Life

I'll Take My Coffee with Fiction, Thanks

Can't stomach what passes for 'news' these days? Wake up with a short story instead.

By Shannon Rupp 6 Mar 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor, whose previous articles can be found here.

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Did you hear a python swallowed a croc in Australia? Shannon Rupp doesn't care.

Mavis Gallant showed me what's wrong with most online content. I don't think that was ever her goal, of course. But that's what I like about good fiction: it's a bunch of made-up stories that tell you important things when you least expect it.

The master short story writer exited on Feb. 18 at 91, after a life well-lived in Paris, reminding me that I hadn't read her in decades. As a nod to her passing, I read "Madeline's Birthday" -- her first New Yorker publication -- and it was so good I read two more in a collection of her early work, The Cost of Living.

That's a radical departure from my lifelong morning ritual of guzzling coffee and reading news. But the pull of Gallant's elegant prose had me skipping headlines for literature morning after morning. Albeit with a twinge of guilt.

Given my line of work, I'm expected to be attentive to the tsunami of infotainment that smacks me every morning. I wouldn't call it news so much as a sort of factoid soup from which I sift out what is accurate and possibly meaningful.

It's like panning for gold. And as the dwindling crew of miners overwork the increasingly shallow veins, the nuggets washing down are getting smaller and smaller. I'm constantly tinkering with my online news feeds: dropping publications fielding obvious click-bait and dumping reporters who sound like shills. Social media are a never-ending editing job.

It's tedious. And lately seems to reward me with little more than the junk quizzes you find on sites that have "buzz" in the name: "What Game of Thrones Character Are You?" screams the headline. Why would anyone care? More than that, don't readers realize those quizzes are data-scraping tools?

Then a few mornings ago, The Globe and Mail was pushing a story about how a chain of donut shops is changing two dozen items on its menu of sugar-laden junk foods. Given the real news about the hazards of processed foods and sugar that story amounts to journalistic malpractice. While this sort of shilling isn't new in old media, spotting it on this cold, dark morning was more irritating than usual. Was it because I'd just forced myself to put down Gallant in exchange for the Velveeta of news stories -- a news-like product politely described as tasteless.

That donut story gave me the same sort of queasy feeling as eating the donuts themselves and with that, I dumped The Globe and their shilling ways from my feeds.

I'm nobody's traffic

The problem with the wealth of "free" media online is that it is often way too expensive. It sucks my time, my private information, and frequently distracts me from finding the real news. While I don't spend any more time with online news sources than I ever did with the paper ones -- about 90 minutes a day -- I feel far less satisfied.

These sites are no longer reporters, they're repeaters. At best, they latch onto something sensational and everyone posts it over and over again, sometimes for days, hoping to pull traffic.

A former editor for a technology site, ReadWrite.com, offered some insight into the clutter storm a few weeks ago when he advised other sites to avoid copy editing. That's right: avoid it. He had a tragic tale about how his traffic plunged by half after they hired copy editors to post typo-free stories that (presumably) also benefitted from a sober second set of eyes.

"[Copy editors] also slowed the publishing process to a screeching near-halt. And, even more importantly: No. One. Cared," Abraham Hyatt wrote.

He's highlighting something that much of the media world doesn't want to discuss. There's a difference between readers and "traffic" just as there's a difference between journalism and click-bait. Traffic -- the mob -- is valuable to the sort of faux news sites that are data-scraping and selling it to marketers. It's a shabby way to treat your audience, but then it's a shabby audience they're after. They lure the gullible with schlock and novelty because they're not in the business of journalism, they're in the business of marketing.

Hyatt told me a lot about the sort of publication he used to run. And since I'm nobody's "traffic" I dropped ReadWrite too.

I'm a reader. I was anxious to get back to Gallant and I had to find the time somewhere, so I began cutting my news perusing. Ruthlessly. Not least because I'm beginning to feel unclean hanging out in the Internet sewers.

Do I need to know that Kim Novak, 81, is being mocked viciously for the bad plastic surgery job she revealed when she presented at this year's Oscars? Or that a 10-foot python spent five hours subduing and swallowing a three-foot crocodile? That one comes with the kind of horror movie photos beloved of 11-year-old boys. At least the story might add to biologists' knowledge of the species. But those pictures? Eeuuww. Gross.

I saw the outline of that Australian croc in the stretched out body of a snake at least 15 times -- a nightmare image I will never be able to scrub from my brain. Thank you, Australian Broadcasting, The Guardian, The Telegraph, the Independent, USA Today, and CNN. And a word, BBC: I really expected better from you.

As for the Canadian outlets I'd like to say our people are above such things. But no. They're just slow repeater sites, coming late to this Battle of the Reptiles. Or maybe it was the Triumph of the Plucky Snake -- it's hard to believe he ate the whole thing.

Don't tell me to ditch my iPad. Going offline isn't the option it was even a few years ago, when it was all the rage. That's because so many print outlets also fill their pages with infotainment found on the interwebs -- only they do it a week late.

The difference between meaning and memes

Good short stories feel substantial next to the flimsy click-bait that passes for journalism. And as the morning fiction reading became a habit, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde's quip, circa 1880, about the difference between journalism and literature: "Journalism is unreadable and literature is unread."

I once dismissed his view as snobbery, since the man was a wordsmithing genius. At the time, most news writers seemed pretty good to me, but I was reading journalism 100 years after Wilde's time. Now that we've entered a publishing landscape that echoes Wilde's era -- lots of tiny outlets and pamphleteers all screaming for the mob's attention -- it's clear he was onto something.

But the most persuasive reason for cutting my consumption of news-like-products in favour of smart prose is this provocative headline on a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review: "Who cares if it's true?" They looked at the surprising news that BuzzFeed, one of the most successful purveyor's of meaningless drivel, has decided to hire copyeditors.

The writer, an editor at the Washington Post, argues that accuracy is growing more important in new media, which is increasingly mindful of the embarrassment that comes with circulating fake videos as if they're real. Meanwhile old media have grown more relaxed about repeating whatever garbage is trending. He sees it as a merging of values and standards.

I see it as a mind-meld between the worst TV writers of 50 years ago and social media gurus today who serve up the equivalent of old TV schlock: odd characters and dumb catchphrases. Does that Plucky Snake that ate the whole thing have his own Twitter handle yet? I'm afraid to look.

Slate magazine shares my concern about the online crapfest, although they are understandably ambivalent. Their most popular story ever turned out to be the hilarious John Travolta alternate name generator currently bouncing around. It's a salute to the actor's monumental mispronunciation of Broadway songstress Idina Menzel's name when he introduced her at the Oscars. She became Adele Dazeem.

Now everyone on the interwebs wants to be Travoltafied. (I'm Stephen Reezz.)

Generally Slate attracts serious readers and has been known to run 18,000-word pieces so, as editor David Plotz told the Nieman Journalism Lab, he was "bemused" by the enthusiasm for the name generator. Especially as it was outpacing stories about the growing conflict in Ukraine and other significant copy.

He needn't feel shame. That name generator is a witty joke that captures the triviality of the Oscars like no other commentary I saw. And it's why Slate has a permanent spot on my iPad while other sites are being unfollowed with giddy abandon.

Which brings me back to the power of Gallant. Her truthful fiction acts as an intellectual palate cleanser, removing the bad taste of all the junk content I ingest accidentally. She showed me that the current media debate isn't really between old media and new, or digital and print, or even literature and journalism: it's the difference between meaning and memes.

All that, and no data scraping. At about 20 bucks a book, fiction is a remarkable bargain and a much better way to greet the morning.  [Tyee]

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