traffic accidents, I don’t use my phone while I’m driving.
So what kind of story will survive the age of the fragment?