Monday 3 March 2014

Ten reasons people read stories

"There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."

Ursula Le Guin’s famous observation hints at the fundamental importance of story and storytellers. But how has narrative come to have a central role in every culture?

Ursula Le Guin - photo by Eileen Gunn
Ursula Le Guin - photo by Eileen Gunn
Some years ago I decided to try to find an answer. I started asking people why they chose to spend time with stories. In book clubs, film clubs and writing workshops - whenever I had a group of people together, I asked what stories meant to them.

My investigation is a work in progress. But having already canvassed thousands of people, I can share ten reasons that people put forward to explain their love and need for story. We start with the most common responses and work down to rarer but deeply insightful answers at the bottom of the list

1.      Escape from the daily grind. Escapism is always the first answer to be called out. On hearing it, others in the audience will nod. “Yes, I also read to escape.” It is the desire to be taken away from the difficulties of our lives and to be transported somewhere else.

2.      To learn. This is another common answer, usually offered by an older member of the group. “I like to learn about people who’ve lived in different times and places.”
3.      A favourite character. Many people admit to enjoying the company of characters from stories. Harry Potter perhaps. Or maybe the character they fall in love with is the distinctive voice of the author. Either way, once the story is finished they find themselves missing their friend. The hunt for a sequel begins.

4.      Escape from self. This is slightly different from the first form of escapism. It is not tasks or surroundings that are being fled, but internal conflict or sadness. “I read novels so that I can disappear.”

5.      To understand ourselves. Some people choose to engage with fiction concerning life events that they have experienced in reality. Reading about the struggles of a fictional character who is dealing with bereavement, for example, may shed light on our own real experiences of the same thing.

6.      To find means of expression. We value our story makes for their insight and ability to express subtle realities. We may agree or disagree with Tolstoy when he says “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But either way, he has given us the words to express an idea.

7.      To see the world differently. When storytellers show us the world, they are lending us their eyes. Once we have seen through those eyes, the world may never look quite the same to us. This is one of the distinctive qualities of real art - that it changes the way we see things.

8.      Vicarious pleasure. When we identify with the characters in a story, we start to feel what we imagine they are experiencing. If they are excited or triumphant, we feel the same. If they gain power or pleasure we get a share of it.

9.      Vicarious trials. Identification with fictional characters also gives us a share of their fear, pain and loss. It may seem strange that people would voluntarily look for those experiences. But our real life fears are soothed by going through the ritual of facing trials in fiction. Each time Red Riding Hood is not devoured by the wolf, we have defeated death once more.

10.  To heal. Fictional characters seem to be a series of different people, quite separate from us. One of them may be angry, another kind, another lustful, another sad. These are things that we will have felt at different times in our lives. Therefore all these aspects subsist within us. When fictional characters talk, argue, fall in love or come to blows, it can be as though our own different aspects are interacting. And when the story finds resolution, so may we. Some people believe that fiction can work in this way to promote healing.  
Like I said above, this investigation is a work in progress. If you can think of a reason for loving stories that I have not mentioned here, please let me know. And if you have any comments, I'd love to hear your views.

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