The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (and Life)

I’m interested in ideas about story that deviate from the usual nagging about conflict – ‘Where’s the conflict?’ ‘This narrative arc lacks conflict’ etc., etc. The idea of conflict works well for many books, and especially for the visual media of films and plays. But too conflict can account for an awful lot of formulaic writing. I often raise this matter in workshops, quoting St Ursula from her classic writing guide Steering the Craft.

Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction is an essay by Ursula Le Guin that explores some of these ideas in more detail. It has recently been republished in a bijou volume by Ignota Books. Le Guin posits that ‘the novel is a fundamentally unheroic kind of story’, even if the hero has frequently taken it over. She critiques the linear ‘Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic’ where fiction is embodied as ‘triumphant (Man conquers earth, space, aliens, death, the future, etc.) and tragic (apocalypse, holocaust, then or now)’.

For Le Guin, that sort of story is represented by weapons – ‘long, hard objects for sticking, bashing, and killing’. The killer story.

Instead, Le Guin proposes a different object to represent the novel, and opens a space to discuss a different type of story: the life story.

The daughter of eminent anthropologists, Le Guin draws on the idea that the earliest cultural invention was a container that held items that had been gathered: ‘A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient.’ The mammoth hunters might ‘spectacularly occupy’ cave paintings, but in reality it was the gatherers of seeds and nuts and leaves and berries who provided most of the food consumed in prehistoric times (they worked less hard than we do today, apparently). Thus we reach the Carrier Bag Theory:

A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.

And working out the nature of the things held in that container often relies on something other than resolving conflicts, or even finding them in the first place. This container (or life story) can be ‘full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions; full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don’t understand’. For writers, negotiating the nature of those relationships within the life story often forces us to dig deeper in the writing, drawing out greater feeling and purpose as we interrogate connections.

I relate this to something Ocean Vuong says in a 2019 podcast, where he is critical of the dominance of conflict-driven plots in the conventions of creative writing:

The way we move through the world … tension and drama happen simply by proximity. The way chemistry works, you have oxygen and hydrogen: fine on their own. Put them side by side and all of a sudden: water.

I often prefer to look for tension rather than conflict in writing – a subtle difference, I feel. The tension of anticipation: what’s coming out of the bag next? The tension of loss: how will what’s left behind adapt when we take something out of the container? The tension of newness: what happens when we add something to our bag of tricks? 

Such questions are, I feel, often more interesting and sustaining than asking who’s fighting who, or demanding an inner conflict. Warfare is soooo 20th century, after all, and don’t we have enough neurosis already – do we really need to add more?!

I jest – but only a little. Conflicts and inner turmoil are the substance of many of our stories. I’m just inclined to think they are often not enough, and that we emphasise conflict at the expense of other things and at the risk of creating further conflict in the world.

My friend Bhanu Kapil gave me a copy of Carrier Bag Theory as a gift as we sat in the café in Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road just after Christmas; what a different world that now seems! This great epic we currently find ourselves in – a vast public health crisis with the potential for economic calamity – could be framed as a war against a virus, and certain politicians and pointless rentagobs are certainly playing to type as their first close-minded response is to cast blame at other politicians or at people from other countries. 

But in truth, isn’t the best resolution to such a crisis not one based in conflict but one that relies on cooperation? See Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US in the 1930s. See the foundation of the United Nations after the Second World War. See the foundation of the National Health Service in the postwar era. See the GI Bill. See the ingenuity and expertise of scientists collaborating in the creation of a vaccine. See the sacrifice and public-spiritedness of health workers and supermarket staff and community volunteers. These are not stories whose primary drive is conflict. These stories have a utopian impulse, and require kindness and openness and truth (and certainly not spin or lies). These stories require imagination.

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction is a short book, and the Ignota edition adds a scintillating preface from the publishers Sarah Shin and Ben Vickers, as well as illustrations. It also has French flaps! (We love French flaps.) It also includes a thought-provoking introduction by cultural theorist Donna Haraway, who tells the stories of three bags she has brought back from a trip to Colombia. One is embroidered, one is intricately knotted, one is crocheted, and all three carry the stories of the activists and artists and environmental campaigners and craftswomen she met there. For Haraway, each of these bags ‘grows from, and demands a response to, the urgent questions about how to tell stories that can help remake history for the kinds of living and dying that deserve thick presents and rich futures’.

Ursula Le Guin has touched on these ideas in several essays gathered in the collection Dancing at the Edge of the World, which is where I first read ‘Carrier Bag Theory’ (and thanks to Ignota for sending me back there). One very short essay, simply called ‘Conflict’, is critical of the ‘gladiatorial view of fiction’, and finds Le Guin asking us to locate the conflict in EM Forster’s classic definition of plot: ‘The King died and then the Queen died of grief’. She even questions whether the plot of War and Peace ‘can be in any useful or meaningful way reduced to “conflict,” or a series of “conflicts”?’

