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