HD: Do We Need Stories? 
Posted: 01 April 2012 06:54 AM   [ Ignore ]
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A link to an engaging essay in the NYR Blog.

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Posted: 01 April 2012 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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It’s not that stories are important or necessary, it’s that they are inescapable. Humans are storytelling organisms. It’s what we do.

I don’t understand the distinction you’re making here.  If the latter two sentences are true, doesn’t that make stories both important and necessary to us?

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Posted: 01 April 2012 09:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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My point is about distinguishing between intent and condition. We don’t tell stories in order to accomplish something (although we may end up accomplishing something, that’s not necessarily the purpose), we tell them because that’s an inherent part of who we are. Stories certainly are an important and necessary condition of being human, so if you look at it from that perspective you’re right.

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Posted: 02 April 2012 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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This is hopelessly anecdotal as I can’t remember anything about the context, but I once read an interview with someone working with disturbed young children from a Third World war zone, who said that the nub of their difficulties was not the dreadful things they had witnessed or even the degree of physical and mental suffering they had gone through, but that the sheer irrationality of their experiences, and the degree of their cultural deracination, had left them without narratives – they not only didn’t know where they came from or how or why, they didn’t know where or how or why anyone or anything else had, either; the world to them was a irrational soup of meaningless threats. S/he said that a great deal of the therapy they needed amounted in effect to telling them stories and helping them work out stories for themselves, as only then could they get any kind of handle on reality.

Damn, I wish I could remember where I read that.

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Posted: 02 April 2012 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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languagehat - 01 April 2012 07:43 AM

It’s not that stories are important or necessary, it’s that they are inescapable. Humans are storytelling organisms. It’s what we do.

I don’t understand the distinction you’re making here.  If the latter two sentences are true, doesn’t that make stories both important and necessary to us?

I took Dave’s comment to mean (and therefore read it as) ”It’s not [just] that stories are important or necessary[--they are, of course--]it’s that they are inescapable. Humans are storytelling organisms. It’s what we do.

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Posted: 02 April 2012 10:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Ah, well the “just” would be all-important there.  But from his clarification, it doesn’t sound like that’s how he intended it.

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Posted: 02 April 2012 03:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I agree with Tim Parks’s article.

I can’t help think that this wouldn’t be a topic unless some were pushing the view that the story is somehow an endangered species, but stories abound as ever.

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Posted: 03 April 2012 02:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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That would be Jonathan Franzen pushing that view. He went off on a rant about how Twitter is the end of Western civilization a week or so ago. The NYR Blog article was one of the many responses to that.

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Posted: 05 April 2012 10:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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At the risk of stating the obvious (not that that has ever stopped me) I think the question posed by the article is not whether we need stories, but whether we need the specific type of complex story told by a novel (this was Franzen’s concern as well, I presume).  I don’t think it can be seriously argued that story telling of some kind is an endangered species or even that story telling is in decline.  A perhaps more serious question is whether stories are being dumbed down, mass produced, twitterfied, and coated in sugar and fried batter.  I’m not sure that a particularly good argument can be made that novels are in danger, either, but this is at least somewhat less silly than worrying that stories will disappear.  But, it seems to me that even Franzen is not seriously afraid of novels disappearing, but of complex stories, or, to use the even snootier term, literature, disappearing.  Novels seem to my inexpert eye to be doing just fine, as the popularity of everything from Harry Potter to the Twilight novels shows.  (of course, those have been turned into movies as well, but the novels did quite well long before any talk of movies came along.  I’m not sure if “literature” is doing equally well, but it also seems premature to proclaim its imminent demise.  After all, the distinction between literature and “lesser” novels and writings is one that is not only highly subjective, but one that is made long After a book has been written and digested by critics and the public.

I think story telling is hard wired into human DNA.  But I’m not sure that any particular story telling medium, including the beloved novel (which is certainly beloved to me) is equally secure, and a continued interest in and production of “great litterature”, however defined, is certainly not a genetic or historical inevitability.

