The nature of story

“What author would be without the advantage of being able to walk invisible? One is thereby enabled to keep such a quiet mind.” — Charlotte Brontë

A number of unconnected literary threads have come together and have somehow become inextricably tangled in my mind. After a review of Jenny Nimmo‘s The Snow Spider last month I’ve been ploughing through other fiction, including some of Charlotte Brontë‘s unfinished tales, until my current reread of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife.

It’s taken some comments from blogger Sandra to get me thinking about the nature of story for teller and audience, about how much storytellers might care to reveal about their creative processes, and about how precious is that fragile veil in every confessional box. What follows is a none too successful attempt to untangle those threads.

It’s not often I get responses from authors whose books I review, and when I do they’re received with some trepidation — have I treated their book with respect and fairness, have I misjudged their intentions, did I simply get it all wrong?

So when Jenny Nimmo, author of the haunting novel The Snow Spider, tweeted me it was a pleasant surprise when she kindly told me my review was “a perceptive and interesting discussion” and that I’d “understood so much” — especially as I’d had little to support the connections I’d suggested between her Wales-set novel and the fragmentary English folktale about Childe Rowland.

I was really grateful for these appreciative comments, affirming the profound truths Nick and I believed we’d detected in this initial instalment during our online conversation. Yet you’ll notice that Nimmo was careful not to absolutely confirm my hypothesis. Sandra did note this, adding, “As with artists and composers, I often wonder when others dig deep into the whys and wherefores of a piece, how much they unearth was consciously in the creator’s mind at that time.” She then wondered “if those points of connections can be made unconsciously by an attuned writer – tapping into the collective unconscious I suppose. That image appeals to me more than that of a writer putting together all the disparate pieces with intent, although of course that must be what crime writers do all the time!”

To Sandra I replied (and I repeat it here more or less verbatim) that what she’d said about the creative process which writers may or may not go through possibly applies to all of us. Why do we act the way we do or say the things we say? Is it because we’ve weighed up the pros and cons and come to a rational decision or is it because we’ve unconsciously or subconsciously compared it to a similar situation, or experience, or model, and went with an instinctive, kneejerk response?

If I think hard about The Snow Spider and suddenly note (out of the æther, as it were) that this novel shares themes with the Childe Rowland tale, does that mean that it’s only me that made a connection — or that Nimmo made a conscious connection when she penned this tale — or that the motif suggested itself to her from her own experience without her being aware of it — or that it’s merely a happy coincidence that there are points of similarity between Gwyn and Childe Rowland and between Bethan and Burd Ellen?

It all seems part of what I believe is not just a by-product but an essential feature of storytelling: that the audience or reader isn’t a tabula rasa when it comes to receiving a tale but brings to that reception their own experiences, preconceptions, even misconceptions to that narrative’s arc, and long after too. And I like to think that narrators or writers are capable of being informed by their audience’s or readership’s responses, realising that the power and richness of their tale is not always as they imagined it but a magical purse that never runs out of coin.

Having now written enough in my reply to make an entirely new post, I now decided it was worth expanding, especially in view of Sandra’s nodding agreement as to “the power of story-telling and the roles of writer and reader.” Taking my cue from her her parting shot — Thus is the nature of story — I want to go on to the notions of anonymity and invisibility.

Charlotte Brontë’s famous dictum on the advantage of being able “to walk invisible” (a phrase smartly purloined for Sally Wainwright’s powerful drama about the Brontë siblings) is about the anonymity she’d acquired by adopting the pseudonym Currer Bell. Yet we may doubt that such a choice was solely because she desired a quiet life, freed from persistent public attention and distraction: adopting male (or at least a gender-free) noms de plume, as their brother Branwell had previously done when publishing as Northangerland, was designed to allow her and her sisters to avoid likely condescension and/or prejudice. In addition, as she indicated to Mr Williams at her publisher’s offices, it made it possible for her to listen in on local opinions of Jane Eyre, and rejoice in any positive reviews as to its verisimilitude.

No such fortune of course visits many authors these days. Unless their work circulates because of an established fan base, valuing privacy and anonymity is decidedly not to their advantage. In fact today’s publishers urge authors, whatever their standing, to have and maintain a social media presence; word of mouth can only support, not replace, the requirement to sell oneself in order to sell one’s product.

I was reminded of this tussle between fame and anonymity by Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. We remember that young Lyra Belacqua doesn’t at first know who her parents are, thinking herself merely Lord Asriel’s niece and being shocked to be told she’s Mrs Coulter’s daughter. She protects her identity at Bolvangar by adopting the name Lizzie Brooks, using her own initials (as the Brontë sisters did) and perhaps relishing that her surname Belacqua included the Italian word acqua meaning ‘water’, doubtless an echo of ‘Brooks’.

