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Narrative Writing Enters “Punk Rock Phase”

Orlean, Talese, Auletta, Wilkerson to debate genre’s future


Susan Orlean will give a keynote address at BU’s second annual narrative writing conference. Photo by Gaspar Tringale

Twitter, blogs, Kindle singles, vanity pubs, iPhone readers—it’s clear that traditional literary boundaries and formats are breaking down, opening the floodgates to waves of new content. But where all this prose is rushing no one knows. “Writing has entered its punk rock phase,” says New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, who will give one of the keynote speeches at this weekend’s sold-out literary conference at BU, The Power of Narrative: The Rebirth of Storytelling.

“Self publishing—the equivalent of having a garage band—is going to open things up a lot,” says one-time Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix reporter Orlean. “There will be a lot of junk published, but there will be a lot of good stuff published. Length will no longer be an expenses issue. Restriction on length, for better or worse, is going to become a moot point.”

Known for her distinctive long-form pieces, Orlean has written for The New Yorker since 1992 and penned the 1998 New York Times bestseller The Orchid Thief, which formed the basis for the quirky Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Her latest book, a biography of dog actor Rin Tin Tin, is due out this October. The other literati descending on campus for BU’s second annual narrative weekend include journalist and author Gay Talese, New Yorker staffer Ken Auletta, New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson, Random House editor Kate Medina, documentary filmmaker and author Dayton Duncan, who frequently collaborates with Ken Burns, and Amanda Urban, International Creative Management executive vice president. BU is represented by three College of Communication professors, Douglas Starr, author of The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, Isabel Wilkerson, a 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award winner for The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration and a Pulitzer winner, and 2007 National Outdoor Book Award winner Lou Ureneck, whose book Cabin: Two Bothers, a Dream and Five Acres in Maine will be published in September by Viking Press.

All this literary brainpower will be applied to such questions such as: where will tomorrow’s narratives live? How does content get monetized and delivered? And to what extent have reader expectations been reshaped by technology? BU Today caught up with Orlean, who also blogs for the New Yorker and is active on Twitter, to ask what she thinks the new face of storytelling is starting to look like.

BU Today: The conference is subtitled the Rebirth of Storytelling. What shape is that rebirth taking?
I feel like storytelling has never gone away and it never will. But as we’ve begun to wonder about the future of publishing and newspapers and so forth, what we are seeing is an assessment of what it is that we’re worrying about. That’s made people appreciate the fact that what’s at risk is not storytelling. The desire for that remains the same as it’s ever been and maybe even stronger. In the next few years, I think that there is going to be a proliferation of new ways of getting stories out to the public. So even as we’re seeing one format and mechanism for getting stories out kind of faltering, we’re going to see a lot more stepping in to fill the void. What we’re worried about is a means of delivery, not the content.

Have the internet and digital reading devices changed the way you think about putting a long-form piece together?
It really hasn’t. What I’ve found is that the internet gives me a platform, at the risk of using an overused word, for a certain kind of writing that felt too informal to support a piece of printed magazine journalism. Now, if I have something that feels very casual, it just seems to very naturally migrate to my blog. There are a lot of pieces that in the past would have either not been published or I would have had to shape them to make sense as a printed piece of journalism. But when I’m sitting down to write a piece that’s going to be in the magazine, I don’t think about it that differently. It’s really still the same set of concerns. I’ve always thought about attention spans and all that kind of boring stuff that goes into what you write about and how you write about it.

Do you think the advances in technology have reshaped attention spans and created a fundamentally different reader or is that overhyped, doomsday stuff?
I used to think it was overhyped. I don’t think it’s changed the way I read long-form stuff, but it has changed the way I read news. I’m much more impatient. I usually have already heard the news that I get in the newspaper or even on the web. My interaction with the newspaper is very different from the way it was five years ago. I used to spend a lot more time reading it, and now I read quickly. I don’t really like jumping to another page, even online. I read half of an article a lot.

Do you own a Kindle?
I had a Kindle, now I read on my iPad. I read basically 99 percent of my books as e-books now. And I read on my phone a lot.

Don’t iPads, Kindles, and e-books spell the death of browsing and accidental bookshelf discoveries?
I compare it to my experience with my iPod and how when I stopped going to record stores, at first I thought, oh no, how am I going to find music? Of course, this whole entire world of things has emerged. I probably buy more new music now because I’ll follow the links, I’ll look at people’s iMixes, I’ll look at the Genius suggestions on iTunes. And I end up buying tons of stuff. I browse very much. So the real question is, will the Kindle store and the iBook store and whatever else emerges develop an easier browsing experience, which would be the equivalent of what people do in bookstores. And while I love bookstores—and if they’re gone, it would be a great loss—every time something goes away, new things pop up to fill the void. That’s just the nature of civilization. You can either be deeply sentimental or you can just sort of see where it’s flowing and just accept it as the nature of the way things go.

In what ways do you see the internet helping facilitate the craft of narrative writing?
Social media gives everybody a fair shot at sharing suggestions, mentioning things that they’ve read that they like. There are Twitter accounts dedicated to the long form. That’s a wonderful development that gets the word out. I think that there’s going to be another wave of middlemen who will arise and who people will turn to for advice on what’s worth their time to read. Publishers and magazines used to do that for us. Now, there are places like the Atavist that say here are the good ones that are out there.

You’re active on Twitter. What role does the microblog play in your writing life?
Well, first of all, Twitter is just fun. And if you’re a writer, any form of writing can be intriguing and a kind of great little exercise. I like talking and I like listening, so Twitter is like a giant radio system broadcasting millions of voices and having a chance to put in your two cents and be listened to. I see it as an extension of what writing already means to me. Then there’s the reality that for someone who makes their living by building an audience, which is true for all writers, it’s a wonderful opportunity to communicate, to let your audience know what you’re doing and keep people engaged.

Say a BU journalism student wants to pursue long-form writing. Is there an obvious path?
I wrote a post in my New Yorker blog a couple of months ago about how I realized that all of the now well-worn advice that I would trot out every time I talked to students was mainly irrelevant and useless in this world, and that I was going to have to start all over again. For one thing, in setting out to be a writer, one ought to not come with the expectation of “I want to be writing 5,000-word pieces.” That’s just a little silly and kind of arrogant. First, get to be a really good writer, and then ask people to give you that kind of space. But as far as sheer practical terms, I used to say to people, “Move to a smaller city and get a job at a newspaper, and try to write as much as possible.” I still believe that the more you write, the better it is for you wherever you can find an opportunity to write. I don’t encourage people to start a blog. That’s a very different enterprise. If you want to use it as a way to practice writing, that’s not a bad thing to do. But I don’t see it as a career-advancing move. I don’t see writing without an editor and without a sense of an audience as being all that helpful. So I have a lot of negative advice. I don’t have a lot of positive advice yet. It’s a tricky time.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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