What Moby Dick Can Teach Us About Trump: Steve Almond's Bad Stories
"Dear Sugars" podcast host, New York Times columnist, bestselling author, and longtime grubbie Steve Almond fished himself from a pool of dread after the 2016 election by asking, What are the bad, fraudulent stories that got us here? The result was his latest work of nonfiction, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country? a book-length inquiry into the bad stories we tell ourselves as Americans and how we can use literature as a lens through which to understand what the hell happened in 2016. Earlier this year, Steve was on retreat at Wellspring House, where GrubWrites Editor Sarah Colwill-Brown is currently Writer-in-Residence. After a fireside reading with other residents the night before, Sarah and Steve grabbed a minute over breakfast to discuss bad stories, cable TV bullshit, and what Moby Dick can teach us about why Trump is president. Steve is appearing at Belmont Books next Thursday, May 31st.
What are bad stories? How did this become the frame for the book?
A bad story is a narrative that, whether by design or otherwise, is fraudulent, has ill intentions, is not aimed at solving problems or communicating the truth of the world around us. Maybe bad stories are the truth of the world inside of us, distorting how we see reality, and causing us to—again, sometimes unconsciously, and sometimes wishfully—not be truthful about who we are as individuals and who we are as a country.
For example, “All men are created equal,” and a lot of the other statements in our founding documents are, on paper, good stories. But they are obviously fraudulent. The person who wrote “all men are created equal” held men as property. Because it was fraudulent, and we haven’t recognized that yet, because 240 years later we’re still dealing with systemic racism, voter suppression tactics that clearly target people of color, and so on.
I offer 17 examples of what I mean by ‘bad story.’ It can be something as specific to the 2016 election as, “Trump was a change agent”—that cable TV bullshit. Or it can be something as broad as, “We’re a representative democracy.” We’ve never been a representative democracy, and when we pretend that’s the case, we then start to overlook and ignore the reality of Jim Crow, slavery, suffrage, and even what happened in the 2016 election in Milwaukee, or North Carolina, or Pennsylvania, where there were clear and consistent efforts to suppress the vote. Or even the establishment of the Electoral College, which is a kind of slaveholder math applied to voting. They got the Southern states to join the United States by creating a system where they could count enslaved people as partial votes, even though the enslaved people themselves had no representation.
The term “bad stories” also applies to cultural narratives such as, “Sports unifies us.” Sports can serve a unifying role but for the most
For people on the
But people on the left also use political parody as a way of dealing with feelings of agitation, and distress, and rage that
One of the things that
Theodore Roosevelt was trying to tell a good story when he gave his speech in 1910 and said, Hey,
When I originally wrote the first draft here at Wellspring House, I had two ideas. One was that there were these bad stories that lead to bad outcomes, because I was teaching at the Nieman [Foundation], and journalists, especially foreign-born journalists, were like, What is happening? And everybody is very eager to focus on the outcome of Trump, and Trumpism, and the modern GOP. Everybody was focusing on the outcome, and I kept saying to them—because I was teaching them about creative writing—it’s more productive to see a bad outcome as a result of a bad story, or a series of bad stories, and then to say, What are the bad stories that we’re telling ourselves that lead to these bad outcomes?
Why do people vote against their economic interests? Why does somebody in rural America vote for a person who has stated outright that they will take away their healthcare, or make it more difficult for them to get healthcare, or not fund their healthcare? Well, part of [the reason] is because in this country we have a habit of believing a personal bad story, which is: “My grievances are more important than my vulnerabilities.” In some ways, grievances are safer to deal with. The problem isn’t that I might not get healthcare and I’m worried because my husband might die, the problem is immigrants; the problem is that we aren’t tough enough; the problem is that we’ve gone soft. These bad stories appeal to people’s internal sense of grievance.
It’s easy to rail against these flagrant symptoms, and it’s irresistible in a way, but until you step back from history and say, How did we get here? you’re not going to solve anything.
As a former journalist, what is your view of the media’s culpability in proliferating bad stories?
The large-bore argument I make is that there was a time that the government reckoned with the reality that mass media had become incredibly powerful with the birth of radio, and smart lawmakers, probably listening to Theodore Roosevelt, said, Hold on a second, those are public airwaves; they should serve the public good. It’s not ok for us to allow propaganda, and allow people to hold this power who are going to be irresponsible with it—who are going to serve private interests over the public good. And that led to the Fairness Doctrine, which was basically a spoiler plate on propaganda. It was basically the idea that we should be having a conversation about our common problems, not an argument about who is to blame. And when the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987 under Reagan, we basically said, Go ahead, media. Be a for-profit endeavor. You are no longer guardians of public good. You are private businesses; have at it.
Then you see this rise in partisan, almost entirely rightwing radio, and I just don’t think people, especially on the left, can understand how a Trump voter, or his base, his core, constructs a
We dumped gasoline on this process of monetizing
Part of that process is that you start to fail, as a culture, to be able to have serious discussions about how we’re going to solve problems, and you see this playing out every day now. We’re not talking about how we’re going to solve climate change. We’re not talking about how we’re going to solve income inequality, or how we’re going to adapt to an economy that’s completely transformed from the 1950s. There’s no serious discussion. There’s no serious conversation; there’s just a set of tabloid stories, and they are important sometimes in suggesting the moral degeneracy of certain actors, but that’s a different thing than solving problems.
