Sunday, April 14, 2013

`An Almost Physical Need to Tell It'

The names of some writers float through the air like those anonymous insects – midges? gnats? flies? – that swarm in the summer. We ignore them until accidentally ingesting one. Such was my understanding of Robert Fulford. I knew he was a journalist and vaguely associated him with Toronto. In preparation for our visit to that city I read his Accidental City: The Transformation of Toronto (1995) and a very different sort of book – The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture, which he published in 2000. Appropriately, Fulford, now eighty-one years old, begins his examination of stories with anecdotes from his early days as a reporter. He looks at that least story-like story, the newspaper article: 

“We reporters always called our newspaper pieces stories. `Have you finished your story?’ `How long will your story run?’ But in truth, they were more like interoffice memos than real stories, since they lacked a story’s main qualities: suspense, organization, voice, mood, point of view. That newspaper formula, called the inverted pyramid, appeared in the nineteenth century, when telegraphy was erratic and the transmission of an article might be broken off anywhere in the middle…” 

By now, when so many humble newspaper reporters have been infected with the “literary journalism” virus, the inverted pyramid is as lost an art as telegraphy, replaced by the folksy, unfocused “anecdotal lead.” Not that newspaper stories should never be “stories” in the conventional sense – that is, compelling narratives. Once Fulford learned the formula, he says, “…I began thinking of ways to get around it…I was also beginning to realize that when I hear a good story, I have an almost physical need to tell it…I came to recognize the natural or compulsive storytellers among journalists, and I read every word of theirs I could find. Rebecca West in England, Hector Charlesworth in Canada, and A.J. Liebling in the United States were of those to whom I eventually learned to pay careful attention.” 

Me, too, especially Liebling. Fulford is exceptionally well-read for a newspaper man. In the three pages following the passage just quoted, he cites Lytton Strachey, Malcolm Muggeridge, Paul Auster and Erik Erikson, and makes reference to Baywatch. He devotes extended attention to Gibbon, Bellow and Nabokov. He’s a democrat who doesn’t slum, a middlebrow with highbrow tastes but no pretensions. I can’t think of a living American counterpart. Think of another journalist who could produce a passage like this: 

Pale Fire improves with age; it demonstrates that of all the writers who tried to find new ways of storytelling in the last century, no one understood the infinite resources of narrative better than Vladimir Nabokov. And in recent years, changing steadily as all great books do, it has acquired a new charm: it seems to have been written in the full knowledge of how literature and narrative would be seen at the end of the century in postmodern criticism, most of which had not been imagined when Nabokov sat down to write his masterwork.” 

Fulford is still at work, producing a column for the National Post, and in recent months he’s written about jazz (leading with an anecdote about the time he met Jack Teagarden) and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is a well-deserved tribute to a man of great journalistic integrity, intellectual sophistication, and human decency. If you don't already know, his stable-mates at the National Post make up, arguably, the best core of journalistic commentators in the world. These include: George Jonas, Rex Murphy, Conrad Black, Barbara Kay, Terence Corcoran, Lawrence Solomon, and David Frum.

Both of my children teach English at Toronto private schools. I'll be interested to hear where your son ends up.