Saturday, March 03, 2007

It's the Story, Stupid

John Sutherland, a UK visiting English lit prof at Caltech, hits the obsession with Anna Nicole Smith right on the head in today's LA Times: Dickens, Trollope -- and Anna Nicole?
This story was destined from the outset to take over Page 1 — precisely because it is a classic, a melodrama with exactly the kind of plot that has fascinated people as long as there's been literature and stories to tell. Following its twists and turns, it's impossible not to get the blurry feeling that one is reading a good old-fashioned novel.
He compares the Smith plot to two by one of my all-time favorite authors, Anthony Trollope: Is He Popenjoy? (just moved to the top of my TBR list) and The Eustace Diamonds (one of the Palliser series, though it stands fine alone). And Smith's baby, "the child without clear parentage who ultimately stands (when his identity is finally revealed) to inherit a vast fortune" is straight out of Dickens. Sutherland cites Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, but there's also Bleak House (the ultimate hellish lawsuit tale) and Nicholas Nickleby.
The fact is, we need [stories] as much as we need oxygenated air. By my estimate, at least three-quarters of network prime-time TV is fictional narrative. Bookstores, walk-in and Web-based, sell more fiction than any other kind of book. The vast, vast portion of what is shown in our film theaters and on the cable movie channels is fiction. Stories, that is....

Why are we so hung up on stories? Not because we're narrative junkies, zombified fiction addicts — but because of the truth their falsehoods tell us. It's the paradox that Aristotle noted, 2,500 years ago, in the Poetics. A fiction like "Oedipus Rex," Aristotle asserted, was "truer" than history. Why? Because fiction can deal with the essence of our human condition, unlike history, which is tied to what actually happened.
To quote Henry James:
Fiction is history, human history, or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground, being based on the reality of forms and the observation of social phenomena, whereas history is based on documents, and the reading of print and handwriting — on second-hand impression. Thus fiction is nearer truth.

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