YA literature as storytelling (rambling post)

Charles Butler hannibal at thegates.fsbusiness.co.uk
Wed Apr 7 18:07:25 EDT 2004

Ika clarified:

> 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.

I had a quick look at an on-line version of the essay, because you got me
interested - although frustratingly it was missing an undetermined amount
from the middle, including some of the parts you describe here. Still, in
combination with your explanation this is now a lot clearer to me, so
thanks. One thing Benjamin seemed to be saying was the that the rise of the
novel and fall of the story teller were connected to the increasing
incommunicability and incommensurability of experience (though whether
experience *is* becoming more incommunicable etc or why I don't know - the
extract I read didn't provide any arguments for this). This is bad news for
storytellers because without commonality of experience their counsel will
not be applicable - their listeners will simply be unable to apply the story
to their own lives. Okay, I think I get that.

Mind you, I'm still not totally clear about what *novelists* do, in the
Benjamin version. It seems that they create little worlds of their own, and
that others can come along and admire these worlds (or perhaps just
acknowledge their perplexity) without quite being able to hook into them or
recognize anything in them that relates to their own existence. I can see
how this describes some novels, perhaps, but certainly not most. And it
makes it sound a pretty duff art-form, if all it offers is the experience of
being unhelpfully perplexed!

> 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.

This is one of the bits that was missing from my version, but it's
interesting, because I've always seen it rather the other way round. The
'happily ever after' formula tells us *not* to ask what happened to
Cinderella (*pace* Disney) - it pre-empts our question by answering it in a
not-really-answering-it way - they lived happily ever after, of course! On
the other hand, we can always ask what happened to Darcy and Elizabeth
Bennet - and many people do.

Still... there is another way in which the storyteller *does* continue, not
with the tale in its own terms, but by ending it with an inclusion of the
audience and the situation in which it is being told - as if the story were
not a story but a continuous part of their reality. Is this what Benjamin is
getting at? A few of the endings listed by Alan Garner in *The Voice in the
Shadow* make the point better than I couuld (and they're fun):

'So Jack and his two brothers put the pot on the fire. And when the porridge
is cooked, we'll go on with the tale. But just for now, we'll let it

'They lived in friendship and in peace, they lived happily and they lived
long, and, if they are not yet dead, they are alive now, and they feed the
hens with stars.'

'There are good people in the world, and some who are not so good; but he
who listened to my tale is my own true friend. Now drink *kvass*, and go to
bed. The morning is wiser than the evening.'

'The owl flew and flew, perched on a tree, wagged her tail, rolled her eyes
and flew off again. She flew and flew to the end of the world and the back
of the sky. I've been clearing my throat to tell you a tale. The tale itself
has not yet begun.'

Does Benjamin talk about the oral aspect of storytelling, in fact? Because
I'd say that it's there, if anywhere, that there's a distinct stylistic link
with (many) YA novels. Think how many YA books are first-person narratives,
attempting to make that direct connection to the reader (and maybe even
addressing them),using a deliberately informal and conversational idiom, and
disdaining all the 'David Copperfield kind of crap' associated with the
literary novel.

Well, I've rambled enough. Thanks again, Ika, for bringing the essay up.

Just read about Benjamin's death: not nice.


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