Hurrah for overstatement?! A few words on how we say things

On Medium this morning, I read a short piece—two minutes estimated reading time, according to the label—that bore a lengthy title: “The Absolutely True Story of a Real Programmer Who Never Learned C.” Put me in a box and burn me, ’cause I am literally already dead from having read that. It wouldn’t do to title the piece “The Programmer Who Never Learned C.” The man wasn’t merely a programmer; he had to be called a real programmer. The account had to be labeled as a story, and not only that but a true one, and not only a true one but an absolutely true one. Though the piece never quite regains the peak at which it begins, there’s a lesser summit later, when we read of “Dennis waiting Sam’s entire life…” (emphasis in the original), which might seem to suggest that Sam, in a manner befitting the tone, expired forthwith. Read it and see. The overall effect here is of sitting in a bar with acquaintances, trading anecdotes in the pumped-up and excitable style of current conversation.

What to make of this? Two things strike me. One is that this modest tale of a programmer serves our ongoing taste for narratives that grow from some sort of objective, historical truth. Notice how many American movies claim to be based on actual events; among recent releases, two immediately come to mind, The Revenant and Joy. (The latter also reflects the trend for immensely short titles. I’m waiting for a book or film called 1, which if successful will lead to a sequel called 2.) The entire field of memoir springs in part from this taste for facts and in turn feeds back into it. Does all this have something to do with what author David Shields called, in a book of the same name, “reality hunger”? Not having read the book, I don’t know.

The second thing that strikes me about that Medium title is that we live in an age of enthusiasm. Such things come and go. In some times and places, eagerness and voluble high spirits have been welcomed; in others, they’ve been seen as suspect. Patrick O’Brian’s historical novels, set in Britain in the early 19th century, which I’ve been reading off and on, give glimpses of an age when a cool, judicious manner was preferred. Those with a socio-political bent might propose that marketing is the chief handmaiden of capitalism and that everything, from brief expressions of assent (awesome!) on up, must in the modern era be sold at a high pitch. I think that view is, like, totally not comprehensive enough; it doesn’t explain periods of moderation. Commerce was booming in 1950s America, yet the decade had something of a buttoned-down tone. Sloan Wilson’s rhythmically lulling title, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, would today seem either too short or much too long, a veritable Miltown in prose.

Yes, net-speak has something to do with overstatement. A New York Times piece published last November fed us a big huge heaping helping of it, and the Internet is the home of (to pick just one example) a blog called Hyperbole and a Half. But people do still meet and talk face-to-face as well. I feel like heading to a bar now; with a little chemical encouragement, I might regale the bartender with an absolutely true story or two.

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