Recently I reread a favorite essay, Ursula LeGuin’s The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction. I have a copy of it in a compilation of essays by women science fiction writers, Women of Vision (1988, St. Martin’s Press, edited by Denise Dupont). In it, LeGuin argues that too many story writers labor under the impression that the story has one kind of “right” structure – a very male structure that resembles a spear. It’s the story of the Hero, his hunt, his quest, his adventure, and it zooms forward from conflict to climax and then it’s over. That story, and the human being it puts at its center, the male conqueror, for a long time made her feel like a very peripheral part of the human race, as she puts it, “extremely defective as a human being or not human at all.” Stories, after all, create the norm, and if we see ourselves as comfortable in the dominant story, we’re normal, and if we don’t, we’re not. Thinking about this, she proposed a different kind of story, in which story structure becomes, not a spear, but a carrier-bag, a basket where ideas and relationships and events get stored, and brought home, and searched for meaning:
A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.
A novel, then, can have conflict, but it will have it along with plenty of other things, including, she notes, harmony.
From the moment I read it, years ago, this essay struck me as a brilliant reimagining of not only story structure, but our cultural story as well. I’m a big fan of both kinds of stories – both the spear structure (who doesn’t like a good adventure?) and the carrier-bag structure. My favorite kinds of writing merge the two, because I like to see something happen in a book, some obstacle overcome, but I’m not a huge fan of the traditional hero, too uncomplicated, too single-focus to be real. I like thoughtful characters, who think their way through life. The best people I know do that in reality, why shouldn’t books mirror that kind of person? Action stars don’t much interest me, I’m always second guessing them in my head (would they really do that and not be considered psychotic in real life?) or wondering about their families, the people left at home. Or thinking, after the spectacular explosion that ends everything, about the people who were just walking by and got caught up in it, and what happened to their husband or wife, waiting at home for them to joke over supper, or take a walk in the park? And what happened to them all, not just tomorrow, when the medals get passed out, but ten years from now, when other things have claimed people’s attention. What’s life like, in other words, beyond the moment we see? Maybe this is why LeGuin’s essay resonated with me so, and still does.