The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

Susan DeFfictionLeave a Comment

I recently finished Life Is Everywhere, a novel by Lucy Ives. Though to call it a novel is a bit of a stretch: it’s really more of a frame story with some stories-within-stories stuffed in the middle, the conceit being that these are the texts the protagonist just happens to have in her bag when she winds up unexpectedly spending the night at her university library.

Ives quotes one of my heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin as an inspiration, in part, for this anti-structure story structure. Specifically, she quotes Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

I too am a fan of this essay of Le Guin’s, which I discussed with David Naimon and Kyle Winkler of the podcast known as The Left Hand of Le Guin.

In this conversation, the host suggested something to the extent of, “Why are so many stories told in this this same old boring hero-structure way when we could all just write in this more experimental, interesting way that Le Guin has posed in this essay?”

I didn’t have the time or space to respond to that sentiment on the part of the podcast’s host during our time together, but it sort of stuck in my craw in the days following.

Because personally, I don’t think Le Guin’s essay is really telling us what story could be. I think it’s telling us what story actually is.

Not a spear, rock, or projectile of any type hurled at any target, moving or otherwise, and the story of how that target either came down or didn’t (that’s the “story as mammoth hunt” sort of thing the essay pokes fun at). Which is to say, not Freytag’s Pyramid.

But rather, story is a container, a bag, you could say—which many authorities believe to be the most essential early technology developed by human beings.

A bag for gathering. A bag that brings together disparate things into a new relationship with one another.

To my mind, that’s not an anti-structure—something opposed to The Hero’s Journey and all that. But rather, it’s a bigger tent, one in which The Hero’s Journey fits under. (Or, you could say, a bigger bag that it fits within.)

In reading Ives’s novel, I was struck by how frustrated I became at points, not to have the sturdy scaffolding of a more familiar story structure. But you could say that Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is written in much the same way (it can be read as a collection of anthropological documents more accurately than a novel), and that book didn’t frustrate me at all.

I think the thing I faced with Ives’s book is that I didn’t care about a few of the texts-within-texts—but, having decided to care about the protagonist of the frame story, I had to slog through these parts in order to find out what happened to her.

Nonetheless, in the end, I find I’m glad to have been jostled out of my narrative complacency, and reminded that story is indeed a much bigger and capacious thing than it often appears to be.

And in the end, I find, I’m under the spell not so much of the story (the frame or otherwise) but by the things the container of this story brings together–in particular, male violence in instances both overt and understated, which actually helped me to feel, in a visceral way, the truth of our conditions under patriarchy.

Also: Cross-dressing/genderbending in turn-of-the-century France, where one of the stories-within-stories is set. The petty fiefdoms of academia. And the complicated history of botulism (yes) from blood sausage poisoning in the age of Louis Pasteur to its current place on the immobile faces of those committed to perpetual youth.

Whether you’re writing in a traditional story structure or an “experimental” one, my hope is that you remember what Life Is Everywhere reminded me of: That beyond the shape of your container (your story), it really matters what you put into it, and the relationship those things have with each other.

Which is to say: What do you love? What perplexes and maddens you? What are you strangely fascinated by?

We owe it to ourselves, I think, to embrace the full potentials of fiction as a tool of inquiry and investigation. Because what we find when we approach it this way might just show us something new.

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