Against Story

What do people want? “A good story.” How do we know? People can barely say anything else. When editors describe the sort of material they’re looking to acquire, they want “a good story.” Readers are always on the hunt for “a good story.” Good stories are also useful for shutting down a variety of discussions. Are there not enough women being published, or people of color? Who cares who the author is, so long as he or she writes a good story? Can writers do different things with their stories—create new points of view, structure words on the page differently, work to achieve certain effects not easily accessible with more common presentations? Why bother—a good story is the only important thing.

Now, when some people talk about a good story they mean a good reading experience. A good reading experience doesn’t necessarily involve a story at all. But many people, when they say a good story, mean a good plot, and want all the other elements of fiction subsumed to the plot. And not just any old plot, but the plot as detailed in the famous triangle of that old anti-Semite Gustav Freytag. (The anti-Semitism is why he’s pretty much known for his geometry rather than his creative writing, these days.) Rising action caused by a sequence of attempts and failures, while concurrently a set of revelations slowly illuminate the original cause of the dramatic action. Then there’s a climax, and a brief unwinding of the emotional tension caused by the conflict’s resolution.

It’s a great little structure. I use it, I teach it. We’ve been so thoroughly exposed to it in what we’ve read and watched for all our lives we almost confuse it for what comes naturally. But nothing comes naturally. Freytag’s triangle is an invention, not a discovery.  (And Aristotle didn’t discover anything either; he issued a prescription.) However it is an invention that has become hegemony and hegemony always contains the potential for tyranny. There are plenty of writers avoiding “good story” and plenty of editors who publish these stories. And they receive plenty of hate mail. Every Donald Barthelme story in The New Yorker led to a flood of angry letters and threats to cancel subscriptions. Good thing there was no Internet for the magazine to be published on at the time; the bigwigs would have taken a look at page hits and visit lengths and cut ol’ Don loose right away. We can’t sell acai berry juice with this shit!

Hegemony is the normalization of the particular. There are many other ways to tell stories and many other ways to structure a plot. An avant-garde almost by definition predates a rearguard. The tricks of what we call “postmodern” literature can be found in seminal works of literature such as Don Quixote. Hell, you can find most of them in the Old Testament, if you know where to look and read it as a work of fiction—a task ably accomplished by Stephen Moore in his survey of ancient literature, The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600. (You can tell he’s into postmodernism because he has two post-colons in his title!)

The normalization of “good story” allows for a particular sort of obnoxious criticism. The stuff that isn’t a “good story” is inevitably a “bad story.” Forget the obscurity of, say, second person point of view—there are people, would-be writers even, who are deeply suspicious of first person point of view. They see it as some kind of latter-day fancydancing, and that despite the fact that all of us, all the time, speak in the first person when we tell the stories of our lives to one another. Well, I suppose The Rock and other professional wrestlers might comprise a significant exception…

Any writer actually interested in squirming out from under the boot of the “good story” has few first-person narratives. I was called a Nazi—literally—for defending first person. I was just reading a review the other day in which the critic detailed a conversation she had with a graduate of the Clarion writers’ workshop. He denounced Flannery O’Connor as a “terrible writer” because in her stories she was “telling, not showing, the reader.” I gave a reading once along with another writer, and during the Q/A session this Hugo winner declared that fiction about the act of fiction was a new thing. (It’s actually a couple thousand years old.) One of my favorite rejection letters—this was for a collection of short fiction I was trying to place with an independent publisher—explained to me, sadly, that the book wouldn’t do because of the seventeen pieces only three of them were stories. The rest were “other things” that were confusing and weird.

There is a faux populism that goes along with this suspicion—hegemony leads to normalization, but it also leads to tyranny. People writing things other than “good stories” are fakes, frauds, interlopers into genre, poseurs and “artistes.”  A single successful strange book, such as House of Leaves leads people to demand, “Whatever happened to good old-fashioned storytelling!” The answer, that it’s in most of the other twenty thousand novels and stories in the bookstore, is unsatisfying because the existence of anything other than “good stories” are an affront. If people like stories that aren’t the “good stories” then…maybe not all good stories are good!

And indeed they ain’t. But good stories are plentiful enough, so there are sufficient excellent ones to satisfy any reader for a lifetime of any natural length. There’s no need to war against the stories that flout Freytag and his march through jeopardy and toward orgasm…uh, I mean climax. There is a need to war against “good story” though. “Good story” pushes the issue of who gets published off the table. “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or green,” people say, “I just want a ‘good story.’” You should always be wary when the green people are marched out in defense of “good story”—also, purple polka-dots. “Good story” keeps writers chained to their desks, extruding consistent product for lesser sums each time around. That’s the thing about “good story”—it’s easy to learn and do. Supply increases faster than demand, so price sinks. And “good story” limits readers. Even the dumbest, most obscure, and worst writers will occasionally proclaim themselves champions of the ordinary working stiff who just wants to escape into a “good story.” Who would declare, “Well, I don’t want ‘good stories’ then! Give me something else!” It’s nearly impossible to conceive of saying, or thinking. That’s the ultimate power of “good story.”

