As a longtime fiction writer, creative-writing teacher, advice columnist, essayist and former journalist (in Miami, among other places), Steve Almond knows a bad story when he sees it. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Almond saw bad stories everywhere he looked. Since the election, these stories have only increased.
In the best-selling author’s new book, “Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country,” Almond investigates the many ways we have kidded ourselves about who we are as people and as a country. Only these “bad stories” are no joke. Among them, as named in the titles of the book’s chapters: “What Amuses Us Can't Hurt Us,” “Sports Brings Us Together as a Nation,” “Our Grievances Matter More Than Our Vulnerabilities” and American Women Will Never Empower a Sexual Predator.”
While there is plenty of fire and fury to be found in “Bad Stories,” which will be published April 1 by Red Hen Press, Almond is not interested in a simple rehashing of the 2016 election campaign or an airing of grievances about the outcome. Rather, as he writes in the book, “I’m not offering a single theory, or even a set of theories, as to how our democracy fell apart. I’m working toward a synthesis of theories. The ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency is certainly the impetus for this investigation. But it should not be mistaken for my subject.”
Almond, who will discuss “Bad Stories” Monday, March 26, with Books and Books owner Mitchell Kaplan at the chain’s Coral Gables location, recently responded to our questions via email. Here are excerpts from that exchange.
You analyze 17 “bad stories” in the book. Which one do you believe has been the most damaging to our democracy?
Gosh. That’s a tough question, but I do think the chapter on the Fairness Doctrine has been hugely important — the bad story that there is no such thing as fair and balanced journalism. Because so much of our discourse is really driven by for-profit propaganda. And most Americans have no idea that the government used to crack down on this stuff. The whole point of the Fairness Doctrine was to make sure that controversial issues were debated in a reasonable manner, with all sides represented. It was designed to make sure we didn’t end up with partisan media echo chambers. Its repeal, in 1987, led directly to the rise of right-wing radio, a medium that convinced tens of millions of white Americans that they, and their way of life, was under assault. Trump basically inherited this audience share. His views are not just informed but formed by conspiratorial propagandists. And his loyal base lives within this bubble of paranoid disinformation.
As you note in the book, we Americans have been telling ourselves many of these bad stories for decades, some of them for more than a century. Will it take that long for us to stop believing them? Can the country survive if we don’t?
We all buy into bad stories, and tell them, every day. “I’m just going to have one potato chip.” That’s a bad story. I want to make that clear, because I do think bad stories are a part of the human arrangement. The entire idea of race — the idea that whiteness even exists — is a bad story, one that was invented to keep poor people from banding together to demand more from the rich. But it’s also true that we’ve shed a number of our baddest stories, such as the one about African Americans being property, or women being unworthy of voting rights, or gay people being morally defective. I see the ebb and flow of bad stories are a natural part of our evolution. But the 2016 election was completely dominated by bad stories — stories that were untrue, irrelevant and intended to sow discord. Those bad stories led to a tragic outcome, as they always do. Soon enough, Trump won’t be president anymore. But unless we understand the bad stories that brought him to power, we’re going to be helpless to guard against the next autocrat. America’s not going to implode overnight. But already, our nation has become smaller, more divided and more deluded.
It has been five weeks since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. What bad story have we been telling ourselves about guns and mass shootings? What do you think will become of that story now?
There’s a whole host of bad stories being fomented by the gun lobby and their congressional servants. Among them:
• Sensible gun control will rip guns away from law-abiding Americans.
• Gun control won’t reduce mass shootings.
• The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
All of these are bad stories — fraudulent, credulous and intended to distract people from much more obvious stories, such as the story of every single country that has made it harder to acquire guns, such as Australia, where gun control virtually ended mass shootings.
The kids in Parkland have been crucial players in stanching this flow of propaganda. Or rather, in suggesting that a new generation of students/potential victims are sick of the adult world’s excuses.
They are asking common-sense questions, such as: Why do civilians needs military-grade weapons?
And they are suggesting a story that makes a lot more sense. That is: The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is … to ban guns.
Near the end of the book, you share what you believe you should have told the journalism student who asked you, “What do you do if, no matter what you write, the reader won’t believe you?” But how did you actually answer that student’s question?
