On Good Stories

(note: slightly revised version of a post first published on my Livejournal, see here for the original)

I’ve been trying to articulate something that’s been bugging me for a while. I’m not sure I’ve actually come close to something coherent, but here are my thoughts over the subject.

I don’t believe in good stories.

I believe in stories that are well-written in terms of craft, that form a coherent whole.

I also believe in stories that resonate with me.

What I don’t believe in is the fact that there is an absolute scale of “good” and “bad”, and that you can grade stories on it. Certain stories resonate with a majority of (Western) people, and somehow we seem to leap from that straight into their “greatness”. Even the Awards are just that–a “majority” vote which is only that of a tiny fraction of the total population of the world at this point in time.

Tastes vary–within a given population, but also from population to population, and from era to era.

Watch a couple of Chinese movies (among those who’ve made it into the Western world: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Notice something? Well, there are constants: there are no happy endings for lovers. Couples don’t live happily ever after. There are no happy endings for plucky heroes who save the world by defying the established order: those must die, even if they do set in motion the reforms they wanted.

Hum. This doesn’t really sound like the stuff bestsellers in the US are made from, right? Can you imagine Star Wars being such a hit, if it had ended with Luke Skywalker being executed by the Empire, and Han and Leia committing joint suicide? And yet, the Chinese enjoy those movies (House of Flying Daggers was the highest grossing movie in China for 2004). For the Chinese, this is a good story. They just have different cultural mores than we do: it’s deeply ingrained in Chinese tradition that love is dangerous, and that it barely has any place in a marriage. Hence the lovers who never make it to the end of the movie–they’re too much of a challenge to the natural order of things (similar things for the rebels, although there have been many successful rebellions in China).

Read a couple of books from the 19th Century, such as Les Misérables. It does start promisingly enough, doesn’t it, with the interesting character of M. Myriel–but M. Myriel isn’t even the main character of the book: that is Jean Valjean, who will not appear on-stage for another fourteen chapters. Admittedly, Les Misérables is a fat book, but even then… And let’s not even mention chapters such as “Billows and Shadows”, which are basically pages of philosophical ruminations from the author. Is Les Misérables a good book? The actual plot of it, if you compress it to its bare essentials, still resonates–after all, it’s still one of Hugo’s most widely-read books. But would it be called a good story? No. Most modern readers (not to mention editors) would rather get the summarised version that have to slog through all the asides. And I don’t think I’m being disingenuous by saying it wouldn’t get published today.

Cultures change. Between Hugo’s time and us is the invention of more distractions–TV, computers, Internet–which all jostle for our attention. Stories nowadays have to be snappy; they have to hook fast, and deliver a strong punch at the ending after a narration sufficiently fast-paced that the reader is never bored.

This isn’t maths. The lithmus test of a story is whether it resonates with the person that buys it, and then with the person that reads it. Think of books you’ve hated and that everyone else had seemed to like. Now take that to the next level–and think of all those French movies that just don’t seem to make sense to you, whereas they were huge hits in France.

One thing that seems to come up, pretty frequently, is that stories have to be “good”, and that this, in itself, is enough to guarantee diversity. People don’t have to read blind or to check their biases–and above all, the story has to speak for itself: editors and readers don’t have to be particularly on the lookout for diversity, ie stories from female or non-Western writers have to be “good”, and they will be published.

See, the problem I see with that is that you’re in effect perpetuating a bias. Assuming equal quality of writing, a story about a Hindu woman in New Delhi who worries about whether she’ll get an arranged marriage for her baby daughter is necessarily going to resonate less with you than one that follows a poor American trying to find a job in a recessing economy. It’s human: we empathise more with the things that are closest to us, with the mores that are those of our community. Similarly, if you’re of a certain mindset, you’re going to find stories about a squad fighting aliens more interesting than stories about a man looking for his true self.

As I said above: not everyone is the same. Not everyone has the same tastes. Editors take the stories they like, and I don’t mind–if I don’t like what a particular editor publishes, I’m free to walk away without having bought the magazine or the book.

What I don’t like is the fallacy that stories are selected just because they were “good”. They aren’t. They are selected because they are good for those editors. And that, by necessity, includes a bias.

There’s much more diversity in SF today that there was thirty years ago. Yet, much of it still seems to remain the preserve of Europeans–and sometimes I do get the feeling that much of it is targeted specifically at Americans. I’m not American. Stories set in the Midwest or in New York do not speak to me more than stories set in the South African veld.

I know that publishing houses and magazines have to sell and that they have their audience, and that what they publish needs to resonate with their readers. But please, please, can we stop pretending that good stories are good stories no matter who writes them and what they are about?