Thursday, September 4, 2008

Not Merely Mimetic

I was driving down I-95 on Tuesday, sunburnt and sleepy, when I did something risky. Maybe it was the fatigue. Maybe it was boredom. Maybe I was trying to test my tolerances. Whatever the reason, I did it -- I listened to NPR.

Friends and family know that I have precious little patience with National Public Radio, that its condescension and persistent ideological slant can reduce me,
like director David Mamet, to choking back invectives. But this time when I tuned in, the program was All Things Considered, and the topic was about picking worthwhile TV shows during the fall season. A promising premise. But do you suppose the discussion touched on the nature of well-penned narratives or what makes for compelling subject material? No, the good folks at NPR concluded that shows should be about “reflecting reality” and sampling “the breadth of American culture.” Meaning that women should talk to women about whatever they want to talk about (except men), and that there ought to be a wide sampling of so-called “ethnic” characters (in a non-stereotypical manner, of course).

I made it through the six-minute segment before flipping over to a rock station. While Steven Tyler screeched about Janie’s dog day and my blood pressure slowly returned to normal, I pondered why the piece bothered me so much. It wasn’t only the tired emphasis on sex and race. It was the implication that a story’s greatest virtue lies in mirroring the world. While good narratives are about universal human experience, they aren’t merely mimetic. They’re things of structure and shape and a peculiar beauty of style. They instruct us in what to love and hate. And they’re objects of an author’s intent, telling us at least as much about him as the world he inhabits (which is, after all, another’s story). I doubt that NPR, with its political preoccupations, understands or cares about such things. But countless authors have and do, and there is no joy quite like opening their works and find them therein.

(Picture: CC 2005 by

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