A few weeks ago, I was teaching a writing workshop on structuring the novel, and in my discussion of characterization, I talked about a character’s self concept. Self-concept, I explained, is how someone defines himself: “I’m a mother,” “I’m a man of action,” “I’m a romantic.” I explained that people make choices based on that self-concept, including where they live, the things they surround themselves with, and the friends they have.
As the workshop wound to a close, we got to discussing commercial vs. literary fiction, and where “beautiful” writing falls into the mix. “How much does it matter?” they asked. “What’s more important? The story or the words?”
I said: “Well, I’m a storyteller.”
It was an interesting moment where my own self-concept was exposed a bit more nakedly than I like. But the truth is that my self-concept has been years in the making, and more recently re-honed by the release of the movies adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I read those books when I was a tender thirteen—over and over again. But I hadn’t read them since. When the first of the movies came out, I decided it was time to revisit the books. When I re-read them, I was struck by the intensity of the story. While Tolkien’s words are expertly spun, it is the story that matters. The Lord of the Rings changed the way I thought when I was thirteen, and as an adult, I saw new things in it. Once again, it changed my vision of the world.
I found myself thinking of the books that had mattered to me over the years, the others I can’t forget. Katherine, The Crystal Cave, Penmarric and Gone with the Wind. The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Little White Horse and The Child of the Sea. More recently, The Vintner’s Luck, and The Sweet Far Thing. While these books all have great writing—and often it’s beautiful too—it’s not the words I remember. It’s the stories they tell.
In the world today, there is a certain condescension toward pure storytelling and genre fiction. This is nothing new. That condescension has been around since Gutenberg invented his printing press. Dickens, Shakespeare, Byron … none of them were the “good for you” writers. They were guilty pleasures. They are also the ones we remember now. A few years ago, Stephen King’s National Book award brought the whole argument to the fore again. What is important when it comes to literature? The stories or the words?
I admit that I have struggled with that question myself, having cut my teeth on genre fiction. But re-reading The Lord of the Rings made me realize that telling a good story was what was really mattered to me—and more importantly, that this is okay.
In 2009, Brian McDonald (a screenwriter who writes the blog Invisible Ink) gave the keynote speech at Edmonds Write on the Sound. He said that stories evolved as a mechanism for survival—we learn from what happens to other people, and therefore learn how to survive the many dangers in the world.
Which sort of puts things in perspective. Let the critics of the world argue about what’s worthy of being read and remembered—I’ll settle for being a storyteller, thank you very much.
Megan Chance is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of several novels. The Best Reviews has said she writes “Fascinating historical fiction.” Her books have been chosen for the Borders Original Voices program and IndiBound’s Booksense. A former television news photographer with a BA from Western Washington University, Megan Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. Find her at: http://www.MeganChance.com.