As a writer I love to read stories. It seems I am always reading one, or possibly three, works of fiction at the same time. Due to the fact that I have been teaching English to Danish kids for the past 8 months, it has been a natural outcome that I have become more critically discerning while reading stories. This post is about fiction stories: what makes a story worth taking the time to read it? Or not? I will begin with some words from one of my favorite storytellers, Neil Gaiman. He says,
“If I had a library wall to deface, I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show it’s working, and that pages will be turned: “… and then what happened?” The joy of fiction, for some of us, is the joy of the imagination, set free from the world and able to imagine.”
Gaiman’s words come from the introduction to a collection of stories that he, along with Al Sarrantonio, edited and contributed to with their own stories. On the subject of Fantasy, Gaiman writes,
“It seemed to us that the fantastic can be, can do, so much more than its detractors assume: it can illuminate the real, it can distort it, it can mask it, it can hide it. It can show you the world you know in a way that makes you realize you’ve never looked at it, not looked at it. G.K. Chesterton compared fantastic fiction to going on holiday– that the importance of your holiday is the moment you return, and you see the place you live through fresh eyes.” (from Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, HarperCollins publishers, 2010)
This particular collection of stories, containing 27 works from contemporary authors of the English-speaking world, is full of horror, fantasy and magical realism, as one might expect. As a reader, my personal preferences run more to the magical realism category than horror or crime tales, preferring the gentler sides of life to the more gruesome and morbid. And yet. I would venture to guess that crime and horror stories are by far the best-selling, hence the most widely read genres of fiction in the world today. Why is this so? one might ask. As I read through this collection of stories, the answer became clear. We read fiction for lots of reasons, obviously. But one of the main purposes, since time immemorial, has to do with the experience of catharsis. According to Wikipedia, “Catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) refers to the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or to any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration.”
Through this we can see that by reading well-crafted stories of horror, crime, violence, sexual degradation and the like, we find an outlet for our deeply hidden desires, longings and secret fantasies concerning these shadow areas of the human psyche, in a harmless way. I was reminded by one of my daughters recently of the importance of seeing ‘reality’ (as she put it) for what it is, and not shying away or pretending that those parts of the human experience do not exist, that it is unhealthy to live in a kind of fairy tale life where everything is happy-dappy all the time, etcetera. Obviously there is much to be said about this one point alone; however for my purposes today I will leave it at that. The point is, she is correct in the sense that by ignoring, or pretending that those shadow aspects of us do not exist, we are in fact doing more harm than good for the human collective. By never acknowledging my deeply hidden fascination with, say, kinky sex or disturbing images of dark magic, or some other equally mysterious and perhaps frightening subjects, I will not be able to come to terms with those sides of being human. But, if I can release my curiosity and desire to indulge in those hidden fantasies through reading really great stories about them, I can bring them out into the light of day, so to say, and therefore release their hidden power over me. Depth psychology aside, the power of stories as catharsis of the human soul cannot, nor should not, be underestimated.
During the past month or more, I read a long novel, nearly 500 pages long, entitled The House of the Wind, by Titania Hardy. Having just returned from a week in Tuscany, this novel fairly jumped off the library shelf and into my hands. As I began to immerse myself in the dual story, however, I couldn’t help but notice a kind of frustration with how the story was told. It is two parallel stories told in turns, chapter after chapter, first of a young woman living in San Francisco in 2007, then of some other women living around Volterra, Tuscany during the mid 14th century. In many ways, it is a very wonderful story, and very well written. But. In another way, reading this quite long novel was rather frustrating. For one thing, I kept wishing that Hardy hadn’t included quite so many details, especially concerning the modern woman’s story. I felt there were descriptions of things that were simply unnecessary and did nothing to really enhance the story, but rather detracted from it. Hardy is a writer who has a lot of historical knowledge, and has written considerable non-fiction, and it shows in her fiction writing. But I found myself impatient, wanting the story to ‘move along’ at a better clip than it often did. From this novel, I also learned a lot about ‘showing, not telling,’ the story. She told too much about how the characters felt, what they thought about, etc., rather than having more economy of words and letting the story tell itself. What evolved into a 500 page novel, could have been accomplished in at least a third less pages, and would have resulted in a better work. Hardy got dangerously close to historical romance several times during this long story, and nearly sentimental at times, neither of which she was intending, I am certain.
In contrast to that type of writing, there are authors, blessedly, like Neil Gaiman. The magic and beauty of Gaiman’s craft shines out of the page, and reading his words becomes a joyful act. He is a writer who understands the power of word economy, and uses it beautifully in his stories. His story, Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, contained in this collection, is a small masterpiece of word economy. Here is an excerpt:
“The clouds came down at noon and the world was blanketed by a mist that was worse than rain: droplets of water hung in the air, soaked our clothes and our skin; the rocks we walked upon became treacherous and Calum and I slowed in our ascent, stepped carefully. We were walking up the mountain, not climbing, up goat paths and craggy sharp ways. The rocks were black and slippery: we walked, and climbed and clambered and clung; we slipped and slid and stumbled and staggered, and even in the mist, Calum knew where he was going, and I followed him.”
Of course, the world is full of creative writers, and many write brilliantly although in thousands of styles and ways. I admit that my preference is for those writers who can say so much with very few words, who choose each word carefully for maximum impact, who can give us strong images without too much elaboration. Plus, I love Gaiman’s use of alliteration here! He really is brilliant.
The collection Stories has several interesting works within it which I enjoyed reading. One of the other favorites is a story called Goblin Lake, by Michael Swanwick. It falls into the magical realism category, where the main character leaves his normal, brutal reality as a soldier in the area of Germany during the 17th century, and enters a watery world at the bottom of a lake, encountering a whole different, and very lovely, reality instead. Here he is given a choice: he can remain there, as a character within the pages of a fantastic story forever, enjoying all the pleasures inherent within it, or return above ground, to his ‘real life’ where he will become old, enduring all of the pains and suffering of that world. This story is also very well-written, and offers the reader a welcome glimpse into a different reality than one’s typical life. Swanwick takes up the challenge set by Gaiman, that of “showing you the world you know in a way that makes you realize you’ve never looked at it before.”
Dear Readers, I know that nearly all of you are writers too; have you thoughts about what constitutes excellent storytelling and why? I would love to read your comments and ideas here, if you can take a few minutes to leave some. As always, thanks for reading, and for contributing your imagination to our world, in order to bring it a little higher and make it a bit better than if you hadn’t.
- Diving for Memories in Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Where James Joyce Fails, Neil Gaiman Prevails (sairyou.me)
- 11 Neil Gaiman Quotes on Writing (mentalfloss.com)
- Neil Gaiman Can’t Help Creating His Own Universe Inside of Yours (tor.com)
- This Doesn’t Have to Be the World You Live In. Neil Gaiman on “Why Fiction is Dangerous” (tor.com)