Tag Archives: Writing

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.

Opportunity cost

The people who lived in the portal were often compared to those lab rats who kept hitting a button over and over to get a pellet. But at least the rats were getting a pellet, or the hope of a pellet, or the memory of a pellet. When we hit the button, all we were getting was to be more of a rat.

A tiny (and, by comparison to the rest of it, fairly on-the-nose) slice from Patricia Lockwood’s extended-poem-essay-memoir-thing “The Communal Mind” at the London Review of Books — an astonishing piece of writing which somehow manages to capture not only the tumultuous sense of deindividuation that led to me bailing out of the birdsite, but also many of the reasons that having done so continues, years afterwards, to ache and itch like a botched self-amputation. Brilliant, disorienting writing for disoriented times. Do go and read it.

PGR vs JCC

The feature interview in this month’s issue of Now Then Magazine is the result of yours truly having a chat with the bard of Salford himself, Dr John Cooper Clarke.

Residents of Rust City can pick up a pulped-wood copy from all the usual places, while those elsewhere can peruse it in electronic form via the website. Many thanks to Dr Clarke and his publicity people for setting up the interview, and for the two Sams at Now Then for letting me talk to a legend.

Notes toward an MFA creative writing module

INTERVIEWER: Do you really think creative writing can be taught?

VONNEGUT: About the same way golf can be taught. A pro can point out obvious flaws in your swing.

And somewhat less flippantly:

VONNEGUT: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

INTERVIEWER: And what they want.

VONNEGUT: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

The problem of being anyone at all

Those who disparage authors for practicing auto-fiction tend to believe character is a steady state that can be adequately represented on the page and thus see the autobiographical as an easy option, a copout. What they want instead is a determined effort of the unbridled imagination representing many different characters, all stable and well-defined, interacting with one another. Both the stability and the creativity are reassuring, even when the drama may be tragic. Those who recognize the problem of being anyone at all, the difficulty of keeping the performance on the road from one moment to the next, will have priorities of a different kind.

Tim Parks at the NYRoB.