29
Oct
09

It’s never “just a story”.

Another quantum post! As you read this, I’m on a 9-hour trek across the country to World Fantasy Con. If you’ll be there or in the San Jose area, I’ll be reading from The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms on Saturday at 3 p.m. Come listen and say hello!

Two things I’ve seen this week triggered today’s post. The first was this news article, about a young woman recently found wandering and amnesiac here in New York city. She’d forgotten her name, how she got here, or what had happened to her. What she could remember, however, were lines from a fantasy novel by Robin Hobb. Now, the important and tragic part of this story is that this young woman has probably been through some major physical or psychological (or both) trauma; I don’t want to gloss over that. She’s been identified, and is hopefully now being treated. But the part that caught my attention, given my professions — not just fantasy writer, but psychologist — was that she remembered the Hobb book. She also remembered that she herself is a fantasy writer, working on a novel; she can apparently remember what her story is about, too. So hold those thoughts for a minute.

The other thing that triggered today’s post was seeing a video featuring Nigerian author (and MacArthur “Genius” Grant award winner) Chimamanda Adichie, in which she talks about the dangers of a single story. Watch it for yourself:

My favorite part is the anecdote she starts about about the 10:55 mark:

“I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho, and it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.”

Adichie says it herself: stories matter. Not only because too few stories can create stereotypes or incomplete understandings of the world, but also because all stories lodge in our minds so powerfully, influencing our thinking at such a deep and often subconscious level, that even when our identities are stripped away, the stories remain. In fact, there are psychological theories which posit that human consciousness is nothing but stories — that aside from our most simplistic instincts, all of our ability to reason consists of chains of interlinking narratives, from the simplest to the most complex, that we form and associate in order to understand the world.

I think of things like this whenever I hear people dismiss fantasy, and fiction in general (but especially genre fiction), as “just a story.” This seems to happen frequently in any serious conversation which attempts to deconstruct the stories we tell — like in this conversation that’s taking place in the romance end of the genresphere, about race and cultural appropriation. A number of respondents in the comment thread seem upset at being asked to think about real-world issues because they just want a story to enjoy — by which they seem to mean the same kinds of stories they’ve always read, however singular and incomplete those are. But how much more enjoyable might those stories be if they were made more complete? How many fresh, complex, new stories might appear if there were more tellers, different tellers, and if the old incomplete stories were retired instead of rehashed?

Think about it: if the world’s six billion people knew of Americans only through that Bret Easton Ellis novel, what would they think of us? What if the world only expected Ellis-ish stories from American authors, and refused to publish anything different on the assumption that stories about non-murderous Americans were somehow “inauthentic”? What if the authors of other nations, when they deigned to include Americans in their fiction, only wrote of Americans as narcissistic serial killers? What if the readers in those other nations got upset whenever Americans asked for more and varied representations of themselves? And worse, what if the governments of other nations started building their policies around such stories, requiring that all Americans be frisked and held for psychiatric observation on entering the country?

Would American Psycho be “just a story” then? Could any story written by or about Americans be “just a story”, in that climate?

So I don’t buy the idea that what we’re doing, as writers and as readers, is “just a story”. The stories I write have a powerful impact on the consciousness of every person who reads them, whether I intend to have that effect or not. The stories I read have a powerful impact on my own consciousness — and subconsciousness, whether I’m aware of that impact or not. It seems disingenuous at best, irresponsible at worst, to pretend that neither of these facts are true.

Here’s an idea: just imagine yourself as that young amnesiac woman. Ask yourself: what stories would be foremost in your mind, helping to shape your remaining identity? Because there would be some stories left in you. There always are.

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10 Responses to “It’s never “just a story”.”


  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    October 29, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Stories are life. They have been since we lived in caves and painted on the walls. Before there was much of a spoken language, those pictures told the stories that would become our folklore. I hate when people eschew fiction with the words, “But they’re just stories. It’s not real! Why waste my time with something that’s not real.”

    To which I say, “Bullshit.”

    Did Little Red really go traipsing off into the forest to bring her grandmother goodies? Well, maybe, but let’s say no. That doesn’t make her story resound any less within human minds. Stories, all stories, touch something inside us, as you said. Sometimes we don’t consciously understand what that something is, sometimes we do. It’s there, though.

    Have a great time at WFC!!

  2. 2 rachelaaron
    October 29, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Terri-Lynne already said what I was going to say, but it bears saying again. Stories are how human brains understand the world.

    I loved this video. It was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you so much for posting it. I completely agree with you on the power of stories, and, more importantly, on the great undertaking we embark upon when we tell stories.

