Limits of storytelling: Notes from 17 to 27 August 2015

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

A housecat as a fascist or socialist realist hero.

So many stories, fiction and non-, seem to take a moral stance, to teach a lesson, as if character or person gets what one deserves. But when my dad’s life story ends with his being killed as a passenger in a car accident, it doesn’t seem like there was anything he did to deserve that outcome. Perhaps what some stories teach is that the world is an arbitrary place. Perhaps what I learned from my dad’s story is that stories fail to explain real events. [17 August]

Why should I get the fun and satisfaction of writing and then hope/expect others to do the less-satisfying reading of what I’ve written? Maybe the reason one writes is just to write, and readers are missing out on that fun. And what if readers don’t want all the stories writers might want to tell them? [18 August]

Narratives could be conceived as a way of picking pieces out of experience in order to find a bigger pattern. But that pattern itself has little connection to physical reality, or perhaps there’s no connection. At its core, a narrative is a cause-effect relationship (an effect without a cause, like my Dad’s death by car accident, isn’t a satisfying story), but so many aspects of one’s life-experience aren’t cause-effect. [19 August]

In the first page or two of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the clause “[the] hill curves up.” But this is a metaphorical verb, because the hill isn’t doing anything. The only one doing anything is the human narrator whose mind is perceiving the a curve — which is a noun — but the mind interprets that visual as an action, “curving.” Perhaps many — or all? — verbs are metaphors, or are, at least, interpretations by the observer or storyteller. Even to say “See Dick run” is to gloss over the particular muscle contractions, body movements, and forward motions that are what running physically is. [19 August]

After school, as the cross-country squad at the school where I teach got on its bus to a meet, I heard the coach say to a student, “No, you can’t go with us ‘cuz you’re not on our team.” [19 August]

Reading parts of a Tomas Tranströmer poetry book (I think it was The Great Enigma), I’m almost a little angry that these poems are so vague and dull, going nowhere — maybe they sound cooler in Swedish and I can just blame the translator. But why would any poem need to be so ponderous? Why wait until there’s some intersect with Meaning to elevate some lived experience? Why not just write our concretenesses? At least Charles Olson’s “Maximus Volume 3” is weird. [20 Aug.]

To use (refer to, etc.) Hemingway as some ur-writer, as some model of The Writer, is to flatten down what he was into a role we in culture at large need to be filled. “Hemingway,” then, becomes a common shorthand (in that it may seem clever to use a particular name) for The Writer: the most-respected, well-known, etc., writer. I recently read someone say that something similar is happening to the reputation of David Foster Wallace, that who he was is losing nuance as his name starts to refer to him as an icon. [20 Aug.]

I don’t think the book I’m teaching to sophomores, Of Mice and Men, is racist and sexist — though of course, the racist and sexist words and descriptions the book uses to show certain characters’ racism and sexism are racist and sexist. But my question is, why make a book with such bad characters? Why would I want to spend time with these rude idiots? I suppose the book could be said to be depicting conditions of certain people in a particular setting, but how are readers to react to this? If a book is claiming that these particular characters represent people generally, that claim can’t be believed, and if a book is claiming that these particular characters are just reprehensible, then why would I bother? There’s no doubt ugliness and beauty that could be found anywhere, so why choose to prioritize the ugly? In other words, why would a read a book with a sad ending? I tend not to enjoy crying. [21 Aug.]

Of Mice and Men is like a snow globe: when we start reading, there’s a past already in place, then the author repeats it (Lennie grabbed a woman in Weed, then in the story he grabs Curley’s wife), like shaking a snow globe and letting the snow fall once again. It’s a closed world, with the setting of a ranch that seems closed off from the world once George and Lennie arrive. George reacts to what Lennie does, but never really tries to intervene to try to get Lennie some appropriate mental health treatment. So it seems that George and the other characters are content to let the set-up play itself out. And so it goes. Perhaps a fiction like this book recreates a scene so as to relive it, to study it, so as to make meaning? In real life, whenever I’ve had to make a tough decision, as George does at the end of Of Mice and Men, (though I’ll admit that I’ve decided to shoot a man in the back of the head), I don’t go back to dwell on that moment as being special. But I might tell a brief story about the decision afterward. [21 Aug.]