The questions that spring to my mind are 1. Is there something “special” about the way a (literary) novel tells stories as opposed to other media, 2. Would we lose something “important” if we stopped telling stories through (literary) novels and relied exclusively on other media?

I think we would lose something important if novels disappeared or if novel writers stopped striving to write something that would deserve the admittedly somewhat snooty label of literature.

Unlike the author here, I am not convinced that the essence of novels, or even literature, is propaganda for the importance of the self as an entity.  and I would not laud the death of the complex novel as a blow against the tyranny of the self. Certainly, I think the novels of western culture have largely been written with the assumption (often unconsciously, i think) that the individual self, and a strong sense of self-hood, is important.  Whether this is inherent in the novel as a medium, or simply a byproduct of the west’s prevalent values (which ar e a product of all kinds of things) is harder to say.

But I think complex stories, as opposed to simple fables or you tube clips, give us something other than a strong sense of self-hood.  Quite simply, I think they give us, or at least encourage the development of, the ability to understand, appreciate, and make sense of complexity, nuance, and ambiguity.  We could cultivate those things in other ways, but the novel seems like a medium that is particularly well suited to that task.

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Posted: 05 April 2012 05:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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That, almost word for word, is what I was going to say…

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Posted: 05 April 2012 05:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I don’t see the complex novel-like story dying out. Novels are big business. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, etc. (You may scoff at the quality of some of these, but they do tell intricate and extended tales.) It may be more difficult to get literary novels published now, but that’s a result of the conglomeration of publishing houses and shifting profit structures that place undue emphasis on the blockbuster novel, not due to any decrease in popularity. The annual surveys of reading habits show that people are reading more books than ever before.

Also, we’re now seeing television coming into its own as an extended storytelling medium. Witness The Wire, The Sopranos, Band of Brothers, Battlestar Galactica, etc. (I would put The Wire up against any of the great novels in history and it would fair very well.)

Video games like Grand Theft Auto are moving in that direction as well.

People who say that complex storytelling is in danger are just not looking at the whole picture.

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Posted: 06 April 2012 05:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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People who say that complex storytelling is in danger are just not looking at the whole picture.

The counterargument would be that you are lumping too much in the same pot.  I love good long-form TV as much as you do, but it is simply not a substitute or equivalent for great novels, no matter how many parallels you can find.  If I want to read a novel, I do not want to watch TV (still less play a video game), and it is clear to me (and, obviously, others) that if the novel did disappear (which I agree is unlikely, but is not impossible), something irreplaceable would have gone out of the world.  It is not simply a matter of “complex storytelling.”

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Posted: 06 April 2012 06:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Ah well.
Anyway, there are still good novels being published. What’s wrong with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

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Posted: 06 April 2012 06:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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For me, it’s all about the level of engagement. What makes a great book or a great film is that they engage you in a way that makes it impossible for you to be a passive observer. It isn’t so much the medium or the complexity of the storytelling as it is the ability of the material to grab my imagination and make me feel like I’m there; to take to me places I’ve never been. I am Fiver and Hazel and Lisbeth Salander, just as I am Indiana Jones.

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Posted: 06 April 2012 11:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Oh, there is no doubt that the experience of reading a novel is very different from that of watching long-form television, but both forms share complex and detailed plot structures that unfold over time. Tthe argument is usually that the internet (or Twitter or video games or high-fructose corn syrup) is destroying our ability to engage with such long-form storytelling, so citing both is relevant in refuting that argument. That the panic-mongers are saying is happening is simply not happening.

The novel may one day go out of fashion, much like long-form poetry has; after all, the novel as we know it didn’t even come into existence until the eighteenth century.  It’s unlikely to be around forever. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

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Posted: 07 April 2012 12:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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it is clear to me (and, obviously, others) that if the novel did disappear (which I agree is unlikely, but is not impossible), something irreplaceable would have gone out of the world.

Yes indeed!

the novel as we know it didn’t even come into existence until the eighteenth century

In English, maybe. I think other nations may have been rather earlier off the mark.

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