The Stories of Our Lives

©1998 L.Timmel Duchamp

The stories individuals know how to tell help determine what kind of lives they can live. The range of the stories they know how to tell generally depend upon what kind of stories they are familiar with. They get their stories from all sorts of places, including fiction. For this reason, the shape of any story carries deep ideological significance. Consider what Roy Perrett writes about the way narratives are constructed in autobiography:

We construe and reconstrue our experience, subject to the interpretive conventions available to us and the internal and external constraints acting upon us. Hence Jerome Bruner's suggestion that "we may properly suspect that the shape of a life is as much dependent upon the narrative skills of the autobiographer as is the story he or she tells about it." It is probably in this sense that Henry James intended his famous remark that adventures happen only to people who know how to tell them.
If I recall the context correctly, Perrett was talking about how the lives people live are shaped by the way they tell stories about themselves to themselves as well as to other people (just as memories are set by those stories-- one of Samuel R. Delany's perennial themes, of course). The forms stories take are no accident. These forms pretty much call the shots. Departure from them stands out (and to certain people looks immoral, or false, or incomprehensible, or even insane). The majority of people, of course, live the same basic stories, telling them over and over and over again; usually these are the stories they are familiar with. Sometimes ordinary persons break out of these basic stories and experience heroic moments. Others learn heroic (or defiant) stories and then themselves live heroically (or defiantly). This is the reason "role models" rated as extremely important to early second-wave feminists. We needed to hear different kinds of stories about women than the same old master stories. The time when stories are most important to the trajectory of one's life is probably in adolescence. If there's one really direct, horrible effect of television, it's in the kind of stories television offers teenagers, who are trying to figure out what their story is going to be and which role they are going to be playing in Life. Television imposes invisibly tight limitations on the kind of stories we can hear about ourselves. It is rare that television ever offers me a story that I can relate to my own experience. It has certainly never offered me an imaginative story for expanding the horizons of what stories I can construct for myself. In my adolescence, the story that offered the most appeal to me was the story of Ludwig van Beethoven. But then I had to have a story like his, even if it wasn't tailored to my gender. So of course I did the best I could to make it fit (without even noticing). This adaptation of stories is typical. Signficantly, all the versions I used to construct my own version of the story came from printed text.

Every time a fiction writer writes a story, the writer either unconsciously succumbs to the demands of a conventional, familiar shape or consciously resists (though not always successfully). One form of resistance is to make up new stories; another form is to try to subvert an old story; a third form of resistance is to comment critically on the old stories, particularly by highlighting the very existence of these stories and their power in shaping lives and expectations. (Examples of all three of these forms of resistance in Ursula Le Guin's most recent stories.) Feminist writers mount resistance against the old stories constantly. A recently published novel that explicitly concerns itself with this very problem, and takes the third of these approaches is Karen Joy Fowler's The Sweetheart Season. (It can come as no surprise after "The Elizabeth Complex" that this author has the tyranny of master stories on her mind.) In other words, story is a very serious issue for feminist writers. On the technical level of writing itself, it may well be the most serious.

It's become glaringly obvious to me that what I find hopeful in endings (as well as in beginnings and middles of novels and stories) is utterly different from the story-"norm" commonly invoked to punish the writers who don't conform to it. (This is a norm that was, to my knowledge, formally established first by the French sycophant and royal cultural hatchet-man, Nicolas Boileau (who is something of a god these days to those who feel that it is their mission in life to denounce all stories that aren't ideologically oppressive, suppressive and repressive). This story-norm requires "closure." It exalts stories that leave the reader feeling safer and wiser and more entrenched than ever in a conservative world view. We are meant to think that stories that offer such moments of closure have good and "happy" endings-- that they are "upbeat," and that stories that lack closure or leave the reader questioning the world s/he lives in and maybe even how s/he is living in that world, are "downbeat."

Now while the norm states that closure is "upbeat," I, on the contrary, feel no hope whatsoever when a story or book closes up seamlessly at the end; when I read such endings, I see the world and its possibilities as essentially the way I saw it before I read it. For me, if the protagonist's "problem" has been "solved" (or more likely banished), there can be no hope, since in our world the only hope is in positive, conscious struggle. The status quo (or, conversely, the arrival of a situation in which the character is wise and struggle is trivial or unnecessary) is about the most depressing way that I can think of to end any story. One might as well slaughter off all the characters. Such endings leave a bad taste in my mouth, and in cases where the story has been at all innovative or interesting, they feel dishonest (or "rigged-up"). A sizable fraction of the books I've read lately start out promisingly and then end, inexplicably, with so-called "upbeat" endings. Why bother, I wonder. (I know well how much work goes into a novel: to me, novels are among the most serious undertakings.) Such endings prompt me into an unspoken, one-sided dialogue with the author: Did it really matter that much to you to get the book published? (Maybe they would have let you publish it with an honest ending. Did you try? Or did you censor yourself before you even submitted it?) This could have been an interesting, maybe even an important (to people's imaginations, and therefore to their lives) book. It could have really stood out. And you blew it.

