Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Just Telling a Story


Persons attempting to find a "text" in this book will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a "subtext" in it will be banished; persons attempting to explain, interpret, explicate, analyze, deconstruct, or otherwise "understand" it will be exiled to a desert island in the company only of other explainers.


I knew when I read this notice at the beginning of Jayber Crow that I was going to love Wendell Berry. I haven't finished the book yet, but that certainly isn't because I'm not enjoying it. Berry is a fantastic storyteller who captures the essence of the place and people about whom he is writing. He is one of those authors whose words ring true at some very deep place in my soul. Those are my favorite books, the ones where I finish a passage and say, "Yes. That's how it is. I just never had the right words to say it." There are only a few authors who do this consistently for me, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe being the top two.

When I look back at the works I studied in college, the ones I loved the best were the ones that told good stories, true to the human experience. I was usually lukewarm at best about the works we read for "feminist" or "multi-ethnic" literature classes that spent too much time trying to make a political statement. There were exceptions in these classes, of course. Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie are two that I can think of off the top of my head.

What do Berry, Faulkner, Wolfe, Morrison, and Alexie have in common? They tell stories. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these writers come from storytelling cultures. When Faulkner was asked about the themes or intent of his writing, he often responded by saying that he was just telling a good story. I really think he was, he just happened to have such a keen perception of Southern culture and of the human condition that his stories revealed true experiences and strong themes already running through his culture. Even Thomas Wolfe, whose stories are often more internal monologues, has passages that very simply and beautifully convey ideas and emotions that are essential to our experience as humans. Perhaps Faulkner's famous Nobel Prize speech expresses this idea better than I.

What am I rambling about? I'm not really sure, except to say that I have spent the last few years rebelling against my college training in deconstructing texts. I am learning to enjoy stories again and to see that those convey truths more profoundly than any critical essay or political manifesto thinly veiled as a novel ever could. This is not to say, of course, that there aren't writers who can combine philisophical or political ideas and story. Dostoevsky, who may be the greatest writer ever, certainly did that and did it well. But he always anchored his philosophical and spiritual meanderings in the context of a story, in the mind of a character enmeshed in the complexities of human experience.

Perhaps it is my own culture which influences this view of what makes good literature. I come from a storytelling people, who teach their history and values and truths through story and song. Maybe other people hear truth better in different forms. But I, for one, am going to keep enjoying my stories and be glad to have another good storyteller to add to the list. Now, back to Port William...


Em the luddite said...

Yay! I'm glad you're getting the chance to read some Berry. I hope you enjoy!

Tipper said...

Thanks for the tip I'll check Berry out.

wheelsonthebus said...

Another great storyteller: Mark Twain, the man who wrote the original "NOTICE" to readers. Check out the notice at the start of Huck Finn.