Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Tale Tellers: Fiction and Identity

The Tale-Tellers / Nancy Huston
Toronto: McArthur & Co., c2008.
177 p.

Another book in my study of fiction and how it works on us, The Tale-Tellers is by an author I really admire, Nancy Huston. I love her essay collections, they are great reading -- this book however, is a "collection of aphorisms", as it says in the back cover blurbs.

It is divided up into chapters, themes really, and the text is a series of paragraphs, sentences, thoughts, related to that theme. Yet every word is carefully chosen and it creates an effect of thoughtfulness, or of sayings which you can read and then have the space to think about before taking in the next one. This lends itself to quotable bits, of which I found numerous examples while reading, but just marked them and didn't stop to reread them until I'd finished the entire book. It was fascinating reading.

Huston's premise is that humanity is a species of tale-tellers; our lives are all story. We create stories to explain our individual lives and figure out our greater identity - my story, for example, would be that I am a Caucasian, middle-class Westerner, identified with my ethnic background (Ukrainian) as well as my educational and professional level, a part of the library world, a book lover, and so on. But all of this is a story: we can change our lives if we change our stories, if we are able to get outside of our own story to see its narrativity as opposed to its being a fixed reality. This is one of the key elements of bibliotherapy, that to use literature therapeutically we must see that our own lives are stories, and that we are affecting our present circumstances through the way we are 'writing' our own story. Huston states,
...characters in novels, like characters in religious stories but in far more complex ways, give us models and anti-models for behaviour. They afford us precious distance from the people around us, and (even more importantly) from ourselves. They help us see that our lives are fictions, and that, therefore, we have the power to act upon them and change their course.
But this does not only apply to the individual, it is also the way societies and cultures create their national characteristics. The ability to see how one's own society is constructed is made easier when you've seen other societies' realities as well; it is easier to see that a belief from a strange culture is 'just superstition' than it is to see the same about one's own. Seeing your own culture from the eyes of another can also assist in identifying the storied nature of all societies. This is another reason it is important to read international fiction. As Huston says,

Reading novels -- and, through them, learning to identify with the characters of another time, social milieu, or culture -- gives us distance from our own, received identities. This can help us to decipher other cultures, and gradually learn to identify with the people who belong to them.

A country's voluntary fictions (stories) provide better access to its reality than its involuntary fictions (History).
Huston also draws out the importance of reading fiction in developing an ethical view of life. Ethical living is closely tied to empathy for other human beings, in this case, and the novel is a vital way in which to develop such empathy. It is a strange fact that by being alone and reading, we can develop the habit of empathy. I'll leave the final word on this topic to Huston, as she points out the intrinsic value of the novel in an ethical and personal sense.

Only the novel combines the two crucial factors of narration and solitude. It espouses the narrativity of every human existence, but -- for author and reader alike -- requires silence and solitude, and allows interruption, meditation, rereading.

Narrative empathy is the basis for equality and exchange... Alone of all the arts, literature allows us to explore other people's inner existence.

That is its sovereign privilege, and its value. Inestimable. Irreplaceable


  1. Another one for my list! This sounds fascinating, especially the piece on learning ethical living through reading.

  2. I didn't know Nancy Huston is an essayist. This book sounds really interesting. It sounds like a really meditation on stories and what they mean. I like the argument about reading novels vs. reading history.

  3. softdrink - yes, it is a fascinating read. You can see the influence of all her yrs of academic study, but it is not 'academic' in tone -- it is easily read but simultaneously challenging.

    Dorothy - I like the way she sees stories and the formation of identity as the creation of stories - she argues that nonreaders will see their lives simplistically and be more susceptible to manipulation than readers, who may have a more habitual ability to see through 'stories'. And a good collection of her essays is called Losing North.

  4. This sounds right up my alley, I am absolutely checking this out. Thanks Melanie!

  5. This sounds really good. I love books like this. Onto my TBR list it goes. I'll save it for when I am in a contemplative mood.

  6. I have never heard of this author before. I will have to look it up. :)


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