And yet…as writing loses its audience to television and the Web, Freytag’s triangle is in retreat. Reality TV doesn’t offer rising action and climaxes, and the revelations last only so long as the contestants do. Learning how we live now, or how the other half lives, through Twitter and blogging, doesn’t involve a march up one side of the triangle and a quick slide down the other. More of a forced march through a desert. And then there’s fiction itself—try mapping the many seasons of Lost onto the dictates of “good story.” Were Lost a novel, it would be 2000 pages long, with dozens of dropped plot threads, the introduction of a major and heretofore unknown character 1200 pages in (with new minor ones showing up on page 1945!), a couple more 1700 pages in, and then a bunch of alternative histories littering the interstices between chapters. Which wouldn’t be labeled chapters. Or interstices. Readers do want strange and new narratives—trapezoids and single rays stretching off into the horizon, and denouements that never finish their unwinding, a three dimensional snowflake with dozens of dendrites that are only beautiful from a distance—it’s just that “good story” is all they’re ever offered.  So they watch TV, and play video games, and read endless fanfiction where the same characters change radically with every writer and circumstance, and blog their own lives one sandwich and missed bus at a time, and they do what writers refuse to. So kill story now, before it’s too late. Before it kills you.

12 thoughts on “Against Story

  1. Interesting post as always. I tend to think a big part of the problem as you address it is trying to say that only one approach to story is good. I've always phrased it that what readers want is a good story well told. The problem being that what constitutes a good story and what constitutes telling it well varies from reader to reader. Of course, every problem presents an opportunity, and in the modern world of easy access to niches, it means that most everyone's idea of a good story told well can be found and appreciated.

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  3. Hey, Nick.

    If you tell a group of commercial fiction writers that sometimes the appropriate response to a work of fiction is to fold the book in your lap and spend a few minutes in contemplation?

    They will look at you as though you'd just vomited-up a dozen squirrels, each of whom unrolled a mucus-covered banner reading, "We mourn the passage of Bin Laden," and then make outraged squealing noises punctuated the word 'sales.'

    Bad moment, dude. Bad moment.

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  5. And once again, it is time to requote (and I've truncated from Delaney as well, so we're now at 3rd level truncation, till there's not much left of poor Forster):

    "If you ask one type of man, 'What does a novel do?' he will reply placidly: 'Well–I don't know–it seems a funny sort of question to ask–a novel's a novel–well, I don't know–I suppose it kind of tells a story, so to speak.' He is quite good-tempered and vague, and probably driving a motor bus at the same time and paying no more attention to literature than it merits. Another man, whom I visualize as on a golf-course, will be aggressive and brisk. He will reply: 'What does a novel do? Why, it tells a story of course, and I've no use for it if it didn't. I like a story. Very bad taste on my part, but I like a story. You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story. And I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife's the same way.' And a third man he says in a sort of dropping regretful voice, 'Yes–oh dear, yes–the novel tells a story.' I respect and admire the first speaker. I detest and fear the second. And the third is myself. Yes–oh, dear, yes–the novel tells a story . . . The more we look at the story (the story that is a story, mind), the more we disentangle it from the finer growth it supports, the less we shall find to admire. It runs like a backbone–or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary . . ."

    E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, as quoted and elided by Samuel R. Delany in About Writing

    Actually I find story absolutely fascinating, which is why I sometimes write Freytagian "good stories" and about as often write ones that cause the sort of reader who has been to a fiction workshop to run in circles and make strange noises. Incidentally, Nick, I hope you'll get around to taking a whack at "community" before you're done. Ideally followed by a whack at "individualism."

  6. I could almost argue with you here, and I almost did. Because I'm always on the lookout for a good story. The thing is that for me, the definition of "good" includes "new" and interesting. And on that basis there are bery good, apolitical reasons to care whether or not women and people of color are being represented. If they're not, the playground is becoming that much smaller.

    Which is not to say that every female/black/Latin/gaywhat have you author is worth reading. God no. But if a collection of fifteen stories contains work by fifteen white American males who stick their dicks into fifteen bottle-blond wives, that collection of stories isn't as good as it could be.

  7. I'm now officially hooked on reading whatever else you write here during your guest blog time. Well done, given my limited time to read blogs; well done. Really, really interesting thoughts to chew over. And thank you! :)

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  10. AFT.

    Please write a similar diatribe against "the Hero's Journey." The world would be a better place.

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