In Defense of Stories

Once upon a time, stories taught. They were pieces of human wisdom crystallized in digestible form so that listeners could consume the story, vicariously relive it, and rehearse its lessons. Today, one is more likely to find stories that experiment with language or that showcase freaks or that cater to some appetite of human nature, like sex, fulfilling a need that for some reason cannot be fulfilled in one’s real life.

Stories have become junk food for the soul, nourishing appetites but not minds. They are often pretty, often shocking, but too often fail in their primary and ancient function: to pass on vital survival information. Most surprising of all, the stories that do still teach, that nourish the soul, are classified as popular or pulp fiction. The literary novel is more concerned with language, issues, or edginess, and for some reason this is the novel academia holds aloft as the highbrow ideal. Somewhere along the way, we forgot about the core intent of telling a tale.

The Campfire

Picture a campfire, 30,000 years ago. A storyteller, draped in a bearskin, stands before his seated kin. He is old and, though tough, no longer an effective hunter. But he is still wise. He tells the others of his great triumph over the bear that now clothes him, how he stalked it, found its spoor, studied its droppings. It chased him once, and he learned that this type of bear could not, fortunately, climb trees. He shows his audience the ragged tear on one side of the bearskin. This, he tells them, was where his spear sank deep, finding and stilling the great beast’s heart.

The story is thrilling. The gathered shadows dance in the flickering firelight, lending drama and mood. At one point, a drummer starts a rhythmic beat, adding to the mesmerizing effect. Both audience and storyteller stay up late into the evening, ending only when the sun rises.

This is how stories began: as a method of imparting information from one generation to the next, ensuring that there is no loss of knowledge even when the older generation must retire. Ethnobiologically speaking, it may be that the “grandmother” mystery – why women continue living as much as half their lives past menopause – is answered by this paradigm: the grandmother remembers the stories.

Following stories throughout their historical development, this is the pattern we see. Stories, up until the modern era, are not concerned with edginess or promoting agendas or giving different ethnic points of view. Instead, they are concerned with the imparting of information: how to not anger the gods, how to be moral and good, what to do if you are in danger, which plants are safe to eat, what the weaknesses of animals are, who your ancestors were. There was no Waiting for Godot in history – in fact, our ancestors would have found such a story absurd rather than groundbreaking.  Stories were epic in scale, and dealt with the grand questions all men must answer; or they were domestic, focusing on smaller but no less important topics. They did not focus on nonsense, or edginess, or consciousness. They were created to be accessible, not esoteric. People had to understand them with relative ease, or the story did not fulfill its purpose.

Modern Tales: Genre vs. Literary

The story with meaning and purpose was the mode up through modern times. Then came the postmodernists and deconstructionists.

Postmodernism rejected the idea of universal truths and cultural morality. Instead, it focused on the idea that there could be no experience outside the experience of the individual. Suddenly, there were no ancient truths. Instead, there was a fallible relativity, truth filtered through the experiences of every individual. Morality in such a system is fractured; instead of the white illumination of a cultural tale, a thousand or a million different colors are refracted, as a single incident is directed through the lens of each person experiencing it.

Now the story was no longer the tale; instead, the storyteller was the focus of attention, each listener having to consider his point of view, his sex, his particular flaws and prejudices. Stories, scholars taught, are filtered through all those parts of a storyteller, and what comes out the other end is necessarily flawed. To get to the core of any story, it must be deconstructed, examined for all those things that warp meaning, and then put back together.

Of course, there is no story but that comes from the experience of a storyteller. The guy in the bear skin? He was sharing his experience, his point of view, what he had learned from facing down the bear. Whether he hated or respected the bear, he had survived and had the skin to prove it. There was the physical, tangible truth in his tale.

Postmodernism rejects this, and as a result rejects nearly everything that can be taught in a story. Experience, artistic and linguistic beauty, feeling what another person feels, those became the focus of stories.

But humans did not evolve to enjoy that method for telling tales. Humans need the old style, the stories that share the knowledge, experienced and learned, of the storyteller. Thus literature itself fractured into genres, starting sometime in the 1920s. There were literary tales that embraced the concepts of postmodernism, and there were a dozen new genres that had developed out of the literature from before. Certain key stories from before can easily be classified into protogenres: the tales of Sherlock Holmes gave birth to Great Detective stories; Lord Dunsany’s fairy stories became fantasy; Jane Austen’s works gave birth to the romance of manners; Frankenstein morphed into science fiction and horror both.

While “literature” continued along the path of postmodernism, the genres did not. They continued teaching those ancient lessons that are so important, guiding young people into the right paths and reminding older ones of the simple lessons they may have forgotten. This is part of the reason different genres appeal to different sexes: women read romances and good chick-lit to learn more about relationships, while men like action-oriented books because they can vicariously experience those physical challenges. Eventually, literary stories were the only ones recognized for their importance or groundbreakingness; the genres were considered pulp, and printed on cheap disposable paper between cheap cardboard covers. Literary stories were taught in universities; pulp genres were viewed as a guilty pleasures.

This schism in literature is of great importance to our culture today.

Modern Storytelling: Genres

When a culture devalues its stories, the stories do not disappear. There is too much cultural pressure and need for them. Instead, they appear in different forms. Movies, immersive games, and even music fulfill the teaching functions that once came from stories. But because some people still like written narrative stories, the genres remained, though diminished.