Consider, by contrast, the stories that celebrate struggle, the stories that are graced with unfudged, hopeful endings that don't falsify their promise, the stories that leave one actively thinking long after finishing them, the stories that make one certain that there are stories yet to be invented and that, because of these stories, may actually someday be invented, since stories never come out of nowhere. Recent examples: Slow River, Gaia's Toys, "The Elizabeth Complex." These are the kinds of stories that open up my imagination and make struggle attractive and a point of pride. Both happy and sad things come down in the last pages of Gaia's Toys, and happy things at the end of Slow River-- but for me, in no case can an ending's "positive" or "hopeful" effect be determined by whether the final events in a story are sad or happy. Consider Gwyneth Jones' Escape Plans. While a great deal of that world ends in ruin, its story, for me, keeps hope alive. If the revolution had worked, if the protagonist had emerged as a heroic leader, that wonderful sense of insistent refusal of the status quo would be lacking in the story. (Granted, there might have been other ways for it to have ended with a successful-- hope-bringing-- revolution, but given the possibilities of the story Jones tells, I prefer ruin to fudging and cheating.) For me, hope lies in an open ending: in other words, in avoiding "closure." If there's no need to struggle at the end of the story, then it's back to the status quo. Pat on the head. That was a nice read, dear, wouldn't you say? Please. I read murder mysteries when I want that kind of comfort (as I sometimes do).

I've been talking mainly about SF. A closed ending seems almost inevitable in fantasy; there are really so few stories that fantasy is allowed to tell. We can find exceptions, but by and large, the point of fantasy seems to be to comfort people with platitudes. (If you don't believe me, try reading academic criticism of fantasy; what I've read of it tells me that what I try to do in the few fantasy stories I've written falls outside the purview of what academics decree real fantasy is all about, which is mainly variations on the theme of gaining the Emotional Maturity to Accept Life as It Is and to Understand and Appreciate It.) I suppose most people would say that "good" fantasy has lasting effects that result from the story's resonances and correspondences with the Grand Archetypes & certain prized gems of psychological wisdom about Life. Counterexamples are exceptions and among some readers (especially academics) don't generally count as "real" fantasy-- or are considered nasty and immature and ungenerous.

It's my impression that inauthentic endings are found more often in novels than in short fiction. Perhaps this isn't true in raw percentages (there's so much short fiction), but it is true, I think, in what really strikes me (probably because it's so rare that a novel has what I'd call a hopeful ending, and because I don't read as many novels as I do pieces of short fiction, and because the bulk of short fiction-- like the bulk of novels-- tends to be very boring, I read short fiction fairly selectively). My off-the-cuff hypothesis is that short fiction editors as a group are more willing to tolerate deviations from the standard narrative forms than book editors as a group are. While it's true that I've had short-fiction editors preaching to me about the "proper" form of a story (which is, to quote from a rejection letter: "One-third of the story should be devoted to showing the protagonist's problem, one-third to showing the protagonist's problem getting worse, and one-third to the protagonist's solving the problem"), a very few editors don't believe in imposing the formula on every story that comes their way, while most editors-- even those who quote the formula-- will make exceptions when they can find a way to interpret the story to fit their formula, or when something about the story just sweeps them off their feet.

I'm not suggesting that a story's execution and technique are irrelevant to whether an editor selects it or how it is received after publication. But I do mean to assert that the politics of story figures significantly in both the reading and writing of stories. I've neglected to address specifically the quesiton of how endings are gendered. Obviously, if the kinds of stories we are allowed to tell about men are different from those we tell about women (and they most emphatically and definitely are), and if the kinds of stories we are likely to imagine are contingent on the gender of the protagonist, then we cannot avoid seeing that the politics of stories necessarily include sexual politics (and of course sex politics, and race politics, and so on). About endings, it's not so clear. Traditionally, certain endings have been considered suitable for female characters, and other endings suitable for male characters. (With possibily some overlap.) I suppose here, too, the question is determined by what stories one considers admissable-- which stories should be invisible and inaudible, and which should be seen and told-- since how one ends stories at least partially determines how readers finish them-- i.e., whether mindless of what the story has to say about the world, or conscious of it.

What stories one considers admissable? Here is where the brute force of ideology most clearly shows its hand. It is ideology that always and ever insists on constraining the range of stories that can be told in particular genre, times and places. Mostly, new stories fall into the reader's blindspot, unrecognized and ignored. As a feminist reader and writer of science fiction, I am always coming up against a refusal to admit any but a handful of stories into the pool of stories that get told in SF. The stories that interest me are variously said to be boring, implausible, or already told (namely, in some early, ideologically invidious version decades ago, as though some stories can only be told once, from a certain white, male point of view, while the same few stories are told endlessly-- since they are the "real" stories). On television, the range is so narrow that I find it almost impossible-- especially in "news" contexts-- to find stories that are credible; and when credible stories do present themselves to the "pundits" and experts who determine what the "news" is, I suffer the anguish and frustration of seeing them distorted and rendered implausible. Can we wonder that people find it so difficult to live different stories than the stock and stereotype, that they find it nearly impossible to construct stories that are uniquely, thoughtfully their own? Can we wonder that people imitate acts and roles found in movies and television, as though life can be interpretable only through such mediation?

We need all the different kinds of stories we can get-- desperately, we need them. Our lives depend on it. For yes, our lives do get constructed through the mediation of the stories we tell, the stories we know. Imagination is the greatest gift of all. It is what makes love and change possible.

January, 1997

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