The Stories We Tell

by Ruth Newton
Published by: Florida Academic Press, 2006

I will be honest right up front: this book is not an easy read. It's dense, packed with references to "great literature," and the kind of explication that requires absolute attention and rigorous mental exercise. That said, it's also a very important book for those of us who truly love fiction.

Perhaps the best way to start the review is with a quote from the author, which sums up her thesis: "It seems churlish to blame later authors for their loss of power, given their need to work up their stories in the midst of unstructured, despoiled and ever fluid societies, the absence of belief and institutions in all forms, the empty or interchangeable settings, the ravages of an overwhelming and unimaginable history in a unverse that has selected its own plots and has forgone a stable morality, the inexorable globalization, terrorism, instant communication, transportation, trade, acceleration, distraction, restlessness, MTV, the separation of families and communities, the insatiable need for an incessant narrative of news and documentaries, but that is their burden."

That is to say, literature has typically used the conventions (social, moral, philosophical, scientific) of its day as the rocky shores against which its characters are flung and battered. The characters may struggle, shift, and change - but the rocky shore stands resolute.

What happens to fiction as these norms of life morph, fragment, or disappear? In THE STORIES WE TELL: COMPOSING IN A DECOMPOSING WORLD, Ruth Newton explores the history of fiction as represented in the epic and the novel, and imagines what will happen to fiction in a world ever more fragmented, uncertain, ungrounded, and changeable. If fiction is the true mirror of what it means to be human at any point in time, what Newton discovers and uncovers about its evolution is important to us all.

Indeed, that is the author's position: that fiction is a better mirror of humankind at any given moment than perhaps any other art form, and certainly more so than history itself.

Newton begins with the epic, a long narrative poem, told in a formal, elevated style, that focuses on a serious subject and chronicles heroic deeds and events important to a culture or nation. While not history, the epic is concerned with those things that happen outside the main characters - the events of history, the shifts of fate, and importantly, the will of the Gods.

Concerned as they are with history (and with male characters), epics often deal with war, death, conquest, and adventure.

In the epic, none of these things, with the possible exception of Ulysses' adventures, is personal. Death is grand, ugly, inevitable, or glorious - it is rarely personal. Typically, epic heros do not have individuality. Newton says: "Though they fight for individual glory, there are no personal novelistic distinctions to be made, no deep interior life, between two masses meeting on the field among 'rivulets of blood,' groans and shouts of triumph alternating from those who kill and those who are killed."

These types of stories, it seems, are the stories that compel us toward glorious acts, unselfish deeds, and historic achievements. The author tells us that "Virgil's Dido has a history of her own engraved on the gold and silver plates used to honor her guests, showing 'brave deeds of her fathers/A sequence carried down through many captains/In a long line from the founding of the race.'"

"In the epic mode," however, "the private realm is an afterthought, overwhelmed by the public story. It is at one with history." While we do get to know some characters, such as Ulysses (in fact, some scholars argue that The Odyssey was the world's first novel, not an epic at all) for the most part the private stories reside with the women, and are seen only as brief interludes - then on to more killing, conquest, and destruction. "Only in peace can the private life flourish as the equal of the state's," Newton writes. And as far as literature is concerned, it was only on stage that the private life had a voice.

With the advent of the novel, the tables were turned - utterly. Suddenly, the inner realm was the canvas on which the tale was painted.

In fact, the advent of the novel mirrored a change within people's understanding of the world they lived in - and their place in it. The characters in epics were often mere pawns in a game they did not comprehend, set in motion by forces they could not control, and had only one signficant choice: be heroic and die, or be cowardly/ordinary and die. "We do not doubt for a moment," writes Newton, "that, whatever the gods decide, the epic heroes will turn full face to destiny with a kind of dumb nobility. They simply have no choice in the matter." In the author's view, this is the failing of the epic.

The characters in novels, on the other hand, reflect the human understanding that life does perhaps lie within their grasp, that they have many and weighty moral choices to make every moment of their lives, and that external forces are not nearly as significant in their fates as internal ones.

Which is not to say that the characters in classic novels do not vie against both the fates and the outside world. They do. But now the outcome depends upon the characters personal decisions. Early novels were about individuals saving, or realizing, themselves. Characters were cast into a background of homes, families, oughts and shoulds, socials norms and human frailty. In a world in which the role of the individual had changed from pawn of the Gods to master (or victim) of his moral choices, the story was now about how characters chose to behave in morally complex circumstances, and what happened when they chose A over B, yes versus no.

For the novel to work, a sense of place was highly important. Good novels evoked a location, a flavor - think of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, the Bronte sisters' Yorkshire, or Dickens' London - a sense of time and space, good and bad. "Deep moral concerns, strong stories, depended upon that England and France or Russia whose social world and its ways were testing places for character growth... It is the moral imagination which emerges from the mind pressing against reality." How can a character grow and change if there is no unchanging set of standards against which to measure him?

