Readers who’ve been following our adventures through our travel blog will know that husband Peter and I have recently returned from six weeks haring round Europe on our trusty motorbike. What with finishing off the account of that long trip through twelve countries, unpacking, washing, ruefully surveying our moribund garden, and generally catching up, I expected to find myself at a loss for this latest writing blog post.
Then the topic of this blog arose on its own, and I felt I must write a little about a subject that I frequently ponder. In a way, it’s that eternal question: What is literature? Or, better put in my mind, What makes a story a story?
It was a recent trip to Lewes in East Sussex that prompted me to tackle this question.
We were idling around after attending a local wedding, and decided to visit Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country home, Monk’s House at Rodmell.
I will put my hand up right now, and freely admit I am no fan of Woolf. I’ve tried to read, in turn, To the Lighthouse (actually also tried to listen to the Radio 4 audio version read by the inimitable Martin Jarvis); Mrs Dalloway (arriving at the second chapter before being distracted elsewhere); and Orlando (completed, through gritted teeth and in desperation before a book group meeting). I did though, inspired by my visit to Woolf’s fabulous garden writing shed last month, read and enjoy her non-fiction feminist tract, A Room of One’s Own. Buoyed by this modest success, I rushed into the Malvern Book Cooperative, and rashly bought a new copy of Lighthouse to try again. If you would like to join me, my copy is now for sale in Malvern Oxfam, pretty much in mint condition as I failed miserably a few pages in.
This is not the first time I’ve failed to read modernist classics. I’m actually pretty good at failing to read them if I do (modestly) say so myself. I gave up Ulysses on the second page; chucked all my DH Lawrences (except Lady Chatterley’s Lover) into the Oxfam bag when we moved last year; forgave myself for giving up on Proust (the French orginal, bien sur). So after this latest run-in with Woolf, I spent some time analysing what had gone wrong, why these acclaimed classics don’t speak to me.
I can read and enjoy Chaucer, I reasoned. I love Shakespeare, and adore Austen and Thackeray. I realised then what all the works of these authors have in common is narrative, forward action, a beginning-middle-end format, along with great characterisation and compelling themes… I admitted as much to the knowledgeable young man who works in my local book co-op. He was horrified when I confessed to finding Woolf challenging.
‘She’s a goddess!’ he cried. ‘And story is so last week. Narrative,’ he declaimed,’ is vastly over-rated.’
Really, I wondered? The Odyssey, over-rated? Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, Wuthering Heights – so last week? Lord of the Rings just a waste of Tolkien’s time?
So I did some research, not into literature of any kind, but into Story. By Story, with a capital S, I mean story-telling and -listening as the age-old way that humans transfer knowledge about the world around us to others, especially the younger generation. What I found gave me great comfort. Recent research by neuroscientists and educators into the concept of Story tells us that not only is Story very attractive to humans, it’s actually the bedrock of transmitting our culture from one generation to the next. We are hard-wired to learn from Story. Not just myths, parables and sagas, but how to survive and get along in our often inhospitable environment. Long before we created the symbolic system of writing, and the much later technology of printing, our species was passing on its cumulative knowledge by storytelling. And that love of sitting round the fire listening to Granny’s bedtime stories will never go away.
Lisa Cron is very accessible and entertaining on this subject, as well as being well-informed; please watch the linked TED talk, and also try her books Wired for Story and Story Genius to get an overview of the latest research, and what it means for fiction writers and story tellers. If you have half a lifetime to spare, check out Christopher Booker’s classic The seven basic plots: Why we tell stories too. There’s a nice pdf précis by Booker here.
As a (retired) educator and now writer of fiction, I understand some of the neurology and psychology behind this thinking, and buy into it big time. So where does this leave me? Well, feeling free to rehome A la recherche du temps perdu – clear the shelves, Malvern Oxfam! And out with LOTR for the 47th re-read …