Monday, February 21, 2022

All the stories in the world can be placed in one of two boxes....

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.


SK said...

Nice theory, but I think the one thing I'd say is that you can't necessarily put a work wholly in one box or another — or even, as you try to do with Frankenstein, divide a work into discrete parts, whether at the prologue/text level, or the chapter level, or even the sentence or individual word level, and put the parts into different boxes.

So Austen, for example, is for the most part fairly explicit about the fictionality of her novels — but also sprinkles throughout them instances of the device where names or places are partly blanked out, like —shire or Lady C—, a literary device akin to 'names have been changed to protect the innocent' as a pretence that at least some of the characters / places / events are real.

(Of course all the readers know it's a literary device, so this, like 'names have been changed…' is akin to announcing that your work is fiction by ironically pretending that it isn't while winking at the audience. Is this what Goldman's doing too? Is the fact that some readers are taken in by Goldman an indication that he succeeded, or that he failed? Or would he be just as happy either way, provided they bought the book and liked it?)

(And do the producers of the Law and Order television programmes do the same thing in reverse, when they flash up 'The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event' — when every viewer knows they do write stories 'heavily inspired by' real reported crimes, so the disclaimer only serves to remind people that what they're seeing might be, to a greater or lesser extent, based on reality, and wonder what the real story actually was?)

So, I haven't seen the 'Winnie-ther-Pooh' film but it sounds like it's doing the same kind of thing: deliberately breaking the bounds of the boxes in a way that makes it impossible to fit it neatly into any one box.

Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

William Goldman, the novelist = Box 0
William Goldman, on a chat show, talking about how he wrote the Princess Bride = Box 1
William Goldman, in his autobiography, telling a funny story about how he wrote the Princess Bride = Box 2
William Goldman, in the framing sequence to the Princess Bride, talking about his nice school teacher who got him interested in reading and how his Dad left out the boring bits of the Princess Bridge = Box 3, but done so realistically some people mistake it for Box 2
Morgenstern, telling the story of the cliff top duel and the zoo of death = also Box 3, but sometimes mistaken for Box 2.
The clifftop duel itself, and the lost reunion scenes - Box 4.

I think I got it right.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I agree that "ambiguity about which Box we are in" is a perfectly legitimate artistic device; and it might sometimes happen that we are left with a paradox, and that is part of the fun. I think that Daniel Defoe kind of wanted people to think that Robinson Crusoe was a real person; there was still a slightly puritanical whiff in the air that "making things up" was a kind of lying and not quite respectable. But by the time he is writing essays under Crusoe's name protesting that some people are attributing his work to a chancer named Defoe, we are obviously meant to be in on the joke.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Winnie the Pooh is an interesting case. The book is explicitly presented as A.A Milne telling stories to Christopher Robin: the Pooh in the frame is definitely a toy, but the Pooh in the stories has mobility and agency. Disney spots that this as an important part of the book. Many of the early cartoons (Pinoccio, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and obviously Jungle Book) begin with books being opened and pictures coming to life: but in the Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons, the metaphor of the book is sustained through the whole movie. We see pages being turned over; the narrator says things like "It rained on pages 22, 23, and page 24". At one point the characters hear the voice of the narrator, and Tigger escapes from the tree because the book is turned on one side and he climbs down the text. But there is a live action frame showing Christopher Robin's bedroom -- school books, cricket kid and all, and a toy bear on a shelf. So the idea that the toy bear can a: break the forth wall and b: act under his own volition is a really odd violation of the frame.

Of course, it is possible that the movie is happening in a world where toys come to life when no-one is looking at them. In which case the body of the cartoon -- Christopher Robin's adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood -- would be something like the games that Andy plays with Woody and Buzz -- imaginary stories using toys as props, not knowing that the toys have their own inner life and personality. But that would be an odd multiplication of hypothesis.

The live action Christopher Robin movie, which is not at all bad, treats the Hundred Acre Wood as a Narnian dimension, and Pooh and Eeyore as autonomous creatures which inhabit it; which only makes sense on the assumption that the Christopher Robin of the movie did not have a toy bear and a toy donkey.

