East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

The dark side of storytelling

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This one is going to be a little rambling, so please bear with me.

I’ll start by saying that I hate gossip.
In real life, I mean.
No problem with gossipy characters in stories, but let us say that I’ve been the object of gossip campaigns in the past that caused a lot of grief, to me and others, so there, hatred is an empty feeling, but I do hate gossip, and gossip-mongers.


Now, I always considered gossip a form of sick entertainment – and indeed it is rife in all those places you see listed in notices at the start of DVD movies: schools, prisons, air bases, cruise ships, Antarctic ice stations…
Any place where you can’t legally show a rented DVD but in which you can legitimately set a slasher horror movie, is where you’ll find gossip thriving.
It’s a thing worth considering.

I was talking about being the focus of widespread, nasty gossip with a friend a few days back – we were doing the sort of things you see in “Jaws”, the scene in which the main characters show each other their scars.

An expression turned up during our chat that really got me thinking: toxic atmosphere.
Gossip creates a toxic atmosphere surrounding all people involved, and it will turn sour even the best intentions, even the most innocent events.
Everything becomes distorted and works against the subjects of the gossip.
It is not just a sick form of entertainment. It hurts people.

Toxic_ShamanAnd this idea came to me, that it is really some kind of shamanic ritual of sort.
Toxic shamanism, but shamanism anyway.
Storytelling as a way to control reality.
By picking a person and making them the subject of invented, slanderous stories, and by spreading those stories in an environment favorable to the diffusion and festering of the stories  (see – cruise ship, school, ice station… small, contained) the gossip-monger sort of takes control of the subject’s life. Reality does no longer matter, because what the majority believes becomes the new reality.
The toxic atmosphere becomes the filter through which every action, every word is perceived by everybody, and thus the interpretation of reality becomes skewed.
A person’s life becomes skewed.
The storyteller is rewriting, by retelling, the real story, replacing it with a false (but, oh, so highly entertaining for the punters) version of his own devising.
Of which the gossip-monger often loses control.
Because gossip has a twisted life of its own.

I find this idea fascinating, and scary.
I am convinced that stories play a major part in the way we relate to the world – fairy tales, cautionary tales, travelers’ tales, they are all ways in which we acquire our world-picture as kids.
Stories are a part of what we are.
Which I always thought means that a writer of stories has a great, great responsibility.

My latest reflections on gossip, my afternoon spent comparing scars with my old friend, revealed a side of storytelling that I had so far ignored.
The Dark Side, if you will.
And while part of me wants to write stories about this, because it would be a great starting point for an urban fantasy, for instance, another side of myself is just furious.
I hate gossip – and now I have just more reasons to.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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