I told her the truth: that sometimes there is no way to make a reader believe you. I told her that stories are the basic units of human consciousness. They are how we construct reality. Our ability to tell stories is what has allowed us to thrive as a species, indeed to dominate the entire planet. But that capacity, I explained, belongs to each human being. We are all allowed to make up our own stories, and when we’re frightened or sad or angry, we tend to make up bad stories. Every atrocity our species has authored — from wars to racial genocides to environmental desecration — arises from these bad stories. You can’t stop people from believing bad stories. You can only try to present better stories, ones that are more truthful, more sensible, and more compassionate.
In the book, you discuss writing and ultimately shelving a pre-2016 novel about a Trump-like figure — “a hedonistic right-wing demagogue named Bucky Dunn who decides to run for president and shocks everyone, himself included, by nearly winning the GOP nomination.” The key word there, of course, is “nearly,” and you explain how readers of the manuscript found the character “too cruel and cartoonish” to be believable. Have you written any political fiction since Trump took power? It seems as if this era poses a rather extreme challenge to writers of political fiction.
Yeah, reality has totally outstripped fiction at this point. But it’s also true that every short story or poem is a moral document. Every one proceeds from the basic intention of engaging the reader’s imagination, of making them more empathic. And I believe that’s a moral act: to make people just a little bit more human, more alive to their own inner life, to complicate our lives by means of excessive compassion. Propaganda, by the way, has the opposite intention: It seeks to simplify our actions by dismissing entire populations as “the enemy.” And that, I’m afraid, is the sort of president we have at the moment. It’s no coincidence that he doesn’t read. It’s the whole point.
Fun fact: If folks want to read excerpts from that crazy demagogue novel of mine, they’re here.
You co-host the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed and with her write “The Sweet Spot” advice column for the New York Times. How have the questions you receive from listeners and readers changed since the election? Have the questions — that is, the number of people seeking advice — increased?
God, yes. We’ve gotten so many letters from people who are depressed and anxious because they feel our government no longer functions to serve, or even protect, its citizens. Trump talks about the media as "an enemy of the people." But if you’re a woman or an immigrant or a person of color or just someone struggling to earn a living wage, Trump and his congressional enablers have basically said: your voice, and your needs, don’t count. We’re going to keep shoveling money at our donors and deregulating businesses. And we’re coming after you. It’s a heartbreaking moment if you’re vulnerable in America, because our own government has become the enemy of those people. Trump’s political strategy has also been to sow discord at every opportunity, so as to incite and empower his base. He couldn’t care less about their actual needs, but he’s great at stoking their primal negative emotions. And that’s resulted in a lot of folks feeling empowered to express their bigotry and their violent ideation. It’s a politics of despair and division, a politics driven by masculine insecurity, and our listeners are feeling it. Deeply.
You cite Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” throughout the book. In a previous conversation, you told me that your first reading of the book “many years ago … sent me down the path of cultural criticism.” Can you expand on that?
It was Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of Books and Books, who first gave me Postman’s book, and it blew my mind. For the first time, someone was articulating what I had long sensed: that America had became a nation entirely in the thrall of entertainment, and therefore unable to engage in serious discussions. We’re facing some incredibly scary problems: climate change, income inequality, a broken political system, etc. And you only solve problems on that scale if you engage in serious and rational debates about potential solutions. But think about the three presidential debates between Clinton and Trump. There wasn’t a single question about climate change. Not one. What were people talking about: how many times Trump sniffed or what suit Clinton wore. I mean, my God people: Miami Beach is regularly underwater at this point. Can we pull our heads away from our celebrity roasts and Twitter feeds long enough to see what’s happening? That’s what Postman was asking 35 years ago. And his question has only gotten louder with every passing year, as we fall further into the thrall of entertainment.
The wonderful thing is that I’ll be able to talk to Mitchell about all this on Monday, because he’s going to interview me at Books and Books. In a very real sense, I would have never written “Bad Stories” without Mitchell putting that book in my hand.
Steve Almond will appear 8 p.m. Monday, March 26, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Admission is free. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com. For more about "Bad Stories," click here.