Every writer brings a perspective to his or her creative work, but there’s a difference between bringing a perspective to storytelling and using storytelling as a means to impose the author’s views on the reader.
With thousands of radio and television shows and an unfettered Internet, the commercial and cultural pressure on authors to conform to the spirit of the age, when that spirit promotes outrageous innovations masquerading as progressive thinking and imposes pressure on reviewers to critique stories through ideological lenses, pure storytelling is harder to find.
Writers are often seduced by cultural genies to make characters into sock puppets and plot lines into bullhorns that parrot “smart” thinking or ridicule “regressive” perspectives and values, while in the case of reviewers stories are often judged by the degree to which they align with progressive thinking.
Identity politics and relativism have poisoned the waters for storytelling by trumpeting how this character, theme, or perspective, is bigoted, racist, homophobic, or sexist, and doing this vociferously and repeatedly until the story is soiled in the public arena. At the other extreme, an ideologically slanted story is praised because it adheres to all the progressive norms. Thus, storytelling becomes a hostage of ideology, as happened in the Soviet Union with the persecution of writers like Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The decapitation of stories by ideological opponents and their sycophantic promotion by ideological allies is making discernment of worthy stories more difficult.
I’m not alone in this viewpoint. In response to a question posed by The Wall Street Journal’s Alexandra Wolfe concerning “scholars who promote reading texts from the point of view of feminism, Marxism and other ideologies, and who advocate expanding the canon to be multicultural”, the renowned literary and Shakespeare scholar, Harold Bloom said, “To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.” At eighty-six years old, he goes on to say, “We lost the war. All I can do now is a kind of guerilla action…”
Good stories are worth the time and effort it takes to identify and read, as good stories reveal truth in ways that history, science, commentary, logical analysis, exhortation, and devotional writing can’t. Many, including believers, don’t accept this, but how can we doubt that the human mind is affected by stories?
The temptation in these times is to opt for safe, comfortable, emotive stories, but this is to miss The Moviegoer, Wise Blood, Doctor Zhivago, The Heart of The Matter, Stoner, The Book of The New Sun, and The Death of Ivan Ilitch, stories that stretch and strain us, and prompt us to probe our beliefs in Job-like, Jonah-like, and David-like ways. Just imagine how stretched Jesus’ listeners were to hear the stories of the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan, and how these stories challenged their perspectives, and still challenge our own perspectives?
Clergy and laity were skeptical of Graham Greene in his day. Not Catholic enough. Characters did and said what in his stories? But Greene’s stories were read by millions of non-Catholics and non-Christians, and where today in the mainstream market would you find an ending like Greene’s raw and troubling The Quiet American, where his atheistic journalist, a man who embodied the “sophisticated” spirit of the age, and who caused the death of another man (Pyle) says, “I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental…Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.” Greene shining a spotlight on something big without coercing the reader to share the author’s perspective, even as that perspective affects where the story goes.
Worthy stories needn’t be unremittingly dark or gritty. Charles Dickens and Jane Austen tackled serious themes, while also depicting humorous, joy-filled, hopeful characters and events, as did Patrick O’Brian, Walker Percy, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Richard Adams.
Many worthy stories, especially older stories, require patience. The first twenty, or even fifty, pages, don’t necessarily reel you in, though the story in total is worthwhile and fulfilling. Older stories require more attention due to difficult (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo), elevated (Dickens, Austen), even obscure (Shakespeare, Dante) language, and lengthy side stories.
Can it be denied the authors of such celebrated stories as 1984, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451 were writing with an ideologically heavy hand? Allegorical stories like these, when well done, depict a world or society absent something essential, typically, human dignity and the freedom to make choices that have cosmic consequences. You might say the nail these authors are driving warrants a hammer, and the best stories in this genre masterfully depict what such dystopian societies looks like rather than telling us what to think about them.
There isn’t a bright line between honest storytelling and ideologically driven stories, or between meaningful stories and pure entertainment. Rather, a spectrum where stories at the extremes can be readily identified, while those near the middle of the spectrum are harder to categorize.
Prompting readers to think, ponder, plumb their perspectives and the perspectives in the world at large, rather than telling them what to think; to observe beauty, truth, the good, or a deficit of these things in the context of a story where such things matter. Good stories are worth the time and effort to find and read.