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

 

Steering The Craft, By Ursula Le Guin

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There are many books with elaborate theories of narrative structure, or top ten ways to create memorable settings/living characters/powerful dialogue. But many easily overegg, or go off at tangents, or create second-order systems that take over and stop the real writing coming through. At the root of all writing is, um, writing, and the basics of writing lie at the core of Steering the Craft.

Ursula Le Guin is of course the author of dearly beloved and ground-breaking novels such as The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Wizard Of Earthsea. She’s also a very generous critic, who reviews for the Guardian, among other publications. Look at her recent review of The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, for example. Read any of her reviews, in fact: warm, joyful, encouraging of both readers and writers. No snark. This is what reviewing should be. What a dream. Also take a look at this Paris Review interview.

No wonder Ursula Le Guin just received a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. (Note that fellow recipients include those two other writers in the trenches of genre who’re also the writers of what I consider two of the most useful other works on writing: Ray Bradbury, author of Zen In The Art Of Writing, and Stephen King, author of On Writing. When it comes to writing on writing, genre writers rock.)

Back to St Ursula. All of her creative and storytelling brilliance aside, Steering The Craft is her most useful work for writers of fiction (and nonfiction) looking for practical advice as well as inspiration. It’s a short book, and deceptively simple in what it has to say. Everything it contains is pure gold.

Perhaps it’s easiest simply to give the self-explanatory titles of the ten chapters:

* The Sound of Your Writing
* Punctuation
* Sentence Length and Complex Syntax
* Repetition
* Adjective and adverb
* Subject Pronoun and Verb
* Point of View and Voice
* Changing Point of View
* Indirect Narration, or What Tells
* Crowding and Leaping

Additional sections cover verb forms (in case we need to brush up), provide a glossary of working literary terms, and offer tips on running a writing group (very handy). And its subtitle is Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew.

Such delights! It’s full of many bon mots. Here are just a few choice points.

* Unlike many other guides for writing fiction, St Ursula devotes space to grammar and usage, as you might gather from the list above. But rather than dwelling on technicalities, she gives commonsense principles to work by, interrogating the idea of ‘correctness’, yet still caring about commas – but in the most enabling and graceful of ways:

If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on a whole kit of the most essential, beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.

Who could resist that?!

* Writers get bored of apparent experts telling us to ditch the adverbs and adjectives, but at the start of the chapter devoted to them St Ursula gets the point across directly and easily (see, I use them too!):

Adjectives and adverbs are rich and good and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge.

She continues:

The bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.

Point made?

* Her chapters on point of view include incredibly practical working definitions, e.g.: observer-narrator in first person; observer-narrator in third person; the detached author; and a term she prefers to omniscient narrator – the involved author:

This is the voice of the storyteller, who knows what’s going on in all the different places the characters are at the same time, and what’s going on inside the characters, and what has happened, and what has to happen … It’s not only the oldest and the most widely used storytelling voice, it’s the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view – and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.

Once upon a time …

* Her thoughts on the idea that stories are driven by conflict are extremely important for all writers to think about:

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.

So: how are your characters relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing?

You can sample more of her discussion of story on her own site. Pure gold.

In practice, in much of the work I do as a book doctor or an editor I find that I can make a very quick judgement about the writing on the basis of sampling the voice in a page or two, and I probably have more time or inclination (and patience) than busy agents or editors. Writers who want to be published: you need to get this stuff right. Some of this is about right or wrong, but some of it is about more subtle stuff that has no easy solution. The counsel of St Ursula might just help you get there, though. This is not only a fantastic book for apprentice writers looking for resources as they are getting started, but also an excellent guide for more experienced writers; its clarity cuts through some of the clutter and contradictions in a very level manner, and it will also provide an epiphany or two along the way. It’s a book to read and reread whenever you need clarification and affirmations.

Okay, so book reviews should be useful, but this one isn’t in one very important way. This book was first published at the end of the last century by a small press in the US, and it does not have a UK publisher. I think I picked it up in the Boulder Book Store’s excellent writing section some ten years ago (because I love St Ursula, nay I worship St Ursula – I holiday in Ursuline convents, in fact). I’ve been recommending it for years, and British writers could order it online. But now I see that it’s trading for, like, £33.18 used and £72.33 new! And I can’t see an ebook. Perhaps readers overseas could order a print copy direct from the US? Though I see it’s hardly cheap there … (Update, March 2015: I since discovered a new edition is coming later this. Very exciting – maybe even more exciting than the new Harper Lee?!)

I think we need to ensure this book is brought into print in an edition that is available internationally. I shall badger publisher friends working at suitable imprints, and I shall ask friends in Portland if they ever run into her in the legendary Powell’s. And maybe I shall email St Ursula and her representatives with a copy of this post, and ask what can be done?

Really, this is one of the best of books on writing, and probably my favourite. It tops my list because of its writer’s voice: reassuring, wise, good-humoured. It makes you want to be in this writer’s presence, but on reflection, in fact, it succeeds in bringing you into her presence. That is something any writer or reader wants to achieve.

Thank you, Ursula Le Guin.

* Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)

Update: This edition seems to be out of print, but a new edition with a new subtitle appears to be coming from Mariner Books on 1 September 2015: Steering the Craft : A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.

Truth is a matter of the imagination

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From the Archives of Hain. Transcript of Ansible Document 01-01101-934-2-Gethen: To the Stabile on Ollul: Report from Genly Ai, First Mobile on Gethen/Winter, Hainish Cycle 93 Ekumenical Year 1490-97

I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.

The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story …

– Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula Le Guin: On Adjectives And Adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs are good and rich and fattening. The main thing is not to overindulge … I would recommend to all storytellers a watchful attitude and a thoughtful, careful choice of adjectives and adverbs, because the bakery shop of English is rich beyond belief, and narrative prose, particularly if it’s going a long distance, needs more muscle than fat.

– Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft