YA literature as storytelling

Ika blake at gaudaprime.co.uk
Mon Apr 5 09:54:58 EDT 2004


Hallie wrote:

> <wheedling>  If you're *looking* for an excuse for work displacement
> activities, Ika, I found this interesting.  :)

:) Sorry, I ended up doing some work instead! I've been thinking about
this in the back of my mind, though.

Okay, I was suggesting that Benjamin's distinction between the novel and
the story might work as a distinction between adult and YA fic, and I
said:

>>For Benjamin (roughly), the writer and the reader of the novel are both
>>isolated, and the novel is completely consumed in the writing/reading of
>>it, with no remainder: it's an art form which is self-contained and
>> closed
>>off from the world. By contrast, "the storyteller is a man* who has
>>counsel for his readers... Counsel woven into the fabric of real life is
>>wisdom. The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side
>>of truth, wisdom, is dying out."

Hallie asked:

> This has been simmering very vaguely on the back-burner and I'm
> curious as to whether Benjamin gave examples of his novelists and
> storytellers?  It's an interesting distinction and the 'Counsel woven
> into the fabric of real life is wisdom' line is fantastic.  But after
> throwing out a very hasty and superficial distinction between modern
> literary fiction which might have seemed to fall into the former
> category and - what?  Didn't come up with much beyond 19th century
> lit. which would necessarily fill the second one.  Though I can see
> it as a distinction between YA and adult.

and Charles wrote:

> I'd need some convincing about Benjamin's novel/storytelling distinction,
> even before getting to the adult/YA one. The bit about the novel being
> self-contained and closed off from the world sounds very much like someone
> writing during the ascent of New Criticism, doesn't it? When texts were
> iconic - well-wrought urns, being rather than meaning, and all that? It
> certainly doesn't describe most of the novels I can think of pre-1918 -
> and
> they certainly *were* novels, from Fielding to Dickens to Gissing, so I
> guess by 'novel' Benjamin must mean a specific type. But then, even
> post-1918 Modernists like Lawrence, Forster, Hemingway (using the term
> loosishly) were all busy grinding their own moral, social, political and
> aesthetic axes, weren't they?

So I should start by apologizing to Benjamin for misrepresenting him. I
didn't give a very good account of his thinking in this essay, because -
as you'll gather from this post <g> - he's someone I find hard to
paraphrase. He's a very oblique thinker/reader and very little of the
specific way he thinks has made it into the culture, so it's hard to give
a shorthand version of it.

Anyway, the distinction he's drawing between the novel and the story is
not the familiar-ish (New Critical?) one between Modernist
art-for-art's-sake literature (the "well-wrought urn") and 'politically
responsible' or morally/socially engaged art, which is what my paraphrase
made it sound like. "Counsel", I think, is not a general term for
relevance or political-social engagement in fiction, but a semi-technical
term which much of the 'Storyteller' essay is concerned with explicitly or
implicitly defining: it's to be opposed to the specific sorts of
instruction or didacticism that occasionally appear in the novel. (I wish
I read German, because I suspect a lot of this is being obscured by the
translation.) The distinction is sort of about the way each art form
understands the world and humans' relation to it: Benjamin says, for
example, that one of the major differences between the novel and the story
is the relation they set up between the reader and death, or between the
reader and the natural world. Another way he puts it is to say that the
novel deals with the "meaning of life", whereas the story deals with "the
moral of the story". So he seems to be opposing philosophical-novelistic
reflections on the meaning of life to "counsel" as woven into the fabric
of life.

One of the other statements of the distinction that clarifies it for me is
the different sorts of finality to the two genres: "Actually there is no
story for which the question as to how it continued would not be
legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the
smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a
divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing 'Finis'". It's as
though the story is woven into the audience's life, whereas the end of the
novel is a selvedge, which can't be unravelled or attached to anything
else: the events in a novel get their meaning, not from their relation to
"the moral of the story", but from their placement in an artistic whole
with a specific ending. And this is true regardless of the political-moral
orientation of the novel.

As for examples: one of the two examples he gives of a "perfect specimen
of the novel" is _Don Quixote_. (The other is  _Education sentimentale_)
He says: "Even the first great book of the genre, _Don Quixote_, teaches
how the spiritual greatness, the boldness, the helpfulness of one of the
noblest of men, Don Quixote, are completely devoid of counsel and do not
contain the slightest scintilla of wisdom". Story-telling is represented
by fairy tales in general; Scheherezade; and, in particular, Nikolai
Leskov (the subtitle of the essay is "Reflections on the works of Nikolai
Leskov"), whom I haven't read.

All of which complex and specific reflection is one of the reasons why I'm
always looking around for a way to recast the distinction into a form in
which it makes sense to me: translating it into the difference between YA
and adult fiction is my latest attempt at that.

Love, Ika

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