One Story

How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003

One Story



WE’VE SPENT QUITE A WHILE thinking about specific tasks involved in the activity of reading, such as considering how this means x, that signifies y, and so on. Now of course I believe “this” and “that” and x and y matter, and on some level so do you, else we would not be at this point in our discussion. But there’s a greater truth, at least as I see it, behind all these specific interpretive activities, a truth that informs and drives the creation of novels and plays and stories and poems and essays and memoirs even when (as is usually the case) writers aren’t aware of it. I’ve mentioned it before and have employed it throughout, so it’s no very great secret. Moreover, it’s not my personal invention or discovery, so I’m not looking for credit here, but it needs saying again, so here it is: there’s only one story.

One story. Everywhere. Always. Wherever anyone puts pen to paper or hands to keyboard or fingers to lute string or quill to papyrus. They all take from and in return give to the same story, ever since Snorgg got back to the cave and told Ongk about the mastodon that got away. Norse sagas, Samoan creation stories, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Tale of Genji, Hamlet, last year’s graduation speech, last week’s Dave Barry column, On the Road and The Road to Rio and “The Road Not Taken.” One story.

What’s it about?

That’s probably the best question you’ll ever ask, and I apologize for responding with a really lame answer: I don’t know. It’s not about anything. It’s about everything. It’s not about something the way an elegy is about the death of a young friend, for instance, or the way The Maltese Falcon is about solving the mystery of the fat man and the black bird. It’s about everything that anyone wants to write about. I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means to be human. I mean, what else is there? When Stephen Hawking writes A Brief History of Time, what is he doing except telling us what home is like, describing the place where we live? You see, being human takes in just about everything, since we want to know about space and time and this world and the next, questions I’m pretty sure none of my English setters have ever really pondered. Mostly, though, we’re interested in ourselves in space or time, in the world. So what our poets and storytellers do for us—drag a rock up to the fire, have a seat, listen to this one—is explain us-and-the-world, or us-in-the-world.

Do writers know this? Do they think about it?

a. Good heavens, no.

b. Absolutely, yes.

c. Let me try again.

On one level, everyone who writes anything knows that pure originality is impossible. Everywhere you look, the ground is already camped on. So you sigh and pitch your tent where you can, knowing someone else has been there before. Think of it this way: can you use a word no one else has ever used? Only if you’re Shakespeare or Joyce and coin words, but even they mostly use the same ones as the rest of us. Can you put together a combination of words that is absolutely unique? Maybe, occasionally, but you can’t be sure. So too with stories. John Barth discusses an Egyptian papyrus complaining that all the stories have been told and that therefore nothing remains for the contemporary writer but to retell them. That papyrus describing the postmodern condition is forty-five hundred years old. This is not a terrible thing, though. Writers notice all the time that their characters resemble somebody—Persephone, Pip, Long John Silver, La Belle Dame sans Merci—and they go with it. What happens, if the writer is good, is usually not that the work seems derivative or trivial but just the opposite: the work actually acquires depth and resonance from the echoes and chimes it sets up with prior texts, weight from the accumulated use of certain basic patterns and tendencies. Moreover, works are actually more comforting because we recognize elements in them from our prior reading. I suspect that a wholly original work, one that owed nothing to previous writing, would so lack familiarity as to be quite unnerving to readers. So that’s one answer.

But here’s another. Writers also have to practice a kind of amnesia when they sit down or (like Thomas Wolfe, who was very tall and wrote on top of the refrigerator—really) stand up to write. The downside of the weight of millennia of accumulated practice of any activity is that it’s very … heavy. I once psyched out a teammate in an over-thirty men’s basketball league quite by accident. We were practicing free throws before a game when something occurred to me, and like an idiot I couldn’t keep it to myself. “Lee, have you ever considered,” I asked, “how many things can go wrong when you shoot a free throw?” He literally stopped in mid-shot to offer his view. “Damn you,” he said. “Now I won’t make one all night.” He was right. Had I known I could have that kind of effect, I’d have warmed up with the other team. Now consider Lee’s problem if he had to consider not merely all the biomechanics of shooting a basketball but the whole history of free-throw shooting. You know, not too much like Lenny Wilkins, a bit of Dave Bing, some of Rick Barry before he switched to the two-handed underhand shot, plenty of Larry Bird (but don’t plagiarize him outright), none at all of Wilt Chamberlain. What are the chances any of us would ever make a free throw? And basketball only dates back about one century. Now consider trying to write a lyric poem, with everyone from Sappho to Tennyson to Frost to Plath to Verlaine to Li Po looking over your shoulder. That’s a lot of hot breath on the back of your neck. So, amnesia. When the writer gets to work, she has to shut out the voices and write what she writes, say what she has to say. What the unremembering trick does is clear out this history from the front of her mind so her own poem can come in. While she may never, or very rarely, think at all about these matters consciously, she’s been reading poetry since she was six, when Aunt Tillie gave her Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, burns through a couple of volumes of poetry a week, has read most of Wallace Stevens six or seven times. In other words, the history of poetry never leaves her. It’s always present, a gigantic subconscious database of poetry (and fiction, since she’s read that, too).

You know by now I like to keep things fairly simple. I’m no fan of the latest French theory or of jargon of any stripe, but sometimes we really can’t do without it. What I’m talking about here involves a couple of concepts we need to consider. The first, as I mentioned a few chapters back, is intertextuality. This highly ungainly word denoting a most useful notion comes to us from the great Russian formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin, who limits it pretty much to fiction, but I think I’ll follow the example of T. S. Eliot, who, being a poet, saw that it operates throughout the realms of literature. The basic premise of intertextuality is really pretty simple: everything’s connected. In other words, anything you write is connected to other written things. Sometimes writers are more up front about that than others, openly showing, as John Fowles does in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, that he’s drawing on the tradition of the Victorian novel, and on the works of Thomas Hardy and Henry James in particular. At one point Fowles writes an especially Jamesian sentence, full of embedded clauses, false starts, delayed effects, until, having thoroughly and delightfully aped the master, he declares, “But I must not ape the master.” We get the joke, and the punch line makes the parody better than if he’d pretended he was up to nothing very special, since it says with a wink that we’re in on the whole thing, that we knew all along.

