Monday 30 December 2013

The Story Ritual

The end of 2013 saw the launch of Flight Press, a new publisher of short fiction. Its first collection, Edgeways, collated the winning and shortlisted entries in the 2013 Spread the Word short story prize which I judged alongside Courttia Newland and Tania Hershman. The Edgeways anthology also featured a new short story by me, entitled The Comforting of Children, and this essay on the ritual of reading short fiction.

Everyone knows the story ritual. It begins with ‘Once upon a time’ and it ends, in childhood at least, with ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’

As we get older the stories become more complex, more shadowy and circumspect. Perhaps yearning for some comfort and familiarity we turn back to the fairytales, fables and adventure stories we knew from childhood, only to realise that even they contain striking ambiguities and subversions. Bluebeard: wife killer. The wolf in Little Red Riding Hood: murderer preying on the elderly, human eater, sartorial necrophiliac and cross-dresser, child groomer. The prince in Cinderella: foot fetishist. The prince in Rapunzel: hair fetishist. The prince in Sleeping Beauty: rapist. Snow White: female masochist who finds happiness as seven men’s domestic drudge.

Even these stories, with their generic, Disney-colonised contemporary names, arise from rituals of recounting adventures, creation myths and folklore which long predate written culture and are strongly echoed by countless narratives all over the world. They are full of death, betrayal, selfishness, desire, heroism, ambition, bloody-mindedness, defiance, friendship, sadness, enmity: the stuff of life. The stories embody near-universal hopes and fears, provide escape, give warning, reprove or reward certain desires. They reflect both the time of their telling (and retelling) and the universality of our own impulses.

The story ritual isn’t about whether the narrative is committed to paper or to the air and the ears. It’s not even about literature, as such. Journalists and news crews pursue emerging stories, fashion spreads in high-end magazines are referred to as stories, private investigators try to get to the bottom of a story and witnesses of crimes give their stories to the police. Con artists have their stories too, often very elaborate ones. Part of the ritual is that you follow a story, if it’s a good one, all the way to the end. The mark of a rich tale, whether it’s epigrammatic or epic, is that you want to know what happens next. And if that ending is weak, the reader feels not irritated but actually betrayed. We are galled and disappointed, as if we were set up in good faith and then sold a dud.

I’m always intrigued by nurseries and prep schools that have a soft-furnished, quiet, special story corner, as if stories deserve their own place as well as their own time in which to flourish. Similarly, the ritual of parents reading their kids to sleep, which always struck me as incredibly narcissistic on the part of the adults, is a memory apparently cherished by many. My own childhood story ritual was listening to a tape of The Snow Queen every night as I attempted to drift off. The sound of the queen flying up to the children’s attic window, tapping on the glass and keening their names in a ghostly voice is one of my most harrowing, vivid recollections. It was only fiction, but fictions provoke real reactions.

Later, I was given a wonderful hardback book of hundreds of stories, each exactly a page long. One was about a young woman with waist length blonde hair. She was so tired of being teased (or as we say these days, sexually harassed) about it that she tried to dye it black in the kitchen sink. It turned green and she was mocked even more badly when she went to school the next day. I never quite worked out the moral of the story. Either it was ‘just be yourself’ or ‘just be sexy’.

Readers have rituals: they read before bed or on a long afternoon, in the chair they always use, or on the commute to work. They do or don’t fold pages, break spines, underline things or read the last paragraph first. Writers also have rituals, some more OCD than others. I know some who kiss their copies of Pablo Neruda or George Eliot when beginning a new book, put a lucky charm on their desk or, getting to the trickier end of common behavioural disorders, make sure they’ve washed their hands three times before they touch the computer keys. Others go to their study with just the right cup of tea and just the right biscuit.

We are hoping that if we get the ritual right, it’ll repay us in words, in inspiration, in insight and good judgement. All of us are striving to write that one, perfect, satisfying thing. Every word has to count, every shift has to happen at the right moment. It goes deep yet seems light; it’s a structure of iron hung with silk. I once met a writer whose story had won a competition I co-judged. She hadn’t expected to win. ‘I just wrote it in a week,’ she said, exhilarated and disbelieving. I reeled back. It takes me months.

The story ritual is so powerful that we carry its psychological imprint with us for the rest of our lives, even to the point of naivety. We assume that our lives will have a coherent narrative balance, moral shape, emotional form. We go into our thirties and forties believing that things will always work out in the end, with a natural karmic equilibrium; that we will fall in love, perhaps even at first sight like so many fictional characters; that we deserve or are justified in pursuing adventure; that any event or act can be explained and therefore understood; that any pathology or feeling can somehow be decoded. We assume that this mysterious thing called karma will eventually repay the balance of evil and good. We believe that every story we live through must have an appropriate end, which we call ‘closure’, and that we can bring this about as though we are protagonists. It is from stories, nothing more, nothing less, that we believe that everything that has begun will be ended, and will end somehow fittingly. This does not happen often in reality, yet still we keep the faith.

I had to come to faith sooner or later. Underlying all world religions is an indissoluble trinity of faith, story and ritual. The great books of nearly all the world’s major religious belief systems are really just short story collections presented either as emblematic myths or as faithful accounts of true events. And all the rituals of the world’s religions are built on those stories, and everything we believe is built not on the evidence of our own eyes but on stories. Angels and other supernatural harbingers do not exist. The Garden of Eden did not exist. A man cannot walk on water. A god can’t have ten arms or four arms or a monkey’s head or an elephant’s head. The part-animal sentinels and judges of the Egyptian underworld do not exist. But it doesn’t matter. We read the stories, we heed them and we invest them with meaning, regardless of whether they are true or possible. We extrapolate their conclusions, build them into morals and use them to structure the laws, beliefs, values and customs of societies of billions of people. We use the stories to justify both our violence and our generosity, our exploitation and our humanity, our abusiveness and our self-sacrifice. We perform various rituals we invented, inspired by the stories, and have done so for thousands of years. That is the power of the story ritual: to underpin, explain and motivate human society for as long as we have existed.

Further reading:

  • All Bone and Muscle, an essay on the art and craft of short fiction which I wrote for the University of Chichester’s short story module.