Writers who have been trained in universities are taught the postmodern style, and taught also that genres are somehow bad or lesser; the writers of true talent, therefore, usually choose to write literary stories. Those who write genre fiction instead are taught to be ashamed of it – it is lesser in their eyes than literary fiction, its ancient teaching mechanisms ignored or forgotten or never understood at all.

This is particularly bad because literary stories are designed to teach one thing: relativism, sometimes called tolerance. We are in the age of relativism, in which your (postmodern) reality is so different from my (postmodern) reality that neither of us has a right to judge the other. We are, rather, to understand one another – to “feel your pain.” Victim or victimizer, it’s all the same. The terrorist has a reason for what he does. The mass murderer, well, he clearly did not get enough love or attention as a child. Feel sympathy for the victim, but also for the devil.

How can a society function when judgment itself is devalued? Well, the genres take care of that. They do not hesitate to judge. There is always a good guy, and there is usually a bad guy. Evil is clear and present. There’s a mad bomber loose? The hero finds a way through the puzzles the bomber leaves behind, researches and learns how to defuse the bombs, finally tracks down the bomber himself and eliminates him. We feel the same vicarious pleasure upon reading that story that we felt back in front of that campfire 30,000 years ago; with a good storyteller, we are similarly mesmerized, turning pages until we realize the alarm will ring in only a couple of hours.

Most importantly, we learn how to defeat the bear. The best genre fiction teaches us all the things that our elders would have in the time of Grimm or Shakespeare or Homer or the man in a bearskin. Through vicariously living the hero’s life, we can see how to defeat the bad guy, how to act in order to win a true love, how to be patient in life and hardworking so that we can reap the rewards that eventually come.

Conservative fiction can only be genre fiction. It is designed and intended to teach those lessons. Conservative writers naturally reject relativism and postmodernism, instinctively knowing that stories are there to teach lessons, and that there is a universal truth behind them all – perhaps even a Truth – that somehow stories are able to illuminate, if only a little bit at a time.  While conservative fiction can feel empathy for the evildoer, it must judge him appropriately, and execute him if necessary. Stories do not have to have a happy ending, but there must be a chance for one, and above all there must BE an ending just as there is a beginning. And stories must be accessible to ordinary people, because they are teaching tools for those who come behind. How can a lesson or a truth be illuminated if the reader cannot understand the story?

Conservative fiction, in part, is about exposing the real, universal truth. It is a road the human race has traveled since stories were invented. And only genre fiction today is capable of performing this function.

Book Review: Kia Heavey’s “Night Machines”

Kia Heavey’s Night Machines is a difficult-to-classify novel (more or less paranormal suspense with strong romantic elements)  that asks the reader to really think about what marital fidelity is. Among the many surprising things in this novel is, despite its very Christian theme, it is not a Christian book at all. It is, instead, a very female book, one that takes the darkest and most private thoughts of a woman and lays them bare.

In Night Machines, Maggie Moore and her husband, police officer Rowan, are undergoing a transformation in their lives. Maggie, after devoting herself to her family as a stay-at-home mother for five years, is re-entering the workforce; Rowan has been presented with a difficult case, the murder of a little girl, that haunts him when he looks at their children,  Hazel, 5, and Charlie, 2. Maggie is additionally presented with a terrible temptation: her new boss, a wealthy, handsome, and charming man who desires nothing more than to put her at the center of his life. Both Maggie and Rowan turn inward to deal with these problems rather than to one another, a reaction that begins to tear them apart.

When Rowan begins to work double shifts in hopes of solving the murder, Maggie is left even more alone. She creates a rich fantasy life with her boss at the center of an imagined affair. Soon she begins dreaming about it, wonderful lush erotic dreams that fulfill her in ways her husband is currently unable to. This seems like an innocent solution to a complex problem – until her dreams begin to turn real.

Night Machines was a difficult book for me to read, largely because Kia Heavey manages to make the story both realistic and personal. Every woman has this dark fantasy life within her – heck, that’s why Fifty Shades of Gray is such an enormous success. It is uncomfortable to stand back and look at that fantasy, questioning whether it does more damage than good to your life and mental health. Kia shows us how that fantasy life can twist and turn against you, warping into a monster that controls you. While Night Machines‘ monster turned out to be quite real, it did not have to be. Maggie’s fantasy pulled her away from her husband and family simply because it was more attractive to her than the daily grind. Our fantasies do the same for us, whether it’s the wonderful dream of hitting the lottery or imagining the road not taken. When our fantasy lives take root and shape our waking thoughts, we are no longer living in the present real world, but instead are a step removed from ourselves, cheating us and those we love by weakening the ties we have and sapping our desires for real things.

Night Machines is set primarily in modern Connecticut, largely in a big pharmaceutical company, and Ms. Heavey does a remarkable job of evoking the unique atmosphere of this world (I once worked at Pfizer in Connecticut – she captured it perfectly.)

I highly recommend this book to women who want to understand themselves better and to men who are brave enough to look at a darker side of women. Unlike many self-published novels, Night Machines is not only well-written but carefully crafted to evoke some very specific feelings. I found it to be not particularly frightening, but haunting, leaving behind questions about me that I’m not certain I can ever answer. I very much hope that this is only the first of many books from Kia Heavey.

(Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book but no other compensation.)

Bask in the glow of my new theme!

Author Kia Heavey was kind enough to put together the lovely banner (though I’m still working out how to fit it in a bit better) and the WordPress theme is Mantra, which is amazingly flexible. The background came from Fuzzimo.com. I’ll be changing quite a few things around over the next couple of days. If anyone wants to be added to the blogroll, just contact me.

NOW I can get this party started.