Thursday, July 14, 2011

Friday Forum: Stories Best Untold?

As Dance with Dragons burns up the fiction bestseller list, a considerably more sobering title has been the talk of the non-fiction world this week: Jayce Duggard's A Stolen Life. From the little I know of her story, it is an unconscionable tale that strains the limits of what we understand as survivable. The early reviews of the book have been somber, almost reverent, and have remarked on Duggard's calm and restraint.

But I will never read this book. Not only am I quite squeamish by nature, but I am not sure that hearing this story is really, well, good for me. I'm not saying the truth shouldn't be told if we find it discomforting, only that the general outline is enough for me. People are fascinated by her story, and I can understand why. But it does lead me to wonder: at what point does a story become harmful? Should some stories not be told?

In the final chapter of Beloved, Toni Morrison includes the line "This is not a story to pass on," suggesting, quite paradoxically, that the harrowing story we have just read is not one we should have heard.

In Elisabeth Costello, J.M. Coetzee's titular character wonders about the limits of story-telling when she reads the memoir of particular villainous Nazi commandant. She is afraid that the evil of his being, revealed intimately in prose, can infect or damage her own humanity.

At what point does a story become dangerous? Would you listen to any story? Does it matter if it is factual? If we believe that stories can be good for us, doesn't it necessarily follow that some of them might well be bad for us?


26 comments:

  1. I understand what you mean by asking at what point a story becomes dangerous, though I do not think Ms. Duggard's falls into this category. I suppose if we believe stories have to ability to affect their readers and their lives, then we must acknowledge that these effects will not always be positive.  Some books have been bad for the world.  But the titles that come to mind are all very extreme examples:  Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf.    That these examples are so extreme leads me to believe that most stories, if they affect their readers at all do so in a positive manner.  That is my hope, at least.

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  2. Heck yeah, I think some stories can be bad for us, and I certainly won't listen to/read anything. Just because something is in written format doesn't mean I need it in my head. However, what I know is bad for me isn't necessarily bad for another person. The limits of what I want to expose myself to are my limits based on my personal convictions and knowledge of what I can handle. It's totally individual. 

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  3. Hi there, I really love you blog, and don't think I've ever been brave enough to comment befor :)

    I remember reading "Country of my Skull" as part of one of my South Africa literature courses - it horrified me, and crushed me. I had to stop reading to breathe at times, it made me so ashamed. I didn't talk about the book immediately after reading it, but needed time to process it. After having done so, I'll now recommend it to anyone interested in South African's history.

    Now, I don't think it's about "Country of my Skull" or "Stolen Life" specifically, but rather about the power that a story can hold as well as the learning that we can get from each story we read, if that makes any sense? We all have the right to choose what we do or don't read based on our needs. I needed to know certain things about my country, they weren't pleasant, but they were necessary and they taught me many things. With "Stolen Life" I'm sure there will be many lessons learned also. Also, I believe the telling of these stories very probably played a cathartic role in the lives of their authors.

    But I do agree that there are stories that we should be careful of (Mein Kampf), but I agree with jamesbchester - these don't come along all that often (that I'm aware of anyway), and when they do, hopefully those with sense will know that they don't have any valuable lessons to teach.

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  4. Maybe dangerous is the wrong word. How about "desensitizing"? Or "voyeuristic"? In terms of books that have had negative net effects, probably there aren't that many, but when they have bad effects, whoa boy do they. 

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  5. Hi!
    Hopping by from the Hop!

    Here's My IMM

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  6. I tend to agree with this, but I also don't really know if something's not for me until I've at least been partially exposed to it somehow. I also think there is a possibility that some works if taken completely out, would probably slightly tick up the general mental health. Like the SAW movies, for example. 

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  7. Thanks for commenting, no need to be brave to comment here. 

    I think historical stories must be told, no matter what, if only to enter them into the public record. But what lessons can be learned from Stolen Life? We know that terrible things happen to people and that people survive terrible things (and sometimes they don't). I'm honestly asking here, that's not a rhetorical question. 

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  8. I stopped by from the blog hop

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  9. Thanks for another thought-provoking Friday Forum question!  I've nattered through a rambling response on my own blog - but my short answer is: stories are powerful - and much of their power lies in what we bring to the telling and the hearing. No risk, no gain; caveat lector.