    For example, one of the things that has bothered me deeply for the last year is that the world of my story, The Spirit Thief and its sequels, has no people of color. No black skin, no yellow skin, not even any green skin. Just white. European white. I didn’t do this on purpose. When I first wrote The Spirit Thief, I wasn’t even thinking about color or race. I just wanted to tell a fun story, and the people just happened to be white, because I am white and it took the least amount of stretch. But whenever we write our own worlds, in fantasy and scifi more than anywhere else, our own blindnesses and assumptions, innocent as they seem on a personal level, suddenly become matters of magic and politics and games of nations. My story reflected my own blindness of the world. Now, this would be easy enough to fix, but I actually have a reason (which is a horrid spoiler) why all the people look the same, and so unless I want to make everyone black, I’m stuck with my original coat of whitewash, for better or worse.

  3. 3 Terri-Lynne
    October 29, 2009 at 3:22 pm

    Writing ‘the other’ has been the subject of too many firestorms lately. Long before I was ever aware that there was a longtime debate going on, I started my current WIP. There are white folk, brown folk, and browner folk. There are also gay folk and those who hate gay folk. They just occur, I hope, so that it all just seems natural, part of the story. I don’t think I could have written them effectively if I’d read anything about “writing the Other” beforehand.

  4. October 29, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    Great post. It’s always possible for a story to be more than a story. Maybe not for everyone, but the books I read often have a great effect on me. I don’t immediately go outside and try to summon Thor after I read a Norse-themed story, but you can relate to good characters, and to good stories. And being based on the real world, they have a lot t say about it… without necessarily defining it.

  5. November 2, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    I love this: “A number of respondents in the comment thread seem upset at being asked to think about real-world issues because they just want a story to enjoy — by which they seem to mean the same kinds of stories they’ve always read, however singular and incomplete those are.”

    Yes. Much of reading mass-produced stories is about reading the same kinds of stories you’ve always read, however singular and incomplete those are. This is not reading to learn about the world. This is about being reassured that your single story is the Right Story.

    This is reading from a place of fear.

    So how do we, as writers, create an all-embracing literary landscape that is accessible from that place of fear? Because it’s a real place most of us actually live in, in the real world—day in and day out, that place where we are startled out of sleep every morning to rush through difficult and irritating transitions, so we can spend our waking hours doing boring and even unpleasant rote tasks, before being allowed to rush back through those same difficult, irritating transitions to arrive home, to our havens, exhausted and over-stimulated and confused and depressed, planning ahead to the next morning in which we must be prepared to survive it all again. We all know that place. How do we open up literature from there?

    It’s not enough to just tell people, “Read it because you’re being close-minded if you won’t.” No matter how true that might be. We must always offer readers the fiction that meets their needs, because that is the only reason anyone has ever had or ever will have to read.

    Victoria

  6. 6 Terri-Lynne
    November 2, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Victoria, very well put! Thank you.

  7. November 2, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Victoria,

    It’s not enough to just tell people, “Read it because you’re being close-minded if you won’t.” No matter how true that might be. We must always offer readers the fiction that meets their needs, because that is the only reason anyone has ever had or ever will have to read.

    Your point about fear is well-taken, and a good one.

    But I’m not saying here that people should read/write complete stories because otherwise they’re being closed-minded. I think they should write complete stories because otherwise they’re being delusional. And while a certain amount of self-delusion is healthy and good — I write fantasy, after all! — after a point it becomes pathological, and continuing to indulge it is bad for everyone involved. It’s like letting a child grow up continuing to believe, and shaping her life around, the idea that there’s a monster under the bed. If they actually look under the bed, all they’ll see are dust bunnies and maybe lost socks. Yet they’ve been allowed to keep thinking the socks are monsters for years. This is a silly fear, frankly. And rather than let that fear continue to rule this person’s life, rather than finding some way to further accommodate/rationalize/enable that fear while gently encouraging the person to be reasonable, isn’t it more sensible to just confront it? That’s the kind of fear we’re talking about here: people who are terrified of the world’s diversity, of other people’s difference, and who have shaped their lives around the notion that it’s some kind of monster under the bed.

    As for how we as writers meet our readers’ needs… I can only figure that out by putting on my reader hat, and as a reader I can only speak of my own needs and places of fear, which are probably different from those of most of the readers in the DA comment thread. My fear is of assault. And this one’s not an irrational fear, because the kind of assault I’m talking about happens all the time: when people like me and all the things we’ve done in the world are annihilated from the fiction I read; when people like me are twisted into caricatures of reality; when people like me see their culture violated because other people can’t be bothered to depict it accurately. It doesn’t matter if this literary assault is deliberate/malicious or through simple neglect; same effect either way. So my needs are simple: entertainment that doesn’t hurt me. And the only way I know to get that kind of entertainment is to confront the irrational, monster-under-the-bed fears of the people who’ve been inflicting the assaults thanks to their ignorance and irrationality, and tell them to quit it.