Other writers pretend their work is completely their own, untutored, immediate, unaffected. Mark Twain claimed never to have read a book, yet his personal library ran to something over three thousand volumes. You can’t write A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) without being familiar with Arthurian romances. Jack Kerouac presents himself as a free spirit performing automatic writing, but there’s plenty of evidence that this Ivy Leaguer (Columbia) did a lot of revising and polishing—and reading of quest tales—before his manuscript of On the Road (1957) got typed on one long roll of paper. In each case, their work interacts with other works. And those works with others. The result is a sort of World Wide Web of writing. Your novel may contain echoes or refutations of novels or poems you’ve never read.

Think of intertextuality in terms of movie westerns. You’re writing your first western; good for you. What’s it about? A big showdown? High Noon. A gunslinger who retires? Shane. A lonely outpost during an uprising? Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—the woods are full of ’em. Cattle drive? Red River. Does it involve, by any chance, a stagecoach?

No, wait, I wasn’t thinking about any of them.

Doesn’t matter. Your movie will. Here’s the thing: you can’t avoid them, since even avoidance is a form of interaction. It’s simply impossible to write or direct in a vacuum. The movies you have seen were created by men and women who had seen others, and so on, until every movie connects with every other movie ever made. If you’ve seen Indiana Jones being dragged behind a truck by his whip, then you’ve been touched by The Cisco Kid (1931), even though there’s a strong chance you’ve never seen The Cisco Kid itself. Every western has a little bit of other westerns in it, whether it knows it or not. Let’s take the most basic element, the hero. Will your hero talk a lot or not? If not, then he’s in the tradition of Gary Cooper and John Wayne and (later) Clint Eastwood. If he does speak, just talks his fool head right off, then he’s like James Garner and those revisionist films of the sixties and seventies. Or maybe you have two, one talker and one silent type—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Your guy is going to have a certain amount of dialogue, and whatever type you decide on, audiences are going to hear echoes of some prior film, whether you think those echoes are there or not. And that, dear friends, is intertextuality.

The second concept for our consideration is archetype. The late great Canadian critic Northrop Frye took the notion of archetypes from C. G. Jung’s psychoanalytical writings and showed that whatever Jung can tell us about our heads, he can tell us a great deal more about our books. “Archetype” is a five-dollar word for “pattern,” or for the mythic original on which a pattern is based. It’s like this: somewhere back in myth, something—a story component, let’s call it—comes into being. It works so well, for one reason or another, that it catches on, hangs around, and keeps popping up in subsequent stories. That component could be anything: a quest, a form of sacrifice, flight, a plunge into water, whatever resonates and catches our imaginations, setting off vibrations deep in our collective consciousness, calling to us, alarming us, inspiring us to dream or nightmare, making us want to hear it again. And again and again and again. You’d think that these components, these archetypes, would wear out with use the way cliché wears out, but they actually work the other way: they take on power with repetition, finding strength in numbers. Here is the aha! factor again. When we hear or see or read one of these instances of archetype, we feel a little frisson of recognition and utter a little satisfied “aha!” And we get that chance with fair frequency, because writers keep employing them.

Don’t bother looking for the originals, though. You can’t find the archetype, just as you can’t find the pure myths. What we have, even in our earliest recorded literature, are variants, embellishments, versions, what Frye called “displacement” of the myth. We can never get all the way to the level of pure myth, even when a work like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey or The Old Man and the Sea feels “mythic,” since even those works are displacements of myth. Perhaps it’s impossible; perhaps there never has been a single, definite version of the myth. Frye thought the archetypes came from the Bible, or so he said at times, but such a notion won’t account for the myths and archetypes that lie behind and inform the works of Homer, say, or those of any storyteller or poet who lacked access to the Judeo-Christian tradition. So let’s say that somewhere back there in the mists of time when storytelling was completely oral (or pictorial, if you count the cave walls), a body of myth began establishing itself. The unanswerable question, it seems to me, is whether there was ever freestanding myth informing our stories or whether the mythic level grows out of the stories that we tell to explain ourselves and our world. In other words, was there some original master story for any particular myth from which all subsequent stories—pallid imitations—are “displacements,” or does the myth take shape by slow accretion as variant story versions are told and retold over time? I incline toward the latter, but I don’t know. In fact, I doubt anyone can know. I also doubt whether it matters. What does matter is that there is this mythic level, the level on which archetype operates and from which we borrow the figure of, for instance, the dying-and-reviving man (or god) or the young boy who must undertake a long journey.

Those stories—myth, archetype, religious narrative, the great body of literature—are always with us. Always in us. We can draw upon them, tap into them, add to them whenever we want. One of our great storytellers, country singer Willie Nelson, was sitting around one day just noodling on the guitar, improvising melodies he’d never written down, never heard in quite those forms. His companion, a nonmusician whose name I forget, asked him how he could come up with all those tunes. “They’re all around us,” old Willie said. “You just reach up and pick them out of the air.” Stories are like that, too. That one story that has been going on forever is all around us. We—as readers or writers, tellers or listeners—understand each other, we share knowledge of the structures of our myths, we comprehend the logic of symbols, largely because we have access to the same swirl of story. We have only to reach out into the air and pluck a piece of it.