She is later renamed Lyra Silvertongue by Iorek Byrnison, the name she owns up to with Will Parry in the second book. Her new titles reflects the fact that she achieves her anonymity and invisibility by means of distraction. When unwonted attention is likely to be visited on her she marches up to her mark — some suspicious police officers, for example — and puts them off their stride by asking questions or giving information unrelated to her true intentions.

This, however, is not Will’s way; his technique is similar to the witch Serafina Pekkala’s: to become ordinary, undistinguished, unworthy of note. With barely suppressed rage he tells Lyra

If you speak to people you just attract their attention. […] You should just keep quiet and still and they overlook you. I’ve been doing it all my life. I know how to do it. Your way, you just — you make yourself visible.
— Chapter 5, The Subtle Knife

And this highlights the essential difference between the two of them. Lyra is a born storyteller — in The Amber Spyglass her name echoes around the Underworld as ‘Liar!’ — and she continually justifies her epithet of Silvertongue. Will, on the other hand, seeks answers, he desperately wants stories, tales about his father and explanations as to why Will and his mother are being hounded and stalked. If Lyra is a teller of stories then Will is the audience eager for a narrative to provide a rationale for his unorthodox upbringing.

But are they so different? Lyra also seeks answers, and can access them with her ‘truth-teller’, the alethiometer. And Will also concocts stories, mainly about himself standing beside his father — the explorer, the adventurer — as he searches out new lands. Only the reality turns out a little different from his imaginary scenario as he travels from Winchester to Oxford, to Cittàgazze, and beyond.

We’re left with a burning question: Who truly wants to walk invisible? I suspect there’d be a story behind every answer.

6 thoughts on “The nature of story

  1. This is a fascinating read Chris, thank you. I am saving it for future reference. The expression ‘a magical purse that never runs out of coin’ is perfect. The many interpretations of a story depending on a reader’s own life experience and reading history are something I feel I gain from. It adds to my own understanding and enjoyment. This is a plus of book clubs in my opinion and one aspect of school librarianship I loved. Often children can display remarkable perception when discussing books, including picture books. Although reading is often described as a solitary pastime I think as readers we form relationships both with the author and other readers. By the way I noticed Jenny Nimmo’s tweet and it made me smile!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Absolutely everything you say, Anne, and thank you. And I think I can add book blogging and similar social media to book clubs and schools as a way of expanding insights and understanding where *all* reading matter is concerned, picture books included.

      Plus I really do believe that books are the purses which just keep on giving, which is why I hang on to many books to read and read again. (Because, sadly, it’s not always possible for libraries to still have a title when one’s ready for a reread.)

      Liked by 2 people

  2. That’s wonderful, that Nimmo saw and enjoyed your discussion!

    I like what you say about the reader’s response, that a reader “brings to that reception their own experiences, preconceptions, even misconceptions to that narrative’s arc, and long after too. And I like to think that narrators or writers are capable of being informed by their audience’s or readership’s responses,”

    This is pretty much what I teach about reader-response criticism. I like to use an example from a poetry workshop I took as a grad student at University of Maryland, College Park. We were supposed to be silent when our poem was being discussed, but one student burst out “I didn’t mean that!” when someone found something wonderful in his poem. The professor, Stanley Plumly, roared at him “Shut up and take credit!”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Reader response criticism is a phrase that is ringing a distant bell in my head, Jeanne, but it absolutely elucidates what I was trying to grasp here — I’m both gratified and disappointed that it’s neither an outlandish nor an original concept! Sadly I can’t take Professor Plumly’s advice and take any credit… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Chris; thank you for picking up these concepts and running with them. Rather like all the best stories, I shall reread this several times before I’ll know that I’ve heard the right message for me at this time. Hopefully, I’ll come back to this post with a few more thoughts.

    (At the moment, I’m pondering on considering myself invariably to be in Will’s and Charlotte’s camp: I choose to walk invisible. Then I begin to wonder how true that is… and whether I am always ‘the eager audience’…. and how do these ideas fit into the books I’m currently reading… )

    That will keep me busy for a while!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s one of the things I love about blogging, Sandra, the to and fro which stimulate further thoughts and conversations, so thank you for zizzing up my grey matter!

      I think we have a Jekyll & Hyde attitude to invisibility, most of us: a desire for approbation without appearing smug, but also a fear of criticism which may lead to despair or else impostor syndrome. ‘Walking invisible’ may seem like faking your death so you can read your obituaries, but at least social media and searching online can allow some degree of anonymity!

      Liked by 1 person

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