Photo Credit: Sheherazade and Sultan Schariar, Ferdinand Keller, 1880, oil on canvas, Sotheby’s, London. Scheherazade is the symbol of the ultimate story teller because she knew that telling a good story and keeping her listener in suspense had the power of saving her life. Botaurus/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 80 1923
“ ‘Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.’ “ (as cited in Popova, par. 10)
A while back, I wrote a blog post about some of the ways in which writers define the purpose of fiction. There are many reasons that writers write, but Maria Popova’s article “Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What it Means to be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers” reminded me of the most important one – to tell a story.
This might seem obvious, but the idea of what makes fiction has evolved over the 20th and 21st centuries so that writers are experimenting with new forms, new genres, and new ways of getting ideas across to readers. I am reminded of the term “navel-gazing”, which is used quite a bit to describe fiction that contemplates, philosophizes, analyzes, and generally makes a reader think deeply about the problems of life but doesn’t actually tell a story in the sense of “this happened, then this happened, then this happened and it finally all ends here.”
It is that part of fiction that holds a reader, though not necessarily in a chronological way. Novelist E. M. Forster, in his classic book on writing, Aspects of the Novel describes a scenario where he asks three different people what a novel is. They all answer differently but the message amounts to the same message: “[T]he novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist.” (Forster, p. 26; emphasis added). Forster makes it clear that he sees this part of writing a novel, as opposed to higher purposes of novel writing, such as inspecting the human condition, moving people to social change, or exposing what we thought was right as wrong, as inferior and even clownish:
“When we isolate the story like this from the nobler aspects through which it moves, and hold it out on the forceps – wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time – it presents an appearance that is both unlovely and dull.” (Forster, p. 28)
In other words, this rather provincial look at what a novel does seems almost to deflate its value as a work of art.
Part of Forster’s contempt for this thing he calls story might be because his definition of a story is rather limited. To him, a story is “a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence…” (p. 27; emphasis added). This is the idea that I brought up earlier of “this happens, then this happens…” This kind of story is satisfying because it gives us some kind of order in this chaotic world. But many writers have stepped away from the chronological story structure since the beginning of the 20th century to play around with time and space. A great example of this is Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a story of a woman preparing to give a party that takes place within a twenty-four hour time period. Marguerite Young’s masterpiece Miss MacIntosh, My Darling makes fluid use of time, shifting from the present to the past and back again with the constant motion of the sea, one of its driving images.
Forster gets it right though, when he insists the one element that a story must have to engage a reader is suspense. He puts it succulently when he says “the weapon of suspense [is] the only literary tool that has any effect upon tyrants and savages…” (p. 26). Note that suspense isn’t necessarily the Hitchcockian version that most of us are familiar with, the literal suspense of a character getting into physical scrapes and conflicts. The suspense can be subtle, mental, emotional, or psychological. One of my favorite psychological novels is Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. In Wharton’s book, there are no murders, no car chases, no lovers killing themselves because they can’t be together. It’s a story about a woman looking for a husband, something that many women go through every day. What makes Wharton’s book so enduring are the circumstances in which Lily Bart conducts her search as an outsider of the upper crust New York Society at the turn of the 20th century living on the generosity of others. This situation not only causes tension within the story beyond “will she or won’t she find a husband” but also makes Lily Bart question not only her own values but those of the society with which she chooses to associate herself. Readers want to see whether she is better than the shallow people she is trying to please and what sacrifices she is willing to make
This is, of course, a gross oversimplification of the story and this is one of the problems of balancing storytelling with higher purpose. There was an interesting discussion just last week on the literary fiction genre message boards on the National Novel Writing Month website. A writer lamented that she has come to hate the question “what’s your book about?” because she feels like she isn’t telling the real story when she relates the plot. In all fiction there is much more going on than just “this happened, then this happened…”. I remember back when I was teaching a literature course to college freshmen, I had a hard time getting them to understand that telling me what the story was about was not the same as literary analysis, digging deeper into the story to see what it really means, what it can tell us about the author, the time period in which it was written, and ourselves.
This is perhaps not a surprise considering we’re living in the information age where knowing the answers to questions no longer requires turning to experts or going to the local library. We are fed information rather than going out to seek it. Popova makes a nice point about how the consumerism that has invaded the internet has affected how we make meaning:
“[The internet is] a media landscape driven by commercial interest whose very business model is predicated on conditioning us to confuse information with meaning. (Why think about what constitutes a great work of art — how it moves you, what it says to your soul — when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history on a site like Buzzfeed?)” (par. 41)
In this way, the art of fiction is about making meaning rather than just dispelling information in the guise of meaning. Sontag ties this in with the idea of the serious writer:
“ ‘Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own.’ “ (as quoted in Popova, par. 17)
It is through narrative that writers show the higher purpose of fiction, the philosophies, the beliefs, the morals they hold and see as most important to themselves and others. Storytelling perhaps makes the bittersweet aspects of human existence easier for many of us to swallow.
Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company. 1927.
Popova, Maria. “Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What it Means to be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers”. Brain Pickings. Brain Pickings. 30 March 2015. Web. 16 November 2016.