This type of novel demanded answers to the questions it posed. The story needed a structure within which the characters acted, and a home for them to go to at the end. Where the epic had only death, either glorious or un-noticed, the novel introduced questions of morality and intent against a backdrop of social imperatives. And even in the most fanciful novels, a sense of place and meaning pervaded.

What now? Complete chaos, apparently. The "new writing" moves toward "absent or highly unreliable authors, plots that are simply tricks, abstract settings, unmotivated characters who serve a pattern and become one as well, and finally, the omnipotent 'readers' who ascend the throne with the banished author has left, composing text of their own."

If I may digress into the world of television - certainly a fictional genre of our time - and the series LOST as an example: the biggest fear LOST viewers have is that it all may be a terrible trick, a la the infamous "dream" of Pam Ewing in the series DALLAS. The story keeps delivering surprises that are based on the dishonesty of, or deliberate misleading by, the writers. And at least part of the story is being written, directly and indirectly, by the viewers. Viewer suppositions about "what's going on" have led to clues, hints, and references in the subsequent storyline; viewers' participation on series website forums is as much a part of the experience as the weekly hour of the show itself; and the writers have worked interactive activities (such as the the creation of a website for a company which has some connection to the mysterious island events) into the experience of the story. One thing that strikes me in particular is that the audience members can get deeply involved with the story and its motion (forward or otherwise), or simply watch as it streams past. The choice, as Newton points out, is ours.

As intriguing as this is, Newton reminds us that "We may welcome and lament at the same time the natural and unavoidable evolution of forms. Several cultural observers surmise that the accelerating pressure of inventiveness may, in our day, have caused the arts to hit a wall." But it could be that the "wall" is only in the minds of those of us who were born before the pole shift into whatever this new form of fiction is, or will one day be called. Because "the difficulty lies in the fact that between us (older folks) and them (the younger crowd) there is an unbridgeable gap. Something has happened between our generation and theirs, a continuity of experience has been broken: we no longer have any common reference points."

Newton indicates that the future of story lies in things like computer games, the Internet, performance art, and so forth. These are forms of "fiction" that rely upon chance, discovery, participation, and change. The reader (audience) controls the story in novelistic video games almost as much as does the author - play the game three times and get three different endings, or travel an entirely new path through the story with each outing. The Internet is one vast story waiting to be uncovered - presumably again and again - each time you sit down to explore it. Performance art is new and different each time it is undertaken - and often, involves audience members who add their own unique - and unrepeatable - elements to the tale. The old familiar landmarks of the Prince, the Princess, the Witch, the Ogre, the Quest and the Happily Ever After ending disappear, replaced with who knows what, for it will be something else each time we open the book.

Perhaps more distressing, though not singled out by the author, is the NEWS as story. Or even, INVENTED story. Is there indeed a wall of separation between fiction and fact, entertainment and news? This should be of as much concern to us as breaches of the purported wall between church and state. And if we consider the point made in the previous paragraph, we may just be raising a generation of citizens who do not consider news to be an objective "truth," but instead a heated opinion, a wild story, an interactive "event," and unless it has that dynamic, they will not sit still for it.

Returning to Newton's notion that fiction is a truthful mirror of society: what does this tell us about the evolution in human thought? Now, more than ever, we are reminded of Marshall McLuhan's "medium is the message" prophesy. We now have the means to write our tales collaboratively, and at the same time, for an audience of one. While epics were written but mostly passed from person to person via performance to a community, and while novels were shared cultural experiences (think of the anxious vigil for Dickens' latest installment, or latterly, the latest Harry Potter novel), stories are now told to a huge audience - one at a time. And I experience this story in a private, silent world, quite apart from you and your reaction, and with my solitary input, make my experience completely inaccessible to you.

One gets the distinct impression that Newton is not completely pleased with the turn of fiction. "To compensate for the loss of characters and manners," she complains, "armies of wild eccentrics prance through fantastic scenarios, to compensate for loss of plot, unmotivated and unimaginable situations, to make up for the loss of place, gorgeous sentences that go nowhere. The more these novels are stuffed, the thinner the story feels so that maximalism, in the long run, becomes a form of minimalism."

Newton shares my conviction that storytelling is a "divine art" that holds great joy for the audience. But she warns us, to my chagrin, that "does not mean the story will stay put." In the past, stories, once written, never changed. They had, in their own way, more truth than what was objectively true. Now, all bets are off.

While in many ways this sounds exciting, there is a huge cultural consideration: historically, stories passed along cultural "realities" from generation to generation. When your story, and my story, not only have little in common but can not even be shared with one another as, once it is experienced, it disappears, we lose a means of sharing our cultural norms. "You and I will not be reading the same books. At the end (of his novel), Reader and Reader, man and wife, lie in 'a great double bed,' receiving 'parallel readings. Each is off on his/her own journey.'"

"So this is what we have come to," Newton concludes. The possible end of "that universe we took for granted on summer afternoons, beautiful words indeed, buried deep in a wonderful story."

Thoughts, indeed, to be pondered.


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