THE IMPORTANCE OF STORY

Last week in Albany, New York, 1,500 readers, writers, editors, agents, and booksellers gathered for the 44th Bouchercon World Mystery convention. Bouchercons provide opportunities for authors to enjoy the company of other authors, and for business connections to be made, but more importantly, they’re a place for readers to talk about mysteries, meet some of the authors of their favorite series, attend panels on a number of topics relating to the genre (and to fiction generally), and discover new books.

I’ve found that being in the company of fans who read prolifically but are neither writers nor publishing people serves as a good reminder of what it is we’re all doing. In the end, it’s not about sales, publicity, movie deals, or awards: It’s about the need we all have for a good story.

I doubt it would be possible to find anyone in the modern world who does not enjoy the benefits of storytelling in one or another of its forms. The pool of fiction readers may have shrunk over the past few decades—TV and movies may have become the primary purveyors of stories—but the fictional arts remain an inextricable part of our lives. And that’s a good thing.

If you want to imagine what life would be like without storytelling, read Dickens’s Hard Times, with its merciless portrayal of the consequences of the pedagogy of that unforgettable character Mr. Gradgrind: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.” In that novel, the outcome for the boys and girls raised according to Gradgrind’s philosophy is disastrous. It’s fortunate that such an experiment would be virtually impossible to carry out in the real world—at least nowadays. I’ve known parents who believe their children should read only nonfiction, and children who claim to have no interest in fiction. “Reality” shows have replaced many of the network TV spots formerly held by dramas or situation comedies. All of this is lamentable, but the producers of reality shows are good marketers: They know they’ve got to create a storyline for their “real” characters in order to hold an audience, and they do. They subtly fictionalize real lives in the process.

The children in Hard Times become incomplete, profoundly unhappy adults. Dickens focuses on various ways in which they’re deprived of an imaginative life in childhood; being forbidden to attend entertainments such as the circus, which they sneak out to see, is one. Dickens is concerned with the imaginative life in a wider sense than can be encapsulated entirely by the concept of storytelling, but I think it could be argued that all other imaginative experiences relate at least tangentially to the construction of a story. I’m reminded in this regard of Thomas Wolfe’s short story “Circus at Dawn,” about two boys who go to watch a circus setting up. Towards the end of the story the narrator says “ . . . we would turn our fascinated stares again upon these splendid and romantic creatures, whose lives were so different from our own, and whom we seemed to know with such familiar and affectionate intimacy.” Now isn’t that just how we expect to know a character in fiction—with familiar and affectionate intimacy? Part of the fascination of the circus for the boys in this story is that it inspires them to imaginatively construct stories about people they don’t, and won’t, ever really know—to create, in other words, a fictional narrative.

Dickens’s insight that the free play of imagination is essential to human health and happiness has been given a utilitarian twist in our time. It’s been argued that one of the benefits of having children read fiction is that it helps create an imaginative empathy with other people—particularly people of other races and cultures—and that societal good must result from this. Others have seen the benefit of fiction as a sort of personal therapy, for reader as well as writer—the working out imaginatively of real-world problems. I don’t dispute that fiction can help achieve these and many other positive outcomes. It can, and it’s a good thing that it can. But I think there’s something much more fundamental involved in our need for storytelling.

I was unable to attend the Bouchercon interview of International Guest of Honor Anne Perry, but I got a report of some of the things she said from someone who was there, including the story she told of meeting a reader who told her she was saving a couple of Perry’s books “for when she really needed them.” The reader, apparently, was in extremely poor health. What she must have meant by her remark, I think, is that she was saving the books she most expected to enjoy for a time when she needed most to be lifted imaginatively out of her life. Dickens’s insight, it seems to me, was that it’s not just people in dire straits who need a means of being lifted out of the real or “factual.” We all need it. We can’t remain forever on the plane of reality: There isn’t enough mental space there for us to flourish.

Which brings me back to Bouchercon, whose many devoted readers reminded me that we are, in fact, doing something that’s more important than making money or achieving fame. We’re involved, as writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers, in bringing people something essential to their lives. And that’s true, I think, whether the stories we’re writing, publishing, or selling are so-called “literary” creations or what critics used to call “mere entertainments.”—Janet Hutchings

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