Monday, January 12, 2015

The Seduction of Story

Photo by partsofmybody
What is it about a story that seduces us? What is the je ne sais quoi that keeps us up past our bedtimes reading late into the night?

What makes us turn the page?
What makes us want to be with any particular story, novel, or movie?

As a literary critic/scholar and author both, these are questions that I seek to answer on a daily basis. Definite, hard reasons are hard to come by. Story is as elusive as it is concrete.

I have begun my spring semester reading assignments early. I read The Gates Ajar by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and I thought, "This novel can not end soon enough." Yet, during the book's time of publication (shortly after the Civil War), Phelps was a bestselling author. The story of a woman whose brother died, and then her aunt resonated with thousands of people across the nation. People were looking for a connection to the afterlife and Phelps gave them a reasonable answer.

I was glad the novel can be crossed off my list, so to speak, and I moved on to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, and this story is so much different than Phelps. The novel is only about 230 pages, and it should be something I could chomp off in an afternoon pretty easily, yet I cannot. I'm two weeks in and still reading. I cannot bare the content, so tragic and awful. I could not imagine that life on my own, and I want to know more about Linda. I want to know what happens to her. If she survives. If her children survive. But, the story is so tragic, I can only handle small doses.

This, I believe, is the key: I can imagine Linda's life because Jacobs experienced that life first-hand and wrote about it, and shared, and I am now a part of this woman's life who died in 1897.
The other day, I read the following tweet from Sarah-Jan Murray:
If you’re interested (and you should be), I’ve posted her TEDxSanAntonio talk at the end of this post. Murray makes an amazing point in her succinct tweet. Stories allow us inside worlds we would normally not ever have access to. Reading old manuscripts—the original brick and mortar books and folios places us in communion with readers—people—across the ages. We are able to relate in a human way. Like a physical touch of the skin. 

Story is intimate, like the breathy whisper of a lover in our ear. 

That connection is ingrained, hardwired into our heads, says Murray, and I agree with her.

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