In her fourth instalment of her multi-part review of Tim Parks’ essay collection Where I’m Reading From. The Changing World of Books, Gesa Stedman disagrees with Tim Parks, who his quite sure that he doesn’t need stories.
How odd to have a writer, who depends on us non-writers to read his novels, to say that he thinks stories are overrated. And then, again, how honest to say so. Tim Parks has a sure instinct when it comes to market-speak turning economic decisions and outcomes into anthropological givens. He objects to statements by writers such as Jonathan Franzen who claims that there is a need for complex stories “’such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.’” (9)
Probing such statements is Parks’ forte – he thinks it is too convenient as a writer to think of oneself supplying a “need”, thus perhaps gaining in importance about which some writers may have their doubts without this ideological fortification. It also supports readers in their luxurious notion of having to need stories while – and that is said only implicitly – more pressing necessities are not met in many areas of the world. Such a generally critical stance, looking behind the scenes, and not taking anything at face value, is a useful attitude and one which is often lacking in self-congratulatory book world discourse. Parks gets it wrong when he states that Jane Austen liked writing amongst domestic noise and clutter – she did that out of necessity, not out of choice, and anyone who has clapped eyes on her tiny writing table in the Jane Austen museum in Chawton will probably agree with me. He is right of course in stating that writers have always got interrupted, be it by land-line phone calls or Twitter, but he misses a fundamental point when he focuses too much on marketing ploys, self-congratulation, and cultural jargon about storytelling and its uses. He obviously doesn’t share the need to read satisfying literary versions of the world to the extent that others do.
Instead, Parks looks at two indeed rather problematic versions of the “we need stories” stance. The one, proposed by Salman Rushdie in his novel Haroun, or the Sea of Stories, argues for a harmonious flow of narrative that is threatened by a dictatorship of censoring. Instead, says Parks, there have always been stories jostling for recognition, there is a competition of stories rather than one harmonious whole, arguing for freedom. And there are enough competing religious stories to support this criticism. The second version of the “stories as necessity” discourse posits that stories are complex and help the readers to understand a complex world. Again, Parks objects, citing D.H. Lawrence’s interpretation of Thomas Hardy stories which teach the reader to go with the failed characters, rather than wanting to fulfil their potential. In other words, stories can be “pernicious” because they are complex.
Parks moves onto the level of language, and to words which don’t have a real-life referent. They, he argues, are often stories in themselves, one-word-stories, e.g. God, angel, devil, self – impossible to understand without the stories of their origin. The story of the novel is deeply connected to the ‘invention’ of the self, self-creation is mirrored and constructed through novels.
“This is all perfectly respectable. But do we actually need this intensification of self that novels provide? Do we need it more than ever before? I suspect not.” (13)
At the moment there are challenges to the first and last versions of the “we need stories” hypothesis enumerated in Parks’ essay, and ample support for the second. Political fundamentalism and the stealing of stories by populists and the far right threaten the idea of pluralist narratives. The same proponents manage to harness complex stories to impart simple messages, if writers such as Uwe Tellkamp and Monika Maron are anything to go by. The self in the age of social media is definitely constructed and mediated in a new way by just these social media, as one can learn when observing the self-creation of teenagers through permanent visualisation. Stories, in other words, have not lost their importance, but perhaps their function is changing in a changing world.
But even if one tended to agree with Parks on all counts and with him object to all the versions of the “we need stories” hypothesis, he does miss a crucial point. Only because he doesn’t need stories, and can live without them even though he says he loves novels, others may not. Perhaps other readers share the experience of feeling completely lost without a book, and how finding a home in a story, a novel, a memoir, can sustain one. And when you see children grow up with the stories that are read to them, and that they then read themselves, you can see that they are a prop, a mainstay, a necessity, just like food and drink. Without finding such a home in stories, how are values imparted? How do we learn about the past, about distant places, about difference?
I for one couldn’t survive long without stories, and if they weren’t at hand to be read I would be able to draw on the storehouse in my head, filled from earliest childhood with essentials that sustain me. For once, I would argue for the anthropological need of stories – but certainly we can do without marketing ploys, self-aggrandizement, and the notion that our stories, the ones produced in the educated West, are the (only) ones that count.
Jane Austen’s writing table can be seen here: link to Jane Austen museum at Chawton (https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/1-jane-austens-writing-table last access 19 June 2018)