Good stories are strange

Stories, more even than stars or spectacle, are still the currency of life.

Adam Gopnik says there’s no escaping stories, or the pressures to tell them. Gopnik cites Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, “The Storytelling Animal,” for a scientific take on what makes stories work and why we like them.

Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is human beings are natural storytellers - we can’t help telling stories, and we turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because we like narratives so much.

Everything - faith, science, love - needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.

We usually like stories to have morals at the end. Religions are so successful because they tell moralish stories, though some of their stories are nice and some are not nice at all. But they last the distance.

Really good stories, like really good wines, really do drink well for a longer time.

What Gopnik finds interesting is what makes the good ones so different from the dull ones, and whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story.

It’s the subtle, surface differences that make all the difference. The question of style is actually the whole of the subject. Students of the mechanics of storytelling like William Empson, Samuel Johnson, Lionel Trilling, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Randall Jarrell, all brooded long and hard upon stories and their subjects.

Wilson, for instance, tackled the problem of the boring modern story at great and lucid length, ending with the intriguing conclusion that each age has its own acceptable boredoms, with Joyce’s boredoms being no greater than Sir Walter Scott’s.

Good stories are strange. Good stories are not built on some specious universality. It’s that they make claims so astonishing that they seem instantly very different from all the other stories we’ve ever heard.

Good stories are startling. A sensitive, educated man is mad with lust for an eleven-year-old girl! Yikes! (Or, Yuck! Which is the same reaction with a slightly different sound.) lt isn’t Miss Havisham who is turning him into a gentleman? It‘s that convict all the way back from the first chapter? Are you serious?

This power to astonish is true even of seemingly long or esoteric stories that no one is said to read. The way to Swann’s house and the way to the Guermantes house turn out to have been the same way all along? It took us so long, and so many long sentences, to find that out - but it was worth it.

Good stories startle us with their strangeness, but they intrigue us by their originality, and end by rewarding us with the truth, after an effort.

It is the shock good stories offer to our expectations, not some sop they offer to our pieties, that makes tales tally, and makes comtes count.

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