Literature is not the sole preserve of the storyteller

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Through most of literary history, great writers have either tended to look down upon the art of storytelling or have regarded it with ambivalence. We can trace this attitude all the way back to Don Quixote’s plotless meanderings. Or even further back, to Shakespeare’s rambles and language games. More recently, the Modernist assault on narrativity seemed to have put paid to our storytelling instinct for good. And when James Joyce said that all stories should begin with the phrase “once upon a time”—the opening words of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—everyone understood that he was just having a laugh at the expense of the raconteur.

Even those among modern writers who were interested in the story saw it as an extinct form. The story to them was an old-world relic that was out of place in the complex of modernity. Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” interprets the death of the story as the necessary consequence of the birth of the modern era, in which the “communicability of experience is decreasing”. Benjamin’s essay celebrates the simple pleasures of reading the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s stories, by identifying “a new beauty in what is vanishing”.

Then there is Virginia Woolf’s essay on Chaucer, which indulges a similar nostalgia the modern writer felt for the straightforward tale. Chaucer, Woolf writes, “has pre-eminently that story-teller’s gift, which is almost the rarest gift among writers at the present day”.

So this essentially was the modern stance towards the story: informed by a belief that the talent for spinning yarns, a vestige from a more innocent past, was the rarest of gifts. The story, in this view, transcended all artistic ideals, even if, for the writer, it meant catering to popular tastes. As the man on the golf course in E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) says, “You can take your art, you can take your literature, you can take your music, but give me a good story.”

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