Another essay, ‘Heroes’, takes Le Guin’s critique of the conventions of heroism and heroic stories further. As the author of one of the greatest pieces of winter literature – the trek across the ice in The Left Hand of Darkness – Le Guin has long been fascinated by accounts of Antarctic exploration. But then she comes across an entry from Shackleton’s diary – ‘Man can only do his best. The strongest faces of Nature are arrayed against us’ – and she startles herself with an instinctive reaction: ‘Oh, what nonsense!’ 

What is false is the military image; what is foolish is the egoism; what is pernicious is the identification of ‘Nature’ as enemy … Nobody, nothing, ‘arrayed’ any ‘forces’ against Shackleton except Shackleton himself. He created an obstacle to conquer or an enemy to attack; attacked; and was defeated – by what? By himself, having himself created the situation in which his defeat could occur.

Plenty of stories have conflict to the max. I love looking at the Hero’s Journey. And I love horror movies and westerns and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the tortured psychodramas of Tennessee Williams.

But sometimes we need more than goodies and baddies, or triumph and defeat – not least as in someone’s defeat lies resentment and the seeds of future conflict.

We need life stories, as well as killer stories. We need truths. In storytelling, conflict is not enough.

 

Related posts and further reading/listening

Plotting: Conflict, Complication, Curiosity, and Connection  

Only Connect

Ursula Le Guin: Steering the Craft – interviewed by David Naimon for the Between the Covers podcast

The Worlds of Ursula Le Guin – tv documentary (on BBC iPlayer while/if you can get it)

Great Lives: Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin at 85

Ursula Le Guin at 80

A Novel is a Dark Bundle by Abi Andrews

Towards a Carrier Bag Theory of Videogames by Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

 

Enchantments

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It’s been a while since I posted (I had to pause to remember my login). I have been busy with other things. I did make time for a couple of fantastic outings this last week.

Last night I saw Edna O’Brien in conversation. She was warm, funny, and erudite, and without a shred of pretentiousness or preciousness. It was a profound evening, and despite a large audience intimate; it was well hosted by Alex Clark, too, who simply let her subject do the talking with a few choice prompts. Part of me wished I’d taken notes about the many things Edna touched upon, but maybe I just needed to be present, listening and soaking up the magic: attentive to those moments. But I do remember her talking about love, and the need for feeling in writing. And I also remember her describing writing – and reading – as enchantment. The spell of language.

I’m ashamed to say that I have never read a book by Edna O’Brien before, but on the other hand I now have many treats in store: more magic to come. Here’s a profile from the Guardian and here’s an interview from the Paris Review. And the new book sounds great. Much to look forward to. Thanks to Alice for bringing me along.

And then on Friday I went to the British Museum to see the exhibition Celts: Art and Identity. Thanks to Jenny for bringing me along. I can’t remember when I saw an exhibition so gorgeous, so respectfully provocative, and so intelligently assembled. It cuts through many of the clichés to present a more diverse and pluralistic view. Celtic art has long been a matter of give and take, of cultural exchange and fusion. I did not realise that the fine interlacing common to much Celtic art shows influence from both Germanic and Mediterranean traditions, for example. Several of the most striking finds on show came from the Thames – I shall no longer be able to cross the river from Waterloo without thinking of the Celts who went before.

And such treasures! They took me back to a time when I thought seriously about reading archaeology at university. We got to handle the goodies in the photo above (bronze is so dense!), and there were coins and flagons and bucket handles and hefty arm-rings and chariot linch-pins: the material objects that bear witness. We ogled torc after torc in gold and silver and bronze, spoilt for choice in picking our favourites. And maybe the highlight of many highlights was stepping up for a closer look at the strange beasts lining the remarkable Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark: were those creatures elephants and unicorns?

Celts also has an excellent catalogue that I’m already reading; this one won’t be left gathering dust on the coffee table. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of Celtic art as a ‘technology of enchantment’ – ‘able to beguile and dazzle the uninitiated viewer through its highly skilled manufacture and complexity’.

Here we are again: learning the craft, making things, weaving spells.

 

 

Friday Writing Experiment No. 33: A Little Bird Told You

Goldfinch

This week’s Friday Writing Experiment celebrates the publication next week of Donna Tartt’s very exciting new novel The Goldfinch.

It’s getting the fantastic reviews it deserves, but I do suggest you don’t read any of them until you’ve read the novel itself, as too many reveal far too much. Even things such as the settings are best left to unfold for themselves – the second (or maybe it’s the third) act of the book took me someplace quite unexpected, and it’s richly rendered and full of further surprises. And that is what much of reading for pleasure is about: the surprises, the narrative tension.

