On Good Stories
Aliette de Bodard
I’ve been trying to articulate something that’s been bugging me for a while. I’m not sure I’ve actually come close to something coherent, but here are my thoughts over the subject.
I don’t believe in good stories.
I believe in stories that are well-written in terms of craft, that form a coherent whole.
I also believe in stories that resonate with me.
What I don’t believe in is the fact that there is an absolute scale of “good” and “bad”, and that you can grade stories on it. Certain stories resonate with a majority of (Western) people, and somehow we seem to leap from that straight into their “greatness”. Even the Awards are just that–a “majority” vote which is only that of a tiny fraction of the total population of the world at this point in time.
Tastes vary–within a given population, but also from population to population, and from era to era.
Watch a couple of Chinese movies (among those who’ve made it into the Western world: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Notice something? Well, there are constants: there are no happy endings for lovers. Couples don’t live happily ever after. There are no happy endings for plucky heroes who save the world by defying the established order: those must die, even if they do set in motion the reforms they wanted.
Hum. This doesn’t really sound like the stuff bestsellers in the US are made from, right? Can you imagineStar Wars being such a hit, if it had ended with Luke Skywalker being executed by the Empire, and Han and Leia committing joint suicide? And yet, the Chinese enjoy those movies (House of Flying Daggers was the highest grossing movie in China for 2004). For the Chinese, this is a good story. They just have different cultural mores than we do: it’s deeply ingrained in Chinese tradition that love is dangerous, and that it barely has any place in a marriage. Hence the lovers who never make it to the end of the movie–they’re too much of a challenge to the natural order of things (similar things for the rebels, although there have been many successful rebellions in China).
Read a couple of books from the 19th Century, such as Les Misérables. It does start promisingly enough, doesn’t it, with the interesting character of M. Myriel–but M. Myriel isn’t even the main character of the book: that is Jean Valjean, who will not appear on-stage for another fourteen chapters. Admittedly, Les Misérables is a fat book, but even then… And let’s not even mention chapters such as “Billows and Shadows”, which are basically pages of philosophical ruminations from the author. Is Les Misérables a good book? The actual plot of it, if you compress it to its bare essentials, still resonates–after all, it’s still one of Hugo’s most widely-read books. But would it be called a good story? No. Most modern readers (not to mention editors) would rather get the summarised version that have to slog through all the asides. And I don’t think I’m being disingenuous by saying it wouldn’t get published today.
Cultures change. Between Hugo’s time and us is the invention of more distractions–TV, computers, Internet–which all jostle for our attention. Stories nowadays have to be snappy; they have to hook fast, and deliver a strong punch at the ending after a narration sufficiently fast-paced that the reader is never bored.
This isn’t maths. The lithmus test of a story is whether it resonates with the person that buys it, and then with the person that reads it. Think of books you’ve hated and that everyone else had seemed to like. Now take that to the next level–and think of all those French movies that just don’t seem to make sense to you, whereas they were huge hits in France.
One thing that seems to come up, pretty frequently, is that stories have to be “good”, and that this, in itself, is enough to guarantee diversity. People don’t have to read blind or to check their biases–and above all, the story has to speak for itself: editors and readers don’t have to be particularly on the lookout for diversity, ie stories from female or non-Western writers have to be “good”, and they will be published.
See, the problem I see with that is that you’re in effect perpetuating a bias. Assuming equal quality of writing, a story about a Hindu woman in New Delhi who worries about whether she’ll get an arranged marriage for her baby daughter is necessarily going to resonate less with you than one that follows a poor American trying to find a job in a recessing economy. It’s human: we empathise more with the things that are closest to us, with the mores that are those of our community. Similarly, if you’re of a certain mindset, you’re going to find stories about a squad fighting aliens more interesting than stories about a man looking for his true self.
As I said above: not everyone is the same. Not everyone has the same tastes. Editors take the stories they like, and I don’t mind–if I don’t like what a particular editor publishes, I’m free to walk away without having bought the magazine or the book.
