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Volume 8, Issue 4: Poetics


Douglas Jones

Surely almost every parent has seen the wonderful paralysis of story-grip--that unique moment during the reading of a good story when normal, squiggly children lose all bodily movement, banish all other realities, and lock their consciousnesses in pit bull fashion upon the story. For those amazed by the power of stories, that is the prize moment. That is the moment when you glimpse a corner of the human soul. I seek my fix every night.

Yes, children are easy victims for story-grip, but adults are hardly immune, as calloused as some appear. The problem is that adults are rarely on the receiving end of stories, but watch for it some time during a good fiction reading, and you will see and feel grown people locked in a still life, souls intertwined in story-grip. It's quite amazing. The reader, author, and room all vanish.
But what is it in a good story that grips us so relentlessly? I know there is deep mystery here, having to do with God designing us to embrace stories. We shall probably never know the depths of it, but we can all try to scratch around a bit on the surface.
Aristotle made some moves in this direction in regard to tragedy, at least. In his Poetics, he gave us his famous definition of tragedy, part of which suggests that the tragic plot--the sequence of events from happiness to misery--produces pity and fear, which serve to either (interpreters differ) remove or purify harmful emotions. If we were to use this in seeking the power of story-grip, we would say something like we take pleasure in good tragic stories because we have a natural inclination to be purged, and stories satisfy that need. But this answer doesn't seem to do the job. It appears to give too much consciousness to biological inclinations, and it involves that annoyingly misguided Greek metaphysical concern to want everything in the universe to balance so neatly, including bodily humors. Even more, Christians understand much better than Aristotle and Freud that dark need the unregenerate have for simultaneous atonement and self-deception. Purging bad emotions is a much more convoluted affair than Aristotle allows, and at the same time the explanation of story-grip should be simpler, simple enough to explain the grip of children. Purging is both too shallow and too complex for story-grip.
C.S. Lewis lamented "how little attention critics have paid to Story considered in itself."1 His own answer to the question of story-grip or why stories please us involves awe, unexpectedness, otherness, magic, spirit, and "abiding strangeness." For Lewis, a story grips us because we are interested in the eternal or awesome element that becomes instanced in a segment of sequences, plot: "The story does what no theorem can quite do. It may not be like `real life' in the superficial sense, but it sets before us an image of what reality may well be like at some more central region."2 But for Lewis it's not just any eternal theme in a plot that draws our attention; it has to be an almost mysterious, surprising, "quality of unexpectedness" that makes a good story. Part of this he must draw from our millennial attraction to mysteriousness pervasive in our mythologies. The magical elements of his Narnia series and science fiction trilogy also highlight this emphasis.
Lewis is certainly correct that stories with elements of "abiding strangeness" do grab the interests of most of us, but story-grip also occurs in some of the most mundane, day-to-day stories. Eternal themes captured in stories don't always have to involve a supernatural mysteriousness. Children seem to share an equal fascination with magical and mundane plots, witness the unbelievable grip of the Little House and the American Girls stories.
And the draw of all the various sorts of stories, magical and mundane, can't be explained as our interest in simple problem solving. Every good story does involve sympathetic, interesting characters facing some form of problem, either with self, others, nature, or God. But mere problem solving would get tiring after a while. Story-grip certainly includes that, but something more too.
It appears that the reason we can be gripped by all sorts of stories is going to be fairly simple (though ultimately mysterious) so that children and adults can share it. A deeply human trait that comes close to taking account of all of these features is the constant interest most humans find in other humans. Gossip is a negative proof of this. We can't grasp the world all by ourselves, and others' experiences fill in our gaps in colorful ways.
This very basic interest in others is often educational, especially as it appears in children. Children play and imitate others as a way of filling in their experience. Stories are one way of satisfying the child's big-eyed wonder at the new world he is trying to inhabit. We've all seen how children wonder at the most basic of things. To me changing a flat bicycle tire was rather pale, but to my young children who had never learned the magic of tires, it was an enchanting revelation, a story-grip.
Throughout the ages, human nature and relationships have remained surprisingly constant. Most of us share the same human tensions across geography and time (read the familial problems in the ancient or middle ages as proof of this constancy). Our interest is easily engaged in seeing how others travel that path of life. That same human nature will surface whether the story setting is fanciful, comedic, or tragic.
The love for stories is sometimes portrayed as a self-centered, individualistic concern. But if story-grip stems primarily from an interest in other lives, then those who love stories will be the least egocentric. They know that there are too many other human paths that are equally or more interesting. Perhaps, then, a distaste for fiction is a sign of self-centeredness.

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