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A soliloquy on stories

By Stephen Lee, September 23 2019—

Without doubt, the dominant form of storytelling in our epoch is the franchise. On page or on the silver screen, it’s the franchise that draws the public’s attention. We crave superhero movies. We desperately wait for the next Game of Thrones book. Recently, Margaret Atwood announced a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Perhaps it is her artistic intention. Or perhaps it is because Hulu brought her name back into the zeitgeist. No matter the case, it demands a reflection — are sequels good or bad for storytelling?

There is a belief that stories must be didactic. Subsequently, because stories require a doctrine, anything without one is not art. This is a pretentious view and one that is repeatedly unfounded. In her seminal essay “The White Album,” Joan Didion opens by saying “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She paints a romanticised picture of how society seeks meaning in the smallest and most normal stories we experience. Didion quickly dismisses this notion using her experience in the late 1960s of Southern California to state that sometimes it is impossible to find meaning in a story. We read between the lines searching for some fragment of wisdom that isn’t there. 

Stories have never necessitated life lessons. Many great works – Orwell’s 1984, Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird – do have lessons. Storytelling may be a conduit for such messages, but for the many didactic works, there is an equal number which simply aren’t. Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is one of the most revered short stories of all time, yet it has no meaning. It is a story about a man reclaiming his dignity by killing a marlin. J.R.R. Tolkien’s works are inspiring, yet the author hated analogy and never intended any sort of religious undertone. Middle Earth and its universe are an amalgamation of Germanic, Scandinavian and Gaelic folklores. These are examples where a story means just that — a tale.

Further cementing this notion are some of the folk traditions across the globe. Fables often convey wisdom for children. However, many folk tales lack a take-home message. Consider the folklore of Ireland, a country with a rich oral tradition. Some of the most praised Irish folk tales are those of kings and warriors. Often these stories are longer, more elaborate narratives presenting heroic deeds. These are stories told to entertain, stories which do not need a message because it is not their purpose. The rich mythologies of Greece, Egypt and other ancient civilizations are appreciated for the often detailed narratives they tell. Rarely does one observe applicable wisdom in such stories, yet they are inherently artistic. The same can be said of contemporary writing. No one would deny James Joyce’s Ulysses the status of art, nor Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. If a story must be didactic to be considered art, then most of our beloved stories would not qualify.

This logic also applies to film. Citizen Kane is often considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Its major point is the lack of meaning behind the last words of a dying man. Hollywood is full of narratives with no greater meaning — Jaws, The Sting, and Pulp Fiction come to mind. Similar to books, film has been a conduit for depicting the complexities of life. But even in the starkest of dramas or grimmest of settings, film has never been inherently didactic. All of this points to the simple conclusion that doctrine is not the telos of storytelling.

So what is it then? Is it quality? That cannot necessarily be proven. The Fifty Shades of Grey movies combined made just under $400 million USD and they were critically reviled. The half-baked remake of The Lion King made over one $1 billion USD worldwide. DC Comics continues to be about as predictable as Alberta’s weather. J.K. Rowling continues to muddle her legacy and the Star Wars franchise has polarized its viewers more than ever

And then there is Netflix, everyone’s favourite streaming site. In recent years, Netflix has shifted its focus to original productions, either TV shows or movies. Saturday Night Live once parodied a Netflix pitch meeting in which executives threw bundles of cash at the writer, screaming “Do it!” Indeed, that feels like the case these days. Netflix seems to throw money at whatever it sees, yet we return again and again to watching their shows. It appears that we do not value quality in our stories. If we did, then pandering garbage would cease to dominate our zeitgeist.

Perhaps storytelling is simply for entertainment. This also cannot be fully true because we would not pay to read or watch the most brutal of human stories. Take 12 Years A Slave, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or Trainspotting — three stories depicting some of the lowest, most sordid human conditions. If we consume stories for entertainment, then why do we wish to see heroin addicts going through withdrawal? Why do we wish to see slaves brutally beaten? Children killed? Why is it that true crime is so popular? Are we entertained by In Cold Blood, by the detailed description of a quadruple homicide in 1950s Kansas? These are not entertaining stories by any means, yet writers and storytellers continue to produce them – fictional or otherwise. If storytelling is simply for entertainment, then these would not have found the audience they have.

Is there anything more to storytelling than face value? Perhaps there is no qualifier. Perhaps stories are an art form by definition. If this is so, then there is nothing good or bad about a sequel. There is nothing to them besides that they tell a story. Yet somehow this feels wrong. If there is no qualifier, then there would be no difference between Catch-22 and Batman vs. Superman. They both tell stories, so they are of equivalent value. There must be something, but maybe trying to define that something is futile. But Joseph Heller and Zack Snyder are not in the same league. To claim as much would be a death sentence.

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