Telling Stories

In a blog post called “The Storyteller’s Art,” Terri Windling included a wonderful quotation from Philip Pullman:

β€œ[T]here was a sort of embarrassment about storytelling that struck home powerfully about one hundred years ago, at the beginning of modernism. We see a similar reaction in painting and in music. It’s a preoccupation suddenly with the surface rather than the depth. So you get, for example, Picasso and Braque making all kinds of experiments with the actual surface of the painting. That becomes the interesting thing, much more interesting than the thing depicted, which is just an old newspaper, a glass of wine, something like that. In music, the Second Viennese School becomes very interested in what happens when the surface, the diatonic structure of the keys breaks down, and we look at the notes themselves in a sort of tone row, instead of concentrating on things like tunes, which are sort of further in, if you like. That happened, of course, in literature, too, with such great works as James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is all about, really, how it’s told. Not so much about what happens, which is a pretty banal event in a banal man’s life. It’s about how it’s told. The surface suddenly became passionately interesting to artists in every field about a hundred years ago . . .

“In the field of literature, story retreated. The books we talked about just now, Middlemarch, Bleak House, Vanity Fair — their authors were the great storytellers as well as the great artists. After modernism, things changed. Indeed, modernism sometimes seems to me like an equivalent of the Fall. Remember, the first thing Adam and Eve did when they ate the fruit was to discover that they had no clothes on. They were embarrassed. Embarrassment was the first consequence of the Fall. And embarrassment was the first literary consequence of this modernist discovery of the surface. ‘Am I telling a story? Oh my God, this is terrible. I must stop telling a story and focus on the minute gradations of consciousness’ . . .

“So there was a great split that took place. Story retreated, as it were, into genre fiction — into crime fiction, into science fiction, into romantic fiction — whereas the high-art literary people went another way. Children’s books held onto the story, because children are rarely interested in surfaces in that sort of way. They’re interested in what-happened and what-happened-next.

“I found it a great discipline, when I was writing The Golden Compass and other books, to think that there were some children in the audience. I put it like that because I don’t say I write for children. I find it hard to understand how some writers can say with great confidence, ‘Oh, I write for fourth grade children’ or ‘I write for boys of 12 or 13.’ How do they know? I don’t know. I would rather consider myself in the rather romantic position of the old storyteller in the marketplace: you sit down on your little bit of carpet with your hat upturned in front of you, and you start to tell a story.”

I read this and immediately thought, YES. I want to tell stories, that’s what I’m doing . . . telling stories. All of my stories are, actually, stories in which things happen. Important things: people die, countries are born. In other words, they have plot. Shhh . . . plot can be sort of a bad word nowadays. And I understand why, because honestly, a story that is all plot, with little else going on, is rather dull. Who cares what happens when we don’t understand where we are, who the characters are. When the story is written in a purely utilitarian way. But I like to have a plot, and I actually think plotting is an important part of the storyteller’s art. I want my audience to go, “Wait, and then what? What happened next?” I want to keep you awake reading the next chapter . . .

Pullman’s distinction between surface and depth seems important to me. I value art that has both: Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, where the surface has texture and interest, and the depth has passion and incident. Mastery is being able to work both at once: to create an art that has both surface and depth.

And that, dear reader, is exactly what I’m trying to do. Plot and setting and character and theme and style. All at the same time, like a juggler of golden apples.


This, of course, is Van Gogh’s Irises . . .

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8 Responses to Telling Stories

  1. suzanne jay says:

    Yes. What happens next?
    In my creative writing courses in grad school, my teachers were more interested in deconstructing the male model of fiction, and discovering alternative ways to create story, ala a new more feminine model. I think this might have resulted in what Steven Spielberg pointed out as stories that seem to be constructed solely of beginnings, instead of having a beginning, a middle, and and end. I’m diving headfirst into genre writing now. It’s satisfying in a way the feminine model is not. But they both have value, and I like the way your post points this out.

    • Suzanne, I remember being taught about “ecriture feminine” back in college. It was supposedly a more “female” way to write, a way that broke with the more linear, patriarchal, logocentric model. To be brutally honest, I always thought that was a bunch of BS. Austen and Bronte and Eliot and Woolf and Dinesen and all the other great writers who happened to be women wrote like themselves, not like women or men. Sorry, I got really mad about this back in my 20s, and you can tell that I’m still mad. I think talking about any kind of writing as more female is deeply problematic. So basically, I agree with you–I just don’t think there’s a male or female model of fiction. Just as I don’t think there’s a male or female way of being human, actually.

      • suzanne jay says:

        Thank you for saying this. You’re absolutely right — and I don’t believe there is a male or female way of being human either, or of writing. I came to this truth after leaving school, so got mad about what we were being taught some time after the fact.

  2. Is it strange that I think of it exactly in the reverse? That the plot is the surface, and everything else is the depth? For me, the plot is the surface – the road. But it’s all the things along the road – the hawk sitting on the fencepost, the little blooming wildflowers along the sides of the road, the sudden thrill of seeing bounding antelope in the field in the distance, the hill I’m going up that doesn’t let me see what’s up ahead – those are the things that make me care about the road.

  3. A juggler of golden apples. I love that.

  4. I think about this a lot while working. But I have looked to Faulkner for what I think plot can really do, especially if the writer has all the other things down. There are a lot of books out there now that are totally plotless. And maybe that’s all right for some, but not for me. I read these days to be transformed.

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