All the stories in the world can be placed in one of two boxes.
Into the first box goes stories which didn’t really happen, but invite us to imagine that they did.
Into the second box goes stories which don’t pretend to be anything other than artistic creations, made up by a story teller for our entertainment.
What if... stories and tales of Parallel earths go into the first box, along with epistolatory novels and first person narratives and pretend diaries and True Confessions.
Imaginary tales go into the second box along with most jokes and ballads and fairy tales and parables.
You might expect the first box to contain all the sensible stories about housewives and businessmen and school cricket teams and regency country houses; and the second box to contain all the ridiculous stories about space men and monsters and vampires. But if anything, the opposite is true. It is in the first box where you would find The Lord of the Rings and Tarzan of the Apes and Call of Cthulhu, along with Sherlock Holmes and Robinson Crusoe. It isn't just that Tolkien pretends that he translated Bilbo's memoirs from an ancient Red Book; and that Edgar Rice Borroughs was told the tale of the ape-man from one who had no business to tell it to him. It's that these kinds of stories are only fun if you kind of pretend that there really was a Detective as clever as Holmes and a cast-way as resourceful but obtuse as Crusoe. We aren't actually fooled -- but we have to play along with the game if we are going to enjoy what are (as a matter of fact) rather silly stories. But if you want eminently believable stories about witty ladies trying to find suitable husbands and thwarted young women trying to do good in the world, it's in the second box we have to look for them. Lovers misunderstand each other and old Aunts act snobbishly in many country houses on many days of the week. But Jane Austen would not think of trying to convince us, even playfully, that her novels are true. She isn't creating fake news or fake gossip: she is creating a work of art: making things up. From time to time she points out she has determined or altered the course of events based on her personal sense of morality and decorum. Any work of fiction with an "omniscient" viewpoint wears its fictional status on its sleeve. Watson can't tell you what Holmes is thinking, because he doesn't know. George Eliot can suddenly jump into the head of Rev Casaubon because he's her character and doesn't exist outside the story.
(Boys stories and girls stories? Let's not go there.)
In fact, I am far from sure that two boxes are enough. If we are going to divide all the stories in the world into piles, I think we may need as many as five. You can imagine them placed inside each other like a Russian Onion, if you want. They are very probably made of ticky-tacky.
Box Zero contains the real world: things which happened yesterday; and things which happened eight hundred years ago. The conversation with the nutter you had on the bus goes into Box Zero; so does the Battle of Agincourt. Unfortunately, Box Zero is empty, because no-one can get inside your head and no-one can travel back to St Crispen's day 1415. The only way of talking about real things which happened in the real world is to turn them into stories.
Box One contains news, and first person testimony, and autobiography -- stories, certainly, but stories which are doing their level best to tell you what really happened and not deceive you or make good art or even necessarily be particularly interesting. That funny story I told you about the nutter who sat next to me on the bus last week goes into Box One; so does the first hand testimony of one of Henry V's herald.
Box Two contains stories. But it only contains true stories: stories that take stuff we found in Box One and dust it down, polish it up, make it interesting and palatable and enjoyable. If I take my funny anecdote about the bus-ride and turn it into a short play for Radio 4, I would have to put it into Box Two -- alongside Shakespeare's Henry V. True stories contain lots of stuff which is made up. We don't know or remember what we said yesterday, or what anyone said eight hundred years ago. But if someone asked "Is Goodbye Christopher Robin a true story? Is Shadowlands? Is Nowhere Boy?" we would reply: yes: A.A Milne and C.S Lewis and John Lennon did roughly those things under roughly those circumstances?
Box One and Two contain True Stories: but Boxes Three and Four contain Stories. Everything in them is fictitious and any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental. Ghost stories and love stories and cowboy stories and superhero stories all go into these boxes.
But some Fictional Stories pretend very hard to be True, They tell you about battles and bus-rides as if the person telling the story was on the bus or at the battle; even though the battle or the bus-ride never happened. They might even have happened in made-up towns and made-up countries. Those kinds of stories go into Box Three. You might call these stories Lies -- and certainly some Lies would fit nicely into Box Three. But in general, no-one is trying to fool anyone else. We are just pretending.
This leaves us with Box Four. Box Four contains all the stories beginning Once Upon a Time and A Funny Thing Happened to Me On The Way To The Theatre and "so this man walks into a bar, right" and "come all you young girls and I'll tell you a tale." But it also contains all the very serious novels in which the novelist doesn't pretend to be anything other than a novelist.
So, in ascending order of fictionallness:
0: What happened
1: Me telling you what really happened
2: Me creating a work of art about what really happened
3: Me making up something which never happened but pretending like it did
4: Me telling you a thing I made up
I don't know why so-many far-fetched, pulpy, genre fictions are to be found in Box Three. Maybe the idea of an invisible crime fighter who learned magic in Tibet is so hard to believe that you can't read it at all without pretending that the stories came from The Shadow's Own Private Files. Maybe the sorts of people who become pulp writers are not quite so clever as the sort of people who become literary writers. Maybe Jane Austen can make us believe in Fanny Price because she describes her so beautifully; maybe Maxwell Grant can only make us believe in the Shadow by swearing blind (in quotation marks) that such a person really exists and appears on the wireless every Thursday evening.
