Keeping the Narrative Alive: Pico Iyer

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Pico Iyer has traveled to nearly every corner of the globe, often writing about it along the way: from the holy city of Benares to remote corners of Tibet to isolated nations like Bhutan, North Korea, and Cuba. Iyer is the author of a new book, about his travels and reflections:The Man Within My Head, an introspective look at the people who’ve impacted his life.

Though he writes from the perspective of a traveler, his essays are anything but touristy, rather, they touch upon the nerves of the society he’s visiting as he tries to parse the cultural, political, and social nuances of the land.  Iyer recently wrote a piece  for the LA Times calling for the revival of the long sentence, what he refers to as his “silent” protest to the “snap, crackle, and pop” speed of modern writing.

Dowser caught up with Iyer to get his thoughts on modern-day storytelling:

Recently, your piece in the NYTimes, “Joy of Quiet,” was one of the most widely shared pieces.  Ironic, given that it was (a) a long reflective article and (b) about disconnecting.  Do you find that there’s still a place for such long, narrative pieces in today’s fast-paced world of journalism, which likes snappy and short articles for the Web?

Iyer:  The fact that it was circulated so widely, and I wouldn’t really know because I’m not online that much, does suggest that people are hungry for spaciousness and more time to address their time and friends.  You’re right that the world has gotten very accelerated and fragmented.  It feels as though we’re in a MTV video at times.  But there is something in each one of us that looks for enough time and space to have a meaningful conversation with a friend and time to reflect.

In fact, that piece was 2,000 words and people were reading it and sending it along.  I think all of us have gotten caught up on this roller coaster that we didn’t really want to be on.  And now, we’re looking to get off.

From an editorial standpoint, do you find that it’s harder to get such longer, deeper stories out in mainstream press?

Yes, since I started, which was 30 years back, text has gotten 60% shorter in the publications that I’ve been contributing to.  All magazines are getting more graphic.  Newspapers are reflecting the pace of the Internet.  But with ‘Joy of Quiet,’ I was given 1800 -2000 words, which was noticeably longer and I gave something like 1980 to my editor, thinking that it will be cut.   But, it wasn’t.

With the rise of the Internet, many of these publications have limited print space but they can shift pieces onto their websites, which can be longer.  There’s a parallel system arising in many ways.  While movies are getting shorter, with less and less dialogue.  You’ll get a DVD a few months later that has 10 hours of added content.  So, the outlets are just changing.

Today, media is global.  I can go to the website of an Indian newspaper and get the latest update right now.  So, where does your writing style fit into this new paradigm?  Is there still a need for a writer who’s writing about a country that he doesn’t belong to and isn’t reporting on in a journalistic fashion but simply describing through his own lens?

Yes, you’re right, every writer today has to address that question now.   He didn’t have to do it 30 years ago.  Writing has to be more internal than it used to be. If I’m going to India, for example, I can offer the perspective of an outsider.  I’m not an Indian citizen and I’m not a journalist stationed there, covering it daily.

When I started in the 1980s as a journalist, I was gathering as much information as possible.  Now, I think it’s less about information and offering a bigger picture that isn’t in the statistics. So, I’m going to give a different view on India than the journalist or the citizen, and it’ll probably be broader, and more reflective.

But certainly, writing has changed and the writer has to think about how he can justify his existence given all these new sources.

Taking this beyond the essay form, do you find that there’s still a space for books, which are truly insightful, thought-provoking and discuss serious issues?  Many bookstores these days are filled with stories by famous people or are sensationalist in nature, it seems.  Is there still space for a genuine writer?

Ha ha.  Yes, I know what you mean.  When I go to the bookstore or to the newsstand these days, my heart sinks a little.  And yet, these days I think that are so many alternatives.   It’s much more of a free-for-all.  I agree that when we look at the mainstream press, it’s less exacting, it seems.  But when I started, there were probably 10 places that a typical person could go to for specialist issues like hunger, poverty, inequality.   Now, there’s hundreds, if not thousands.  We’ve gone from little information to too much information. It’s hard to navigate many times though.

Now, when I write my books, I try to write them as slow as possible, and not up to date.  So, that those who don’t want the Entertainment Tonight kind of book can gravitate towards this kind of writing.

Although I do get dispirited sometimes, I try not to get down about it.

You seem to be an optimist.  So with all this chatter about the sustainability of news outlets, what excites you as a writer going forward?

I do get worried because my sources of livelihood are books, newspapers, and magazines.  Sometimes, it seems like three versions of the Titanic and which one will sink first.

But, ultimately, people still have the same needs – they will need information, and they will need reflection.  It does pose a challenge to me and will cause us to rethink the way we do our work to meet changing forms.  Yet, I still feel that what we’re all doing as writers will have an audience.

Maybe 10 years from now, there will be far fewer print outlets, but many people seem to like public lectures.  So, maybe I’ll have to change myself from a private person at my desk to a more public person and talk about those same issues in front of an audience.   I became a writer to be live a quiet life to myself.  So, that’s difficult but it just poses a challenge.

I liked that you said I’m an optimist.  I’m probably also a realist.   But definitely not a defeatist.

Since the landscape has changed, what advice would you give to a young writer who wants to write about these kinds of issues – still be a writer?

I would say, try to do something in writing that you couldn’t do in any other form.  If you think that your project is better in a different form, do a movie instead, or a multimedia project.  I think if I were starting out today, I might well not have become a writer but gone into one of these forms.

But if you do want to be writer, try to think about why a reader picks up a book.  They want something slower, probably, and more nuanced.  So, go as far internal as you can.

Think of it like when you’re walking down Broadway in NYC and there will be someone sitting in a corner, sketching, amidst all the noise and business.   If you want to be a writer, that will probably be your space.

At Dowser, we often write about social issues and impact.  You write about similar issues, especially, when you visit developing countries, but from a travel perspective.  What do you make of these different schools of writing, which are often trying to bring the same ideas to life?

Yes, when I’m writing, I’m also writing about those bigger issues but trying to do it through a human story and presenting myself as more or less a typical tourist.   So, for example, going back to the NYTimes, Kristof has been anchoring his OpEds with a human story and sometimes, that gives it an even farther reach than it would have had otherwise.

While you and David at Dowser have expertise on these issues, I don’t.  So, when I write about it, I write it from a blundering everyman’s perspective.  So, what happens to a blundering everyman when he goes to Haiti, Egypt or India?  That’s my approach and I see what doors it can open.

Photo Credit: Pico Iyer


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