Thursday, March 17, 2011

Novels are Best Because: They Tell a Story.

I think truly good stories are starting to become less and less appreciated, generally speaking. I mean, check out the box-office numbers now and then, and you'll soon find how true this is: top grossing movies need not have a compelling story to make money. 

And I am usually not one of those: "back in the day" kind of people. But this time I am, because I think it is  possible we are starting to believe the lie that stories are not all that important: escape is important, fantasies are important, explosions are important, flashes of light are important, but stories: not so much.

We tell stories every day, and they are important. That thing I said about cat vomit, and how it has become ubiquitous in my house as of late? Yeah, that was a story. Sorry. But it wasn't a very good one.

I pose this question to my students at the beginning of the semester: "Why would it be an outrage if a school decided not to teach its students how to read anymore and just focused on Math and Science? I mean, really, you don't need to read to survive, right? Humanity could get by without the written word, couldn't it?" Sometimes they can't wrap their minds around this possibility, because we exist in a literate world, and it is nearly impossible for them to imagine a world without the written word ("But.. how would you pay your bills?!")

And maybe that's the same point I'm trying to make about stories. It's kind of hard to imagine the world without stories, because I think they've existed much longer than the written word. And my friend Ed made a good point on my last blog: God communicates through stories. And if Christianity isn't your cup of tea, I think most religions have some form "story" surrounding them.

Novels just take those little stories and make them a little bit bigger, a little larger, and a little more full. They embellish. And if the author is a good one, he or she will use nice words and image to accompany these stories. A novel isn't just a story, after all.

And a story isn't just plot points, either. Man, that would totally suck:

Hamlet's dad got offed by his brother. Hamlet has an existential crisis. Hamlet kills uncle, but also dies. Oh, also: some people think he wanted to bang his mother. The end. 

It is a little funny to me when people get upset when someone gives away the ending to a novel, like that is what it's about. This isn't the Sixth Sense, people: your experience should not be dependent on information, but how information is relayed. I mean, in some of the greatest works ever written, nothing really happens, anyway. People mope around and think about things. But it's still a story.

Which brings me to my last point about stories. And yeah, it's the most cliched. I apologize in advance. We are all stories. Some of us are exciting stories. Some of us are lame-o stories. Some of us are gross stories. Some of us are inspiring stories. Some of us are tragedies, or comedies, whatever. But we all start the same: we're born. We end the same: we die.

One of my favorite novels is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and part of that is because it is James Joyce's story. And while I relate to his story, it is different enough, and clever enough, and transcendent enough, that it makes for a good story. It has a beginning, right when Stephen Dedalus is a little boy, and it follows through to his going out to encounter the uncreated conscience of his race as a young man at the end.

What a great story. And it happens every single day.

1 comment:

  1. I agree. (Of course! - seeing how I'm another Christian and literary person) But here's a question for you (and Ed?):
    A few months back I was talking to a friend who honestly believes that "life" does not equal "stories." Things happen, and mostly they're random. I don't agree with this because I believe that God is invested and involved in every part of my life - there are good things and bad things - but my life isn't "random."
    What do I say, then, to folks who believe that my belief in stories and life is me IMPOSING stories upon life?