It is perfectly possible that I am over thinking a kids movie about a teddy bear, ofd course.

SK said...

I agree that "ambiguity about which Box we are in" is a perfectly legitimate artistic device; and it might sometimes happen that we are left with a paradox, and that is part of the fun.

Yes indeed.

The live action Christopher Robin movie, which is not at all bad, treats the Hundred Acre Wood as a Narnian dimension, and Pooh and Eeyore as autonomous creatures which inhabit it; which only makes sense on the assumption that the Christopher Robin of the movie did not have a toy bear and a toy donkey.

I haven't seen it, so can't really comment; I mean, it wouldn't be the first time in which things in a framing story are echoed by things in a magical realm (the Wizard of Oz, anyone?) but maybe that's not what it's going for.

If you'll indulge me, there is a low-numbered-box tale which might amuse. Do you remember that craze a couple of decades back for charity collections of Doctor Who stories? I think they'd noticed that the BBC, at that point presumably thinking that the whole brand was next-to-worthless, wouldn't bother setting the lawyers on such things provided they avoided mentioning any trademarks on the covers, and all the proceeds were going to a good cause. You don't see them about now, funnily enough. Anyway, as is the way of these sorts of things, many more were planned than ever came into being; and I had agreed to provide a story for one that, before it faded entirely into nothingness, was passed from one editor, who had lost interest, to another.

I had decided that in form my contribution would be a modernist pastiche with focalisation that slipped seamlessly from character to character, kind of like the passing-on of a relay baton, Mrs Dalloway-style. So I very carefully identified the appropriate moments of transition, and ensured they occurred always in the middle of a sentence that would begin with one focalisation and end with another, that would then be maintained until the next handing-on, and so forth.

Well, once this new editor had had a chance to cast his eye over things, I received an e-mail. 'I noticed you'd made some mistakes in your story,' it said, 'so I corrected them for you.' I opened the attached file to find that at every single transition sentence, the editor had, either before or after the sentence, split the text with a section break. Every. Single. One.

Gareth Rees said...

I've been reading Dante's Divine Comedy recently and one thing that really stands out is Dante's determination that the work should not be confined to a single box (as it were in your scheme). Dante's literary theory was that all texts have both a literal and an allegorical sense:

"The first [sense] is called the literal, and it is the one that extends no further than the letter as it stands; the second is called the allegorical, and is the one that hides itself under the mantle of these tales, and is a truth hidden under beauteous fiction. As when Ovid says that Orpheus with his lyre made wild beasts tame and made trees and rocks approach him; which would say that the wise man with the instrument of his voice maketh cruel hearts tender and humble; and moveth to his will such as have not the life of science and of art; for they that have not the rational life are as good as stones." — Convivio, book II

So Dante's purpose the Divine Comedy seems to be not only to describe an imaginary afterlife, but also (and more importantly) to use the situations of the characters in the afterlife as allegories of their sins and virtues. But I think that after Dante circulated the Inferno he must have found that a lot of his readers were having trouble reading with this kind of double vision, keeping one eye on the literal and the other on the allegorical meaning of the text, for in the later volumes of the Comedy there are reminders to pay attention to the allegory. In the Paradise there's a bit in Canto IV where Dante (the character) asks Beatrice whether certain spirits really live in the Moon, and she replies (I paraphrase), "no, they live in Heaven, of course, you dunderhead, but they have come down to the Moon for the purpose of the allegory".

An example of readers struggling to read the Divine Comedy in the allegorical sense occurs in Inferno Canto XXXIII where Friar Alberigo, frozen into the ice of Lake Cocytus for his betrayal and murder of his own brother, begs Dante to clear the ice from his eyes in return for telling his story. Dante promises to do so, but after hearing Alberigo's story, betrays him in his turn by breaking his promise. No less a critic than Coleridge complained that Dante's behaviour here was "unworthy of a gentleman".