The value and fun of having one’s own ideas rather than reading someone else’s ideas! How strong and fresh seem the ideas we ourselves come up with! [21 Aug.]

I’m skeptical of any text assigned in a class. I feel a need to not-affirm, to question, any claim asserted by Of Mice and Men. Today I told my students that it’s a “weird book”: Curley’s keeping his hand soft for sexing up his wife, George praising whorehouses, Curley’s wife not even getting a name, Crooks being called the n-word, all these brusk, brute characters. I hope I’m teaching my students to be skeptical. It’s even valuable to be skeptical of my own ideas, as fun as it is to have new ideas. [21 Aug.]

Maybe it’s kinda weird that teachers direct students to read books that the students may not care about. I’ve told my students that we have to read the books in the curriculum, but that I hope my students question the claims that these assigned texts make. Maybe the skills students learn from analyzing literature can also be applied to analyzing any claims they hear in their lives. [24 Aug.]

I wouldn’t want Joan Didion’s career (not that anyone’s offering it to me). It’s lame to write about other people (and by “lame,” I don’t mean only “uncool,” but also “lame” in the sense of “not whole, not in working order”). All definitions of others, fiction or nonfiction, are, at least potentially, condescending — maybe in the basic idea of thinking that any person can be adequately represented by another person. Fiction writers can imagine and describe characters that are very unlike the writers themselves — but as a reader, I’m under no obligation to accept these characters as real or as representative of real people. Joan — well, all nonfiction writers who propose and try to defend theses, claims about the world, do something that may not need doing. Even scientists, who try to model the physical world in concepts, are doing something that seems too limited to me. Can’t there be a writing that’s not judged merely on the correspondence of its claims? Why does fiction, an endeavor defined as factually false, need to have realistic characters? Not all fiction is, of course, but why is “I don’t believe a real person would act like these characters” a legitimate criticism of fiction? Can there be fiction without characters acting like they have human consciousness? Or do we readers tend to equate willful agents with humans? A counter example would be the novel Wild Season, where animals are doing animal things rather than doing human things. [26 Aug. and 27 Aug.]

Why tell stories portraying other people (who aren’t like you) when you could tell your own stories with new forms? [27 Aug.]

There’s so much repetition in Of Mice and Men, as if Steinbeck were trying to teach something instead of just telling a story. Steinbeck is treating us as if we’re simple, or as if he’s giving us a speech and we’ll quickly forget what he’s said, with this repetition. Perhaps, like patterns in music, repetition (motifs, symbols, foreshadowing) in fiction is satisfying, but in this book, at least, it’s too simple to be deeply satisfying or intriguing. [27 Aug.]

2 responses to “Limits of storytelling: Notes from 17 to 27 August 2015

  1. I think people ultimately write for themselves. Steinbeck, in all of his stories, seems to be trying to explain the irrationality of the world and human behavior in a sane and rational way. He is saying look at this, isn’t this odd? over and over. I think he was in love with the world and wanted to make words explain that love. But that is so hard to do in a way that reaches beyond our own small understanding. What I get from Steinbeck is a sense of who Steinbeck is and what his world was like and what was important to him. That is all any decent writer can hope to do.
    In the movie the Misfits, Arthur Miller, has Montgomery Cliff’s character say, “Maybe all there is is the next thing that happens.” I think this concept is what we struggle with as writers and human beings, and why stories try to tell us there is a pattern to things, as well as the fact that human beings are set up functionally to recognize patterns as they go about living so that they can learn and adapt to the world. Patterns are satisfying and randomness scary and vague. A good storyteller uses patterns to keep his audience from freaking out too much so that he can tell them something. Steinbeck is good at this. I feel strangely comforted by his bleak stories because of this. He is a good storyteller. I don’t know if any of it actually makes real sense, but, to me, it is beautiful the way he tells it.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I can appreciate the value of patterns to keep people from freaking out, but I think I don’t want art that hides the reality of the world behind patterns. I think I prefer to understand my experience as I find it rather than looking for patterns that may be not be all that accurate.

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