What the Media Can Learn from Postmodern Literature
By Victoria Fortune
Most of my favorite books from my childhood—the ones that left their imprint on my psyche—have third-person omniscient narrators: Little Women, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. There was something comforting about being guided through a world by an all-knowing voice. But as author Chris Castellani argues in his book Perspective, this approach is considered “too old-fashioned for a fractured world that distrusts authority, has abandoned God, and has little faith in any absolute truth put forth by an individual.” We live in a postmodern world, and postmodernists “argue for the existence of a ‘multiplicity of theoretical standpoints’ rather than grand, all-encompassing theories.” (newworldencyclopedia.com)
This is likely why first person and multiple point of view narratives are far more popular these days. They acknowledge that experience is inherently limited, and they seem to absolve the author of any claim on pressing a particular moral vision. Unlike C.S. Lewis or Mark Twain, who would occasionally peek out from behind the authorial curtain and speak to readers’ directly, writers today often go to great lengths to avoid revealing their hand constructing the reader’s experience. Instead, it is the friction or dissonance within and among characters, speaking in their own voices, that creates the meaning readers must interpret for themselves.
However, as Castellani points out, “doesn’t the author’s vision and judgement lie . . . in the unity of effect she has achieved by the story’s end?” In choosing which voices to include and how to position them in relation to each other, the author, “intentionally or not . . . interposes herself between the story and the reader, acting as a scrim, or a lens, an organizing force.” Like reality TV, this approach is meant to make the characters’ actions and reactions seem unfiltered, but behind the lens, the story is highly choreographed and produced.
Like literature, the media today has been greatly altered by postmodernism. In my childhood (the 80s) there were only three or four major news stations, with a handful of anchors that were household names: Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel, Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt -- white men who represented a centrist range of the political spectrum. Like omniscient narrators, they tried to remain above the story, maintaining an appearance of objectivity, even if there was implicit bias behind what they chose to cover. They did not aim to entertain—that would have been beneath the serious nature of their role as journalists. But they held the country’s collective attention because people didn’t expect the news to be entertaining, and there were few other options. Undoubtedly they left voices out, overlooked minority issues, ignored important stories, but they created a unifying effect that gave the country a sort of national consciousness. It was as if Americans were all viewing the same story about the country, even if they had differing opinions and interpretations of the story.
Now, in the digital age, we have a multitude of voices at our fingertips, and with more voices delivering more information than ever before, people are overwhelmed. They can’t take it all in. In a multi-viewpoint novel, the way that the author juxtaposes the characters’ voices broadens the readers’ perspective and creates the unity of effect. Readers understand that they cannot simply pick the voice they like best in the book and ignore the others, or they will miss vital information and the meaning of the story as a whole. In the media, however, there is no narrative structure to help viewers navigate disparate views in a meaningful way. Some media outlets attempt a multi-viewpoint perspective, generally by including two opposing views for every issue, but this false equivalency merely exacerbates polarization and does nothing to help viewers understand the veracity or value of either view. So, many people choose to listen only to the voices that reinforce their already established view of the world, and they tune out the ones that challenge and expand it.
We now have a “multiplicity of theoretical standpoints” represented in a vast array of media outlets, but rather than broadening people’s perspectives, the cacophony has had the opposite effect, making people more myopic as they isolate themselves from alternative views. The media needs some narrative structure that allows for a multiplicity of voices, but brings them together in a meaningful way to create some unity of effect. After all, our country's motto is E pluribus unum.