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  10. You're the Socrates of book blogging, Ape-friend. I so enjoy these provoking posts. To answer your question,  I think some stories are bad for me personally, based on what I want/need out of any given story. Still, I wouldn't wish those paperbacks burned and those ebooks deleted. My experience is limited, I wouldn't want to take away a story that could be enjoyable/important for someone with different life experience than my own. For example, when Meghan Cox Gurdon's WSJ article came out, my first response was, admittedly "Yeah, do we really need more anorexia and cutting novels on Barnes and Noble bookshelves?" As I read the #yasaves blogs and Twitter responses, began to realize that some people do need those stories, I'm just not one of them. 

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  11. It's a bit difficult to put my thoughts on this but I'm going to give it a shot.

    The reason I mentioned "Country of my Skull" was not just because it was historical - I already knew what had happened from text books. I wanted to know about the people behind the history. As you say, it was difficult to read about people doing such horrific things to other people, but in my opinion, it taught me to respect those people involved in the struggle here both living and dead, it taught me to question certain things, it taught me sympathy and disgust. But really it just helped me to relate to certain people on a level I wouldn't have been able to otherwise, I don't think.

    I think (but have no proof, since I haven't read it), that depending on the person reading the story, "Stolen Life" may have similar lessons? It might teach someone empathy, caution, and in the hope of not sounding too trite, hope (in that people are capable of surviving so much)? I think it's really important for us to remember that people do endure and survive atrocities like this. All the books won't be for all of us all of the time, but when they are they teach us to relate and sympathise with people that we wouldn't be able to just with our own life experience.

    I probably sound really cheesy, hope it makes sense :)

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  12. I don't know anything about "A Stolen Life" except what was in the link but I'd guess it would appeal to people who have been victims of child abuse, albeit of the more "commonplace" variety--nearly nobody has had that woman's experience.  What shouldn't be read is a matter of personal taste - I love war stories especially WWII and it doesn't get any more grim than that but I was very disturbed, more disturbed by "Beloved."  Can't take child abuse, serial murderers, real murders in the newspapers, and probably other topics that don't come to mind.  I doubt that reading horrible stuff is densensitizing, at least that's not been my experience.  The topic (I think) is more fully developed in the porn area, especially snuff porn--if the topic is, is it bad for us, and does it make us into worse persons or make us do bad things.  I really can't think of books that do that except as mentioned in the political area and we have several each year that spout nonsense that people believe.  But they're not "horrible" in the grim sense you're talking about.

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  13. ThepickygirlblogJuly 16, 2011 at 1:04 AM

    TRA - This was about to be my comment. I think "dangerous" can be (to be repetitive and self contradictory) a bit dangerous.

    By changing the word, you change the question quite a lot for me. In terms of "voyeurism" - yes, hell yes it's voyeurism. Unfortunately, much of our culture subsists on that these days. The other half of that equation, though, is the writer. Does she need to tell her story publicly? Can we dictate who can tell a story and why?

    I would also agree these types of stories can desensitize some people to violence, sex, etc. Does this mean I think they shouldn't be published? Eh, no, simply because I don't want to open that can of worms.

    Full disclosure: you're also talking to a gal who can't watch Law & Order without checking in my closet and under the bed... 

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  14. I don't know anything about A Stolen Life either but I shy away from what appear to be "misery memoirs". I read non-fiction with historical or culturally interesting aspects but I don't really want to read about someone's horrible childhood. I think those themes can be explored in fiction well enough. But then there is a huge market for these types of books so people do want to read them for whatever reasons (curiosity, to make them feel better about their own lives, I don't know).

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  15. But isn't all reading voyeuristic to an extent? This question makes me uncomfortable because it suggests there's an absolute to what stories should and should not be told which then begins to flirt with the idea of banning books to me.

    Sure there might be a voyeuristic element to A Stolen Life, but doesn't Jaycee also have the right to tell her story and have it heard? I'm sure that all of the amazing things she's overcome might be true inspiration to others and unless the details are shared how can we really know how it has impacted and shaped her as a person? It add to our understanding of the resiliency of the human spirit and reminds us of the evil that exists all around us as well. 

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  16. It's totally fair to think about audience. There is perhaps a group of people out there that will find some kind of sustenance from A STOLEN LIFE. I really am not questioning that book, but rather thinking about a kind of continuum. At some point, stories of hatred, violence, cruelty seem to me to pass some sort of line. I don't know where that line is and it probably is different for different readers. But, as in all things, if we don't spend time thinking about it, we are subject to things we may not necessarily want. 

