Sunday, February 22, 2009

You Can't Exect Me to Believe That

likely story, a--a narrative or tale producing a cynical or questioning response from the listener; an intuitive or logical sense that a narrative is of questionable value; an ironic expression of disbelief to a scenario, thus a judgment of information not being plausible.

Whenever we see or hear the words, A likely story, set forth as a response to a narrative, we are coming face to face with audience reaction writ large.

Stories, tales, narratives, and yes, even accounts are all very much like notes in a bottle, set lose in some river or ocean by someone hopeful of a response from someone else. By its very nature, a story is a crafted plea for a response, the worst of which (for the writer) is complete indifference.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a protean and often pompous literary force, set in motion a concept quite relevant to the designation, A likely story. Coleridge introduced for our consideration the willing suspension of disbelief, which is to say a deliberate setting aside by the reader of a narrative that its characters, their motivations, and the resolution of these motivations are anything less than plausible. Willing suspension of disbelief is often challenged in the courtroom of the reader's sensitivity. I don't believe that character would do or say such a thing, comes the indictment. To which the author replies, But it really happened that way. To which the critic replies, Doesn't matter; it wasn't rendered in a way that convinced me.

The great divide, wider than the Continental Divide--what the writer of the tale observes, either from reality or imagination or a combination of the two, and what the reader believes.

Check some of the Internet sites relative to Urban Myth for a sampling of things readers believe, things often stranger and with more tenuous logic than events found in reality. (See the choking Doberman)

It comes down to plausibility. How plausible is it that the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, "The Minister's Black Veil," actually wore a facial covering? Only as plausible and believable as Hawthorne made it. We believe what we are led to believe, at which point the belief becomes what we want to believe. For some writers, it is second nature to bring politics into this equation, both as an explanation for what other people--notice the introduction of elitism there with the concept of other people, persons other than the writer, to which could also be added My Kind. Me and my kind--believe or can be induced to believe. The elitism continues to include my kind of truth and other people's, a not so subtle variation on the equation that the only real truths are those such as chemical and mathematical formula. Sorry, Jane Austen, but a truth universally acknowledged doesn't cut it; truths universally acknowledged often end up on urban myth websites.

Listening to a narrative--any narrative--then deeming it a likely story is a frontal attack on the narrative's intent of veracity. It is the equivalent of asking, Are you serious? Are you kidding? You expect me to believe that?

Saying or thinking A likely story! is taking a step toward cynical sanity, a form of questioning that may cause the questioner a great sense of isolation and loneliness, but in the end it causes the writer to examine his or her own unreliability as a narrator, to avoid the pitfall of making a holy grail of the abstract concept of truth, and recognizing the kinship of brother and sister pursuers of comfort with the written and spoken word.

After reading some work that strives for importance, say, internally, or externally, A likely story, then try it one more time, punctuated with an exclamation point. A likely story! Just thinking about it imparts a mischievous sense of freedom.

Some religious philosophies introduce the concept of a mantra, a series of mystically charged words to be repeated and contemplated until the individual begins to take on the very qualities embodied in the formula. Hindu mantras involve bija words, words crafted from Sanskrit that have no other purpose than to convey aspects of the ineffable. Our own secular mantra could very well be, A likely story, a lovely combination that will keep us on the writers' path of working at our craft and not taking anything, particularly ourselves, too seriously. It will also work wonders to keeping us out of the urban myth casualty lists.

shaggy-dog story, a--a long, meandering narrative, replete with irrelevant or distracting details, ending with an outrageous, groan-producing play on words--my homework ate the dog--or on a totally irrelevant note; a scenario in which the dramatic point resides in the unexpected, leading the reader or hearer--because shaggy-dog stories may be oral--in the lurch, at the mercy of the teller. Thus a story in which the hearer or reader becomes the butt.

One of the great glosses on the shaggy-dog story comes from one of the great written and oral story tellers, the man known as Mark Twain. Check out "The Grandfather's Ram" story in Twain's splendid, autobiographical tour of Nevada and California, Roughing It, one of at least four Twain must reads (the others including Life on the Mississippi, The Innocents Abroad, and Huckleberry Finn.

Ernest Hemingway said all of American literature began with Huck Finn; most of what one needs to know about story telling can be found in these five books.