What I don’t like is the fallacy that stories are selected just because they were “good”. They aren’t. They are selected because they are good for those editors. And that, by necessity, includes a bias.
There’s much more diversity in SF today that there was thirty years ago. Yet, much of it still seems to remain the preserve of Europeans–and sometimes I do get the feeling that much of it is targeted specifically at Americans. I’m not American. Stories set in the Midwest or in New York do not speak to me more than stories set in the South African veld.
I know that publishing houses and magazines have to sell and that they have their audience, and that what they publish needs to resonate with their readers. But please, please, can we stop pretending that good stories are good stories no matter who writes them and what they are about?
Enjoyed the thoughtful essay. It’s a topic that should resonate with every writer.
I agree there’s as much sense in ranking stories as there is in weighing thumbprints and declaring the champ to be the one with the fewer dangling whorls. It’s certainly not necessary to rank things in order to use them. We’re able to use complex (imaginary) numbers even though we have no idea if the square root of minus one is lesser, greater or equal to the square root of minus 2. Indeed, the utility of complex numbers is rooted in their lack of rank.
Still, there seems to be a very strong and innate human urge to rank stories. Perhaps it’s because our time is limited, and we need to choose how to spend it. Or maybe it’s our killer ape heritage and the unfortunate correlation between sex and rank; presumably, bonobos have a very different approach to literature. Either way, we have a tricky problem. We can justify a preference (e.g. this is why dangling whorls are bad, bad, bad…) but why do we prefer one justification over another?
I don’t think this difficulty (i.e. the lack of objective standards and rankings) rules out literary criticism. Some reference frames are better than others depending on what we want to do with them. To belabor the number analogy, Roman positional notation is formally equivalent to decimal notation, but the latter is better for the purposes of multiplication. Similarly, Cartland works better for me when I miss being innocent and virginal and Salman Rushdie works better when I need to be taken down a peg or two.
I love your premise but ….. the Chinese also enjoy movies like Shaolin Soccer (happy ending! With a couple in love getting married! and Chow Sing Chi’s character changing society a bit!) and Kung Fu Hustle (happy ending! With the hero getting married to the girl he formerly had a connection with!) and a myriad others like Wing Chun (happy ending!), the Heroic Trio, Judge Dee (written by Orientalist Robert van Gulik way back when), and more recently, Ip Man. Those movies you cite are simply well-written. We Chinese don’t like them simply because they “fit with our cultural mores”. We like stuff like Star Wars too.
What’s important is the framing of who gets to say what stories are good. This is a question of power. And it suits editors and publishers to pretend that it’s “good” stories that make it into the pages and somehow aren’t diverse, because they have a vested interest in maintaining that status quo. But we don’t do each other favours when we essentialize cultures.
Also, as a Chinese person, I thought House of Flying Daggers was terrible. It was pretty but that was it.
Anil: definitely! Ranking stories makes about as much sense as ranking fruit, but there’s still this natural urge to do so.
Jha: I do agree, that Chinese culture (or for that matter, any culture) is infinitely more complex than that–and very rarely uniform. But, nevertheless–I was struck by the number of times the starstruck lover thing shows up (even from way back in the literature), as compared to the same thing in say, US culture. There are very few American movies or series that I can think of which feature that particular trope–big grossing Hollywood movies tend to emphasize an active protagonist alone against the odds and a happy ending. I can’t say it’s what all Americans prefer, either, or reduce American culture either. It’s just a trope, a trend which tends to crop up more often in one culture than another. I wasn’t saying that it was always the case that Chinese movies or classical Chinese stories kill off their lovers–just that comparatively speaking, they’re more likely to do so than US or even French movies (French movies tend to go for light and fluffy and focused on language, or enigmatic, but people rarely die in them. Though again, you can find movies that buck this trend in France).
But definitely yes to the editor thing. As long as the gatekeepers don’t acknowledge there is a bias inherent in their selection (whether conscious of it or not), we’re going to keep seeing the same things on the page.