In praise of storytellers

staplerMost Christians would agree with me if I were to assert the the Bible is The Greatest Story Ever Told (TGSET), and most would agree that Jesus was a divinely gifted storyteller. But I suspect some would begin to wonder about the ongoing need for storytelling (other than re-tellings of TGSET) this side of the cross. Maybe a case could be made for history or biography, but what place can fiction have?

I love stories — real or imagined — and I have great respect for good storytellers. One of my favourite story-tellers, Ursula Le Guin (1), writes of the opportunity science fiction affords her:

An imagined setting may be the most appropriate in which to work out certain traits and destinies… Those images [of space travel, imagined technologies, etc] used by a serious writer are images and metaphors of our lives, legitimately novelistic, symbolic ways of saying what cannot be said about us, our being and choices, here and now. What science fiction does is enlarge the here and now.

Le Guin argues that this is not fundamentally different from any other form of fiction:

All fiction offers us a world we can’t otherwise reach, whether because it’s in the past, or in far imaginary places, or describes experiences we haven’t had, or leads us into minds different from our own.

So, fiction allows us to explore in our imagination what is impossible in real life. Yet, at the same time, it is about real life — relationships, character, growth, failure — and helps provide insight and clarity in brief glimpses. Brief glimpses, like those described by Tessa Hadley recently in a short story in The New Yorker:

Sometimes, when she moved back out of the book and into her own life, just for a moment she could see her circumstances with a new interest and clarity, as if they were happening to someone else.

Jesus’ parables do a similar thing don’t they? They are fictional accounts that reveal our own circumstances with a renewed clarity (if we let them). 

Despite the fact that people are messy and finite, and our stories will never be characterised by the same razor-sharp insight of Jesus parables, I think story-telling is a pretty key part of our divine image-bearing. I can testify to the fact that fallen people have created stories that are beautiful (or sublime), that teach us about ourselves and provide insight into the worlds of those around us.

So, over the next few weeks, I hope to share some reflections on the story-tellers I admire, who have helped provide me with moments of renewed clarity.

(1) Introduction to Fisherman of the Inland Sea (Harper Paperbacks, New York: 2004). As an aside — I reckon this article, which heavily refers to Jane Austen, could have been an influence behind The Jane Austen Book Club. I haven’t been able to find any hard evidence on-line but the author, Karen Joy Fowler, was a Nebula winner before she wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, and if you’ve read the book/seen the movie you’ll know Le Guin’s books play a critical part in the plot.
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6 comments

  1. Hi Bruce – I’ll be keen to hear what you think! It left me wondering how many people there are out there who enjoy both Austen and Le Guin… I suspect there are more than I first imagined.

  2. Thanks for the film tip, Natalie: I enjoyed it. I’m quite taken with all of those actors, which helps, but the film was very well put together. And both more substantial, and more its own thing, than I’d guessed just from the title.

    I agree it would be interesting to know what the genesis of the Ursula Le Guin subplot was. It seems too particular a choice to be merely random or accidental … but for a female science fiction writer, I suppose it’s more mainstream. And it did provide a neat way of tying the Grigg character into the plot. Otherwise, I thought there was something unconvincing about Grigg: either that, or something contrived about the misunderstanding and underestimation of him by the women. One could say this about the right-in-front-of-the-heroine’s-nose love interest in romantic novels fairly generally, so perhaps this is not a strong criticism.

    I must say it’s never occurred to me to foist Le Guin on a girl … let alone that it would work (eventually). This may be a matter of timing, as I was 13 when I fell in love with Le Guin, as opposed to 27 for Austen. And yes, Austen was foisted on me by my then girlfriend.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it Bruce! When I’ve mentioned it to others in conversation, I’ve found myself explaining that it’s not really about Austen.

      I think the misunderestimation (thanks President Bush for that new word) of the male hero by the female characters is classic Austen (Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennett do exactly that), so I quite appreciated that plot device! Only a Science Fiction author could create a sci-fi nerd as loveable as Grigg.

      I can’t guarantee Le Guin would work for every girl, but maybe after watching The Jane Austen Book Club together, it would have a chance…

  3. Thanks for the advice on technique 🙂

    As for the underestimation of Grigg: yes, I do take the point. I forget who it was, who said that in romantic fiction (or in Austen specifically?) the hero and heroine would never surmount their obstacles and marry without the help of a Benevolent Narrator: but that was a good observation, and there’s something formally pleasing in TJABC having the same structure. In real life someone as blind to Grigg’s virtues as Jocelyn would never end up with him, any more than Elizabeth would score Darcy, but in some sense that’s why we read fiction. And if the narrator is complicit in hiding the hero’s light under a bushel, for the sake of the plot, I don’t think we’re really complaining …

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