The most famous and important stories in human history are utterly and irreducibly in Box Four. The only conceivable answer to the question “Why didn’t the Levite help the man who had been set upon by Brigands” is “Because Jesus wanted to make a point about sectarianism and the Temple.” Anyone who tried to infer things about the man’s psychological make up or what he had for breakfast that day would have utterly missed the point of the parable.
Some Christians do utterly miss the point. Some Christians insist that every single word in the Bible comes straightforwardly from Box One. The story of Adam and Eve isn't a metaphor or an allegory: it is there to give you information about who the first Man and Woman were. If someone doubts that they were real, they can be instantly silenced with the killer question "Were you there?" If there is a parable about a certain man who had two sons, then the certain man with two sons must be an historical fact -- you aren't calling Jesus a liar, are you? Some of us think that reading parables as history annihilates them as parables. There are, of course, almost as many Christians who think that every single word in the Bible is a parable -- even the bits which are pretty obviously historical.
I think that my boxes will go quite a long way towards solving literary criticism. When they become well known I expect them to replace Northrop Frye and Joseph Campbell as the standard models of narrative
Mary Shelly and Lord Byron really did tell each other ghost stories during a wet summer in Italy (Box 0.)
The preface to Frankenstien describes the competition as Mary Shelly remembered it. (Box 1).
The event has been turned into a story in such works as Gothic, Bloody Poetry, The Bride of Frankenstien and The Haunting of Villa Diodati, (Box 2).
(It might be that Mary Shelly's preface has been fictionalised. It night be happier in Box 2 than in Box 1.)
But the story of Frankenstien is not presented as a spooky story that young Mary is making up. It works very hard to create the illusion that Frankenstien lived in the real world: it is presented as a series of letters and diary entries written by the sailor who finds Frankenstien wandering in the ice; which contain Frankenstien's own first hand account of what happened. Nevertheless, the existence of the ghost story frame reminds us that it is in fact only a story created by Mary Shelly in order to scare us (Box 4.)
Indientally, Frankenstien is the name of the scientist who created the monster, not the monster itself.
Or, again - to take the most delightful example of all:
William Goldman is a real screen writer and director, who really wrote a novel called the Princess Bride and really struggled for decades to get it turned into a film (Box 0).
The novel "The Princess Bride" consists of an entirely naturalistic and believable frame in which William Goldman tracks down a copy of his favourite childhood novel and is disappointed by it (Box 3).
This frame is presented so convincingly that many people believe it to be straightforward (Box 2) reportage, although in fact it is entirely made up: Goldman is not married to a child psychologist and didn’t have a ten year old son at the time.
Goldman really did write Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, (Box 0) but he definitely did not base the cliff-jump sequence on a similar event in The Princess Bride. His convincing account of his childhood infatuation with the book is completely made up (Box 3).
The bulk of the story is presented as something which an eccentric novelist named Morgenstern created (Box 4); with some embellishments by Goldman himself. He adds material to Morgenstern's story, but makes no suggestion that he is trying to get back to an original historical Box 1 version of Westley and Buttercup: he is just making stuff up to make it a better (Box 4) yarn. The double or triple framing sequence gives us permission to accept and enjoy far fetched events the resurrection pill and the left-handed sword fight -- because it is being presented, not as implausible history, but as an admittedly preposterous story.
Characters can, of course, sometimes escape from their narrative boxes. There is nothing in the world to stop me from saying: “What if it turned out that Mary Shelly was not making up the story which so terrified Lord Byron: what if in fact Victor Frankenstien was known to her, and she had seen the Monster with her own eyes”. But all I have done in that case is created a new story with Mary Shelly in it. I have certainly not made the monster real! You could say that I have moved the Mary Shelly of the prologue from Box 2 (True Story) to Box 3 (Fiction Pretending To Be Real.) Or perhaps I have moved the monster from Box 4 (Fiction presented as fiction) to Box 3 (Fiction Pretending to Be Real). What I have certainly not done is made Frankenstien's monster real in the primary world!
I cannot satisfactorily imagine a story in which Fred Savage (the sick boy in the movie version of the Princess Bride) steps through a portal and meets Westley and Buttercup (the fictional hero or heroine) or in which Westley and Buttercup drop by with some grapes to play Commodore 64 sports games with him and his grandpa. I can't even imagine the Boy going to modern day Floren and visiting Westley's grave. The characters in Morgenstern's Princess Bride -- in the story within the story -- don’t exist in another world; they don’t even exist in our world, a long time ago. They are only stories. They don’t exist at all.
I am prepared to defend, to some extent, Walt Disney’s desecration of Winnie-the-Pooh: the American accents, the gopher, the voice of the narrator, the dreadful songs, the misunderstanding of the metaphysical status of heffalumps. What I cannot quite forgive is the way the stuffed-toy-Pooh in Christopher Robin’s bedroom winks at the audience in the final frame. Pooh is a toy; Christopher Robin is a little boy; the Pooh-stories are made-up-stories, in a book, in which the narrator imagines the toy Pooh to be a real bear. The final scenes asks us to think that either Christopher Robin’s live action bedroom is actually part of the cartoon world in the book; or else that something from the cartoon book world has escaped into 1920s England.
Similarly, in the final frames of Disney's Song of the South the cartoon characters from Uncle Remus’s tales appear in the flesh and start interacting with the live action children, while the old man rubs his eyes in astonishment. Is the message that Bre’er Rabbit was as real as the post Civil War South -- or the the post Civil War South is as fictional as a cartoon about talking bunnies?
Song of the South has one or two other problems which we don’t need to go into right now.