    Since it sounds like you’re a writer too, what methods would you recommend?

  8. November 3, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    Well, you can try confronting other peoples’ fears for them. Give it your best shot.

    As a parent, I know we all try to deal with our kids’ fears in order to protect them. When my son comes into our room in the middle of the night over a nightmare, I ask him if he’ll tell me about it. When he was little he wouldn’t. Then he finally did, and he felt so much better he did every time for a long time. Then he stopped having them, forgot how much better it felt to unburden his soul, and now he won’t tell me anymore. You can’t force someone to face their fears. You just wind up becoming part of the fear.

    When you talk about you very real fear of “assault” above, you go on later to define it as “literary assault,” which is not the same thing as physical assault. Not being portrayed realistically in fiction is not assault. If that’s all you have to worry about, frankly, your life must be pretty cushy. Women are portrayed unrealistically *constantly* and *pervasively* in all aspects of culture, including literature. They also get beaten, chronically targeted as victims of serial murder, and killed by legal partners. These are two different things. They are linked, but fear of one is not even remotely on the same scale as fear of the other.

    The bottom line is that you have no fears to face but your own, no control over anybody’s writing but your own. So go there. Write about your fears. Face them on the page. Be scathingly honest. Dig to the basement of your soul. Address an audience of humanity.

    Do your part to reveal the fundamental, flawed, undefinable humanity buried deep inside one lonely, isolated individual on this planet.

    The other lonely, isolated individuals are going to have to do the rest.

    Good luck!

    Victoria

  9. November 4, 2009 at 1:29 am

    …Wow, Victoria. I’m not sure whether you intended to be condescending and dismissive here, but that’s certainly how you’re coming across. I’m going to have to ask you to refrain from ad hominem attacks, like your implication that my life is cushy. You don’t know me, after all. Let’s try to keep this in the realm of civil debate, all right?

    I shouldn’t have used an analogy that infantilized the people we’re discussing (authors who write incomplete stories). That makes it sound like they can’t be expected to control their fears. I’m not my fellow authors’ parent, and they’re not children. And they’re not lonely, isolated individuals, not if they’re getting published — they are part of a society. Their fiction — like all fiction, as my OP noted — helps to shape that society on a fundamental level. The authors who write these incomplete stories, and sometimes perpetuate racism and sexism and other “isms” by doing so, are harming society. It doesn’t really matter whether they’re doing it out of fear or something else; in the end, regardless of the reason, harm — preventable harm — is being done.

    The appropriate response when a fellow is harming society is not to look the other way, and not to tentatively suggest that maybe that person could possibly eventually think about getting around to stopping, please maybe? It is not appropriate to do/say nothing and let the harm continue. A responsible citizen will try to confront the harmful behavior in some way.

    Not being portrayed realistically in fiction is not assault. If that’s all you have to worry about, frankly, your life must be pretty cushy. Women are portrayed unrealistically *constantly* and *pervasively* in all aspects of culture, including literature. They also get beaten, chronically targeted as victims of serial murder, and killed by legal partners. These are two different things. They are linked, but fear of one is not even remotely on the same scale as fear of the other.

    There’s a difference, yes — but not a difference of scale. What we’re talking about is the difference between acute harm and chronic harm.

    The physical assaults you’re talking about don’t happen in a vacuum, after all. The way women are portrayed in media — including literature — feeds into the way we’re treated in daily life. For every woman who’s physically abused or murdered, I guarantee you there are books and other media filled with stereotypes suggesting that she somehow “asked for it”, and so on. The media don’t cause the abuse — the actual perpetrators are responsible for that — but the media eggs the perpetrators on. In fact, the survivors of these physical incidents are assaulted further by such messages, including the ones they’ve internalized and inflict on themselves (e.g. “It was my fault because I talked back to him.”) That causes chronic harm, long after the acute harm is done — suicide, drug addiction, psychological and physical illness, worse.

    And yes, it’s assault. Abuse is assault; psychological abuse is psychological assault. Both are harmful, albeit in different ways. Both need to be stopped.

    Which is why I called it literary assault. These incomplete stories — like the stereotypes, inaccuracies, and erasures in so much of the fiction we read — cause real damage, and they help to keep the whole mess going. The chronic harm as well as the acute.


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