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 part it stokes tribalism, suppresses empathy, and distorts our values in ways that contribute, I argue, to a kind of binary mindset and a violence of thought that dominates our political discourse.

 

For people on the left the dominant bad story is: “Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are going to rescue us.” It’s true that comedians and cultural commentators—from Twain right on forward—do serve a valuable role; they point out hypocrisy, sharpen people’s critical faculty, even inform people.

 

But people on the left also use political parody as a way of dealing with feelings of agitation, and distress, and rage that are actually appropriate and necessary responses to how broken the country is, in terms of taking care of people. How to make sure that people have health care, and how to make sure that income inequality doesn’t go berserk, etc.

 

One of the things that was tough about the book was that it can sound negative, as though there’s no hope, as though there are no good stories. There are good stories; the country has made unbelievable moral progress, but progress is always inconvenient, and it always requires a confrontation with some ugly moral truth that people don’t want to reckon with, and by people I mean people in power, and that tends to be aggregated with wealthy white men—that seems to be a pretty consistent pattern.

 

Theodore Roosevelt was trying to tell a good story when he gave his speech in 1910 and said, Hey, government should not be in alliance with private business interests. He was saying 110 years before today, Here are the problems that this country has to deal with, and in a sense, the 2016 election was a direct repudiation of anybody who has ever held the idea that our government should serve the public, that it should try to comfort the afflicted and spread the great riches of this country around a little more.

 

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 worldview, unless you’ve listened to rightwing radio. Trump didn’t build a movement. He inherited an audience.

 

We dumped gasoline on this process of monetizing demagoguery, because it turns out that bad stories are very lucrative. So I hold the media quite responsible. If Trump had been treated like a normal candidate, like Jeb Bush or somebody else, and [news outlets] had applied the same standards of coverage, we wouldn’t have had all this breathless coverage. He became the frontrunner because he was treated as the frontrunner, and the media still hasn’t figured that out. But he has. I wouldn’t say it’s a deep insight, but he’s really figured out what I talk about when I discuss Neil Postman’s work, which is, when a public becomes an audience, then it’s always going to go for entertainment.

 

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 think, because he wasn’t a great narrator. He didn’t understand that he needed to have at least a dash of the demagogue in him to get people to mobilize. He was trying to solve problems, but I don’t think he was very good at telling stories. People will often say, Well, why is the GOP so much better at getting their message out? Because they understand that it’s more compelling to say, They’re coming for you; they’re coming for your way of life; they’re coming for your family; they’re coming for your guns; they’re coming for your religion; they’re coming for you. And on the left, we’re saying, Hey, we really have to solve this complicated problem together.

 

The GOP don’t need nuance?

 

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 say, Shame! Shame! but you really have to go further back.

 

Government got out of the business of being concerned about regulating the fourth estate to make sure that it serves the public good. They got out of that business, and here is the result: it’s a tacit alliance; it’s an entertainment business. And we’re complicit when we plug into these tabloid scandals.

 

In the book you use several examples from literature. You pitch Moby Dick as a tale about the seductive force of the wounded male ego, and the 2016 election as a kind of retelling of that tale. You also ask us to think of Trump in terms of Forster’s flat and round characters. What do we gain from looking at the election and at the current moment through a literary lens?

 

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 masculinity, and its consequent rage. If you just see it as politics, if you just see it as a set of policies, or policy outcomes, or a kind of clever effort to grab power, then you’re missing the central question of literature: What motivates people? Why do they do things? Why do they behave destructively—destructively to others, and self-destructively? Moby Dick was the 2016 election; that’s what happened.

 

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 dread, or try to use literature to answer these questions.

 

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 in usually does.

 

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 feelings, and to forge a universal connection. I believe that writing is a moral act, because you’re trying to make people feel more human than they did before. And that, essentially, is what’s happening: if you rub away everything else, we’re becoming less decent to one another, less humane. Literature fights against that.

 

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 that, and now I know Sarah a little better, and now I’m thinking more deeply about what's happening inside of me and around me. That’s a profound thing. It’s small—it’s just us; it was just that room—but that is, I think, how change gets generated. It is a private experience, and then it becomes public.

 

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 in the end of the book, I’m trying to say that there are better stories, there are good stories, they are in literature, but they’re also all around us, and just as people shouldn’t give in to cynicism, they shouldn’t surrender to despair, either, because that is a dead end.

 

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 consciousness, and that the stories we tell, or the ones we absorb, are what allow us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience.

 

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 writer you’re asking, What did it mean that the way that we were able to escape abuse was by flashing our breasts? What did that mean?

 

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 writing is trying to commemorate. And people are doing this all the time; we’re just little story-making machines. You can see this in kids very clearly, but even in adults—that person in rural America is constructing a story when she says, I’m going to vote for this party. They’re constructing a story about why that party believes in them, understands them, is going to protect them. And you’re not going to get to the basis of how they think and why they vote a particular way or act as a citizen—or don’t act as a citizen—in a particular way until you think about what their story is.

 

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.

 

You can catch Steve in person tonight (Thursday, May 24) for a lecture at the Mark Twain House and Museum.

 

Steve Almond is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. His short stories have been anthologized widely, in the Best American Short StoriesThe Pushcart PrizeBest American Erotica, and Best American Mysteries series. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He teaches at the Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard, and hosts the New York Times podcast “Dear Sugars” with fellow writer Cheryl Strayed.
About the Author

As Editor of GrubWrites, GrubStreet's popular blog, Sarah serves the Grub community a daily dose of literary goodness. Book lovers can find reviews, news, recommendations, and conversations with exciting new authors to stay up to speed on all things lit. Writers, GrubWrites is your go-to spot for expert craft talk, thoughtful discussions on how writing is learned and taught, and essential publishing and publicity advice. Sarah is also a GrubStreet instructor and consultant specializing in the novel.

 

Sarah is Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House and a recipient of the work-study scholarship for the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53, fall 2018), Solstice Literary Magazine, The Conium Review, Poetry and Audience, and other places, and her essays have featured on Dead Darlings and elsewhere. She's served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine and The Conium Review and is currently Fiction Editor at Pangyrus. A graduate of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program, for which she was awarded a scholarship, Sarah is at work revising her first novel. She was educated at Leeds University, where she received her BA hons in English Language and Literature (International), with stints at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Kansas State University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, where she was awarded the Seaton Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing. Most recently, Sarah completed an MA in English Literature at Boston College, where she was awarded a tuition fellowship and the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize. Hailing from Yorkshire, England, her life's mission is to introduce the word "sozzard" to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and other services, including copy editing, please visit sarahcolwillbrown.com.

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