In "The Grandfather's Ram," Twain writes of his days as a reporter for the Territorial-Enterprise,the free-wheeling Virginia City, Nevada newspaper for which Twain wrote during the early bonanza years of the Comstock Lode. A group of locals had sold Twain on the remarkable tale a certain old gent who loved to tipple was wont to tell of a ram once owned by his grandfather. Trouble was, the locals assured Twain, the teller of the tale had to have reached just the right, reflective state of tipsiness before he would begin to reminisce.

After a number of false starts, the boys assured Twain that the time was now; if he wanted to hear the story, he'd best drop everything and hurry on over to where the teller was holding forth, before a growing audience.

"My grandfather's ram," the old boy recalled with a smile at the memory. "I don't reckon them times will ever come again." And he is off, his brain cells, lubricated with spiritus fermenti, firmly focused. And Twain was hooked.

Trouble was, the old man never referred to the ram again, ranging from gossip in his home town to politics, religious preferences, and a remarkable story of a rug weaver who'd fallen into a machine-driven weaving machine and was woven into a six-ply broadloom carpet, making it necessary to bury him rolled up in long, narrow bundle. The story went on from there until the teller began to nod, then drop off to an early nap. Twain realized this was always the scenario, that the details of the grandfather's ram were largely unknowable, and that he'd been "had" by his friends.

This is not to propose that Twain invented the shaggy-dog story, but he expertly demonstrated it in all its living potential. By this time in his career, he already had an instinctive if not well articulated sense of story, which he later set down in another keeper, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," a critical diatribe against a writer who was the Tom Clancy of his day, embedded in a useful re-embodiment of Aristotle's Poetics.

Life is a shaggy-dog story, a series of often contradictory events or events competing for our attention, ending with some awful howler of a conclusion, or worse, ending with no proper conclusive inertia.

When we turn to memoir or biography or fiction, we look for travel writing--writing that takes us somewhere, a place where the laws of causality and determinism have greater effect than they do in real life. This is a place where justice is done, virtue is often rewarded, patience pays off, the good people get laid on occasion, and women are not reduced to having to marry just to get away from home (only to find themselves transported from one dreadful situation to another).

The message here is not that there is more satisfaction in literature than in everyday life but that the two can and should engage in a dialog, exchange notes, develop a rapport.

One good place to bring this metaphorical pairing of Israel and Palestine together is in the expectations we bring to our lives and to our reading.

All too often when discussing a particular story,we hear the disclaimer: That could never happen in real life. Just as often, when discussing the effect of a story and hearing an observation of disbelief about an element, the author will fiercely defend with the observation, "But it really happened that way." And increasingly, looking at the advertisements for films and TV shows, we see the inducement, "Based on a real story."

One of the Oscars--Wilde or Levant--once observed that in order for history to be effective, it must be rewritten. This observation sets the worm of cynicism into the apple of reality, leaving us with another potent observation. What is worse than finding a worm in an apple? Answer: Finding half a worm in half an apple.

Particularly since 2000 and the advent of the Bush administration (if it can be called an administrative function) we have lived in the midst of a shaggy-dog story, with distractions, myths, and ignorant armies clashing by night. We have found a half-eaten worm in our apple, a worm that should be held up to the light of inquiry

We must hasten to rewrite the more egregious histories we have allowed to befall us, using our understanding of story and the need to extract some sense of justice and then to transport ourselves to a kinder, more civil place.


Anonymous said...

Well, that likely story may make me lose sleep. But oh well...the less sleep, the more writing--for better or for worse or for shaggy dogs.

Lori Witzel said...



Querulous Squirrel said...

At this point, I think you now have an outline for an entire book on plausibility in the history of fiction from the beginning of time, interweaving within it all, that most endearing to us all, The Unreliable Narrator ( though in the Urban Myth, we are all reliable, just deluded). I love every single one of these types of tales you have mentions. I had completely forgotten the Shaggy Dog Story and can't think of a single one you've missed, though I am wracking my brain.

Hey! You did forget one! Delusions! As in Don Quixote! Gotta add that one. And the subtype of Paranoid Delusion. Of course these are psychiatric, but they do invade fiction, though I can't think of an example of the latter, can you?

You should list them in a final mix and match summary quiz with one sentence distinctions. Only you could do that.