Obama was a technocratic president. He wanted to try to solve things incrementally with compromise. He had a very rough time of it, I
Yeah. People’s inner lives are really powerful, and if you can plug into their primal negative emotions, a lot of their more serious self-reflective thought goes out the window, and the media feeds into that when they say, Let’s just air this demagogue over and over and over. And why? The Chairman of CBS, Les Moonves, confessed it. He said, I’m sorry, it might be terrible for our country, but Trump is great for our profits. Sorry, American democracy, we’re not going to take you seriously or the problems we’re grappling with, the fourth estate is no longer really in that business, and, in a way, again, you can point to him and
It’s how I look at things, because of the work that I do—because of my work as a writer and a teacher. Writing is my lens. I’m not a political scientist; I’m not a journalist. That’s how I look at things, and—this is true of Dear Sugars as well—the best advice, the deepest insights are in art and, for me, literary art. You can’t read Moby Dick and listen to Ahab and not hear Trump. You just can’t. So much of the election, so much of our cultural spirit right now resides in wounded
After all, the media was covering Trump because it was profitable, and it was profitable because we watched. It ultimately redounds to us. There are various literary voices who have been trying to tell us this for a long time. Orwell, Baldwin, and Vonnegut. Even the Bible—the story of the prodigal son, the story of the golden calf—these are all ancient stories that are still resonant because we’re still struggling with the same delusions and destructive impulses.
There are a lot of people smarter than me, who are more seriously studying the problem, who have written wonderful books trying to explain how we got here. But I have my world, which is that of a writer, and I also feel like there are a lot of writers and readers who have been walking around for a long time, but especially the last year and a half, asking, What the hell is going on? We’re on a suicide mission. What is happening? And how did we get here?
So I had a choice after the election: either lie around in a pool of
You mention that after the election a lot of people, especially people in our profession, had that “pool of dread” moment, and I found that a lot of fiction writers in my life had a hard time justifying the pursuit of their particular practice. The world felt like it was coming apart and writing began to feel even more self-indulgent than
I think that’s true [laughs]. That’s right because I just said that, basically—I just said, Oh, I’ve got to try and address this; I can’t go off and write a short story.
So what would you say to those writers who feel as though their writing is self-indulgent now?
In the book, that anxiety is threaded through. That’s why I quote Conrad, saying, basically, this is what the job of an artist is: to dream and imagine and hope. It’s all predicated on the idea that there is a public good, that everybody is in pain and is trying to find their way through, and in literature—all art—we find a way to transcend our worst impulses and
You read that beautiful story the other night and I thought, Wow, that’s also in conversation with what’s happening in our culture right now around male aggression and female captivity, and I hear
So I understand why it would feel self-indulgent, but I actually think it would be self-indulgent not to examine your life and just go for the cash, and to not give a shit about anybody who isn’t in your income bracket, or isn’t of your ethnicity, or race, or gender, or to care about them less, and to be ok with their suffering, and I think art is intended to make people feel that everybody matters, everybody is struggling with the same internal stuff. I don’t think anything could be more valuable. At the end of Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon is trying to save a dying man’s life; that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. How can you read that and not start to feel that you need to do better as a moral actor in the world? That’s a very romantic view, but that’s also my perspective as a writer. So, especially
And even in the book’s opening, you say that you placed your faith in stories because you believe them to be the basic unit of human
Right, I mean, that’s what’s happening. Every piece of art, even if it’s not a perfect piece of art, in every piece the writer is trying to figure out, What did that mean? For example, with the story you read last night: there you are, in Yorkshire, having this experience on a soccer pitch with these boys, and, as a
It meant something. This is how writers operate; something is clearly meaningful; they haven’t figured out what it is, but that’s what the
I had a powerful experience teaching at Wesleyan. I told my students to find somebody who is of a completely opposite political orientation from them, then interview them and find out what their story is, why they believe what they do. I asked them to do that work. And they couldn't do it, or they wouldn’t do it, and I thought, It’s not just on the right. We’ve got a culture-wide problem. It’s easy to say that their outcomes are terrible, they want to do terrible things, that they want to crush people’s rights.
But Trump voters have a story that they’re telling themselves, and it’s not, I’m a sadistic, uncaring racist. It’s some other set of stories. Listening to those stories doesn’t mean you forgive them; it’s not a justification for destructive thought or policy. It’s an effort to understand another human, rather than just flattening them out into a stereotype.
Is there anything else that you want writers to know about the book?
The book is ultimately about the redemptive power of stories and storytelling. As you could tell from the opening chapter, the point of Moby Dick isn’t just that Ahab leads his men astray—it’s that Ishmael survives to tell the story, to make sense of it, and learn from it. That’s the moment we’re in now: in order to take America in a more compassionate direction, we have to recognize the stories that got us so lost. Otherwise, we’re going to remain tossed about on a sea of masculine insecurity and sadism. Bad stories can do great damage because stories have so much power. But they can also be our salvation.
Finally, as we always ask our interview guests: What are you reading?
I’ve been reading I Wrote this Book Because I Love You, essays by the writer Tim Kreider. It’s one of those rare books that’s trying to combine the private and the public, the personal and the cultural. He’s got an essay about a failed romance that gets at the heart of 9/11 better than anything I’ve ever read.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown