Tag Archives: Carrier Bag Theory

the bag contains no heroes

Siobhan Leddy at The Outline on one of the less-well-known but arguably most important bits of the Le Guinean oeuvre.

(Gonna excerpt fairly generously here, because this blog is my online commonplace book, and I learned about link-rot the hard way… but go read the whole thing for yourself, support online writers etc etc.)

“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” an essay Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle. Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd. In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is. […]

Not only is the carrier bag theory plausible, it also does meaningful ideological work — shifting the way we look at humanity’s foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering, holding, and sharing. […] Le Guin’s carrier bag is, in addition to a story about early humans, a method for storytelling itself, meaning it’s also a method of history. But unlike the spear (which follows a linear trajectory towards its target), and unlike the kind of linear way we’ve come to think of time and history in the West, the carrier bag is a big jumbled mess of stuff. One thing is entangled with another, and with another.


The only problem is that a carrier bag story isn’t, at first glance, very exciting. […] As well as its meandering narrative, a carrier bag story also contains no heroes. There are, instead, many different protagonists with equal importance to the plot. This is a very difficult way to tell a story, fictional or otherwise. While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account.

(This is what I was talking about here, and many times before — we lack a narratology that can handle systemic causalities.)

The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations — they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?

(I know, right? But nonetheless there is a market for novels that do exactly that, as KSR’s career indicates… )

The introduction of a singular hero, however, replicates a very specific and historical power relation. The pioneers and the saviors: likely male, likely white, almost certainly brimming with unearned confidence. The veneration of the hero reduces others into victims: those who must be rescued. […] The carrier bag story, with its lack of heroes, is a collective rather than individualist endeavor.

And on to the end with a mention of Saint Donna, still stayin’ with the trouble.