This is touched upon in this very inspiring (and spoiler-free) clip from an interview with Donna Tartt shown on the BBC this week:

When asked what she wants people to read her books for, she answers:

First I want them to have fun. Reading’s no good unless it’s fun … What I always want is the one quality I look for in books and it’s very hard to find … I love that childhood quality of just that gleeful, greedy reading, can’t-get-enough-of-it, what’s-happening-to-these-people, the breathless kind of turning of the pages. That’s what I want in a book. But I also want something that’s well constructed, too. I like to be able to drop down in. Dickens goes so fast, he goes like lightning, but at the same time any sentence you can lift up and it’s a marvel and it’s a miracle. To me, I want those two qualities, the two qualities of any great art: density and speed. Density and speed.

Kirsty also says that her books are about secrets, and Donna replies that all books are about secrets and have mysteries at their heart. ‘Every book has some secret, there’s always a secret.’

One thing that can probably be revealed (something I knew before reading – not least as it’s on the cover) is that the story involves a painting. A painting of a little bird: ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius (and if you don’t know much about it, maybe don’t follow that link till you’ve read the novel either: let the novel bring it into your world in its own way). It’s a beautiful, beautiful painting, or so I believe – I’ve never seen the original, but we’ll all want to now, and thanks to Donna Tartt for describing it so well.

This set me to thinking about ekphrastic writing, which is writing that in some way describes art or uses it as an inspiration. Some examples are mentioned here. I remember my friend and co-teacher Stephanie Heit using Pictures From Brueghel in a workshop at Naropa.

Something further: that bird, that little bird. My goddess, that little bird really haunted me – its exquisite form, its vulnerability, ‘a yellow finch, against a plain, pale ground, chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle’. A little bird painted three and a half centuries ago comes to stand for so much, and mining this meaning allows for the depth and richness of reading this great book.

For this week’s writing experiment, create a piece that takes The Goldfinch as a model for writing:

* As an inspiration, use a painting of a bird or an animal, or maybe a fish or a lizard or an insect.

* And then also place a secret at the heart of this piece.

* And it might not hurt to aspire towards density and speed in your work, too: perhaps some of its sentences can be marvels and miracles.

* Most of all, your readers must have FUN.

If you’d like to explore some inspirations, try Animals In Art or even visit the Animal Art Fair. Or take yourself on an artist date to one of your favourite galleries, or root around in gallery websites. Really take in all the details of an artwork featuring your own little bird or animal, and in your own writing embody whatever it – and its subject – might mean.

Michel Faber: On Writers As Public People

(Or rather: On writing and himself as a public person.)

Michel Faber, author of not just one but two of my favourite novels (Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White), quoted in a feature in Thresholds:

I’ve largely withdrawn from my career as a public person. I say no to almost all offers, don’t go to book festivals any more, etc. … I’ve resolved to avoid [these events], because you meet lots of people in the literary ‘industry’ and you smell their hunger for success or attention or status, and I hate to be reminded of all that.

 

Larger-than-life

I just read in the LRB an enjoyable review by James Wolcott of the selected letters of William Styron.

Sometimes, when I read pieces like this, which express strong opinions, I find myself getting carried along. Am I agreeing with what’s being said too easily, am I being too fickle, is there another view I’m ignoring? Or perhaps that doesn’t matter? What’s more to the point is the energy and the colour in the writing. We don’t have to agree/disagree with everything that’s put in front of us, and either way we can still enjoy the force in the writing.

Among various choice details in this review, one note that particularly resonated with me is a comment about a lost literary culture of ‘larger-than-life’ set against ‘the small-time pantomime we have today’.

Knock each other as they may in print, old-pro novelists harbour a crusty collegiality borne of the awareness of the attrition involved in pushing that cannon up the hill, enduring false starts, racking fatigue, spent livers, sunken eyeballs, crises of faith, year-round seasonal affective disorder and carpal tunnel syndrome, only to stagger into publication day and have Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times nail them in the neck with a poison blowdart.

I guess that larger-than-life had its own trappings, and we have to see through the veneer of glamour and celebrity in that literary mondo (I’m sure some of these figures would be frantically checking their Amazon rankings today). We can get too easily nostalgic. But it does bring to mind Norma Desmond: ‘It’s the books that got small!’ Good writing needs personality, and personality is probably helped by having some personalities write it in the first place. I can think of a few at work today, but perhaps not enough (and probably more poets than novelists).

I do remember reading Sophie’s Choice, too, and it being one of those first grown-up books to leave a strong impression on me. Styron does have a rich prose style, and perhaps for too long I carried with me the sense that grown-up writing needed to be so … flamboyant. Which it can, of course – if you can do it. And he could, and he told great stories, and filled them with characters we cared about.

Wolcott’s review is certainly worth a read, and I’m also going to have to remember to pop in on his blog every now and then. And I ought to get those letters, too.