Is there a crisis in storytelling?

In an era of increasing self-censorship and blurred lines between truth and fiction, the acclaimed author and translator considers the effects of a tumultuous year on literary creativity. His epic novel, Kingdom of Twilight, is published by Maclehose Press in January 2017.

When I was a child, during the Cold War, we all lived in three spaces: NATO countries, the Warsaw Pact, and the so-called non-aligned states. The world was black and white, and the very few who could see that essentially the two sides harboured the same aims ‒ more power and more resources ‒  such as the indigenous Bolivian intellectual Fausto Reinaga, had very little influence. For decades, the dualism of the two superpowers suffocated alternative thinking.

The end of the Cold War has not liberated us from dualism. Nowadays, the situation may be much more confusing, but the principle remains unchanged: many cultural pressure groups (as we might call them) try to impose their view by any means possible. And in the end they all want the same thing: more power and more resources. The novelty lies in the fact that we cannot maintain the illusion of an anyway contradictory, protected open space, where artists would enjoy greater freedom, like in the old West. Today, everything is everywhere: nationalists, Islamists, sexists, underprivileged minorities, poverty, refugees, war. We live in an epoch of extreme interconnectivity. Again, we have to choose sides. So: are we to regard this panorama as a range of possibilities or do we live in the midst of innumerable threats?

As a writer I see the possibilities, because times of change offer a wealth of inspiration, especially the worst aspects of this change. But I am a family man with children, and like many other people I am afraid. As everything has potential repercussions for my personal life, I need to be careful, even when writing. Since the fatwa was issued on Salman Rushdie, and more recently, since the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo caricaturists in Paris, the gap has virtually closed between two very important concepts, which ought to remain distinct if artistic freedom is to be preserved: on one hand there is the artist and their work of art, and on the other there is the perpetrator and their crime. While the narrator was part of the fiction, the author could make them say whatever they wanted, without risking consequences to themselves. But today the position of the narrator has all but collapsed; their voice is in the process of becoming identical with that of the author.

This shift is not new, indeed it started way back in the sixties and seventies when thinkers and writers such as Jacques Derrida and Umberto Eco reflected upon apocalyptic speech to show how the author deliberately vanishes in the name of an absolute truth. An author can only have an interest in vanishing, however, if otherwise they are likely to be found guilty. The proud or even decadently boastful author is the one who knows that the rules of the game still apply, which protect them in real life. In the past, when violence was the monopoly of governments, fame could even be a means of protection.

This is no longer the case. The rules of the game have changed and we do not know which ones will be applied next time, nor who is going to apply them, nor when or where this might take place. The decentralisation and privatisation of politically or religiously motivated violence has led to arbitrary, anonymous and merciless censorship. Hence the general concern, especially for people who need the public, such as artists.

Art itself is changing as a result of this evolution. Two reactions may be observed, whether in literature, in film or on stage: either the authors attempt to claim a factual truth for their story, or they renounce any form of commitment and simply entertain. There is nothing wrong with either, but the flood of true stories we experience these days, together with the other flood of ‒ to express it in binary terms ‒ ‘untrue’ stories (such as fantasy, mystery, horror, action thrillers, filmed comics, etc.), make me suspect that many authors are imposing some kind of self-censorship. We are seeking shelter, and the factual truth is as much a shelter as is any kind of parallel universe, if only the universe of complete privacy.

The problem with the factual truth is that it is binary: verifiable or falsifiable. This truth does not belong to art itself, it belongs to public discourse. It seems that, in order to produce meaningful art, many authors feel their story should be based on something ‘real’, on facts. At the same time this connection protects them, because nobody can be blamed for reality – it simply exists. Ergo, I’m not guilty. Don’t kill the messenger! The author disappears as a source; their story becomes apocalyptic in the sense that it reveals truth.

The importance of the factual truth has increased dramatically in storytelling. It dominates many stories, whereas their own truth as a work of art diminishes: a factual truth can best be told in the most conventional way, that is the safest method. It is dangerous to be creative; creativity may trigger dangerous misunderstandings.

When what is being said assumes more importance than how it is being said, i.e. when these two aspects fall apart instead of forming an artistic whole ‒ be it in the production, or in the reception, or both ‒ then we have a crisis of storytelling. And a crisis of storytelling is symptomatic of a profound cultural crisis.

We’re talking about taboos. Taboos in speech want to impose blind spots on the perception of reality and vice versa. Perhaps this is a normal reaction to an overwhelmingly chaotic era: the attempt to reduce perception in order to preserve stability. Maybe the global emergence of fundamentalist movements is a logical, albeit paradoxical, consequence of a disorienting complexity. And maybe an author who dares to increase disorientation with their storytelling risks being punished as a perpetrator in an almost epistemological sense. But how should we react to this reaction?

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About the Author

steven-uhly-c-matthias-bothorSteven Uhly was born in 1964 in Cologne and is of German-Bengali descent, and partially rooted in Spanish culture. He has studied literature, served as the head of an institute in Brazil, and translated poetry and prose from Spanish, Portuguese, and English. His book Adams Fuge was granted the Tukan-Preis of the city of Munich in 2011. His novel Glückskind (2012) was filmed as a primetime production by director Michael Verhoeven for German television. He lives in Munich with his family.

Steven Uhly (c) Matthias Bothor

Additional Information

Kingdom of Twilight (Maclehose Press, 2017): a ground-breaking, thrilling historical saga that follows the quest for identity and home in a traumatised post-war world. Find out more about this PEN award-winning novel and pre-order it.

Banner photo (c) Demietrich Baker

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