In defense of a good story

March 2nd, 2011

After The Glass Bead Game, my book club is now reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog – it’s a particularly interesting (and entirely coincidental) back-to-back. Both books ask the same Big Questions – what is the purpose of a life? – but in completely different ways. The eras in which the books were written show: Hedgehog is an engaging narrative with characters the reader is meant to respond to emotionally – in a word, a modern novel – whereas Glass Bead Game was all intellect – very much the German Intellectual novel of the last century. It was work for me to read The Glass Bead Game every night (I had hoped to read it in the original German, but that proved too much and after about 40 pages I switched over to an English translation); Hedgehog is a pleasure and it’s still asking the Big Questions. And because it’s a pleasure to read I’m engaging with the questions more than I did with The Glass Bead Game, which asked them so earnestly.

Did I just out myself as low-brow? That I’ll consider the Big Questions but only if they are wrapped up in a good story?

Or was it that The Glass Bead Game was neither fish nor fowl? I’ll read a philosophy book and I’ll read a novel but don’t give me a philosophy book pretending to be a novel. A story that is a story only to serve as the platform for an idea. Yes, I did just criticize the literary talents of a Nobel Prize winning author. But only in the context of this novel – I’ve read other works by Hesse and I remember being utterly, completely engaged – Demian stands out in my memory as a book I read again and again over the course of a year. But in The Glass Bead Game I think the story had to do far too much heavy lifting for the philosophy. The book was full of interesting ideas but it failed for me as a story, a story in which I connected with and cared about the characters as fellow human beings whose fates mattered to me.

One of the women in the group mentioned during the discussion that Dostoyevsky also asks Big Questions, perhaps most notably (but certainly not exclusively) in Crime and Punishment all within the framework of a story peopled by characters who are vividly alive. You care about them, you hate them, they repel you, whatever – but you respond to them emotionally as a reader. So here is where I defend myself against my own charge two paragraphs back: story matters. If you are writing a novel, story matters. Characters matter. These things matter because I think that we as readers are most open to examining the human condition when we feel our connectedness, our underlying unity, with the character experiencing the action. Through the portal of connection and caring we find our way into the story and are open to what the story has to teach us. This is not the same thing as saying we need to read about characters who are just like us, not at all – shoot, Watership Down is about rabbits, but damn if you’re not rooting for those little bunnies with all your heart by the end of the book. And it’s because somehow – and here is the magical, the ephemeral thing – the author has shined a light on their essential humanity (yes, the humanity of the bunnies too) and through that light our own humanity as well. If I cannot get inside a story the characters will always be Others to me, out there in that book, I will always be aware of their identities as constructs, and I won’t see what is happening to them in the full light of their – and thus my, our – humanity.

Fiction can be edifying, can shine a light on our own interior world or a spotlight on the world around us – think about books as divergent as Catcher in the Rye and A Half of a Yellow Sun – while still being a marvelous story full of people about whom the reader can care, deeply. It is not a zero-sum game by any means, edifying or entertaining – indeed if you are an author you had better not be approaching it as a zero-sum game.

Story has to matter, otherwise just write a philosophical essay and be done with it. There has to be a reason why we choose story; why we as humans have always chosen story as the way to grasp and examine the world and to tell our essential truths. Of course story matters, and not just the ideas contained within it.

Story is everything.

2 Responses to “In defense of a good story”

  1. jacque brogan on March 23, 2011 5:43 pm

    I too enjoyed Elegance of the Hedgehog, very much. There were many many reasons, mainly personal. My daughter linked me to your blog here, by the way.

  2. Jennifer on April 10, 2011 9:42 am

    I was surprised how much I enjoyed it – when I first came out I passed on it for whatever reason I can’t recall now, but when then my book club voted to read it and I’m really glad I did.

    Another blogger put up a very interesting review here
    (and I love that the professor took a reading suggestion from his students!)

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