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  17. Hmmmm. I hadn't thought about the fiction/memoir divide here. Would the content of A STOLEN LIFE seem more or less palatable as fiction? Why? This is a fascinating angle. 

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  18. Well, as an example of things that you and I probably do not read, there is a sub-genre of Aryan fiction that I think most of us would find horrifying and irredeemable. That is an extreme case, but it is on the fiction spectrum. 

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  19. Cheesy is alright with me. I totally agree that reading a story like this will engage our empathy, but why would we WANT to read this book in the first place? I sincerely doubt that I can muster empathy for this kind of experience---I simply have no way to relate to this kind of experience. 

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  20. No, I don't think so. Voyeurism as a specific content---a puerile kind of pleasure. 

    And I am not really asking about "right to tell," but rather about the possible consequences of certain kinds of stories. 

    What if this story didn't have this...."happy" ending and so there is no possible eliciting of inspiration? 

    Do I really need to be reminded of evil? How much exposure to the existence of evil becomes stultifying?

    I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think they are worth considering. Art has power and sometimes power can damage. 

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  21. Again, I guess I am not interested so much on the writer side of the equation...more the reader's side. We sometimes think of freedom of expression as an unalloyed positive. This oversimplifies and reduces the power of artistic representation. This is not to say that certain things should be legislated against, that's a reductive position. Rather, each individual reader must make decisions about what images, stories, and ideas they are going to consume. 

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  22. While there are some books I think are fair game for the question of whether they're damaging to the general "we" -- underage manga comes to mind, although that's a subculture I really know nothing about and I'm sure there's a good argument for its existence -- I don't think stories like Jaycee Dugard's story falls into that category. If only for the reason that there are a whole lot of people out there who take some kind of solace and inspiration out of that sort of hardship tale... and I'm not sure why, but I think sometimes it has to coexist alongside the horror aspect.

    Remember those Reader's Digest "Drama in Real Life" stories? They always had this formula of inspiration and awfulness, and they were one of the magazine's most all-time popular features. I don't know if it's cultural or just the human condition, that people respond to that one-two punch of horror/overcoming, but it really strikes a chord for a lot of people. Or remember Sibyl? (Now there's a novel I wish with all my heart I could unread, and that was probably 35 years ago.)

    I do think all readers have to do themselves a kindness and respect their own flinch zones. No matter how adventurous you are in terms of reading matter, or open-minded, you have to be OK with saying "I won't read x. Not to mention the "life's too short" aspect... and I suspect the Jaycee Dugard story would fall into both camps for me.

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  23. I agree that art has power, but I don't know that that power can always be predicted. I mean on one hand I agree with you. I don't particularly find for example sensationalizing violence against women to be something that needs to happen in stories that are out there. Yet even that could probably be something that's argued about whether or not it's happening. And when it comes to stories like Jaycee's I generally think people read them to be reminded of the resiliency of the human spirit, and the common thread or bond they can find--the hope to survive. If the story ended badly, it can be about awareness, and reminding ourselves there are other ways this life can go down. Yes I do think it's possible people need to be reminded of evil sometimes.

    I think reading itself is dangerous, you never know how a book or story will affect you. I think we make the best decisions we can with the information we have-- like you not reading this particular book, but to read is to open ourselves up to something else and we have to decide if that itself is worth it. Because generally how can we know if a story should have been told unless we've read it? There are stories and then there are the way they are framed and what a reader might get from them. 

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  24. I'm reminded of a blog post (that I can't find now, how frustrating) about how one of Roth's novels made one reader feel like she was being dragged into being complicit/agreeing with/approving of the awfulness of Roth's characters. And when I read 'The Windup Girl' by Paoulo Bacigallupi there's a rape scene in there where I (and lots of other people) felt like the violence was uncomfortably voyeuristic. So I can see your point, that some stories feel dangerous or unnerving. However, I don't think it's possible to establish any text as a story that is universally unnecessary. I don't think there needs to be so much explicit violence against women in fiction, but crime writers have long argued that the violence needs to be there to show the consequences of crime (it's the gender bias that's the real problem many argue, not the levels of violence).

    On a different note serious texts of prejudice don't really have a justifiable place, or a purpose (except I suppose to filter into history) but that's a different issue with its own set of ethics.  

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  25. I gotcha, sorry! I've been intent on answering your first question :)

    I can't see any reason why you would want to read the book (of course I don't know you, so I may be talking out of turn). It doesn't even sound like a book I would want to read; there's nothing I would gain from it, I don't think.

    My point was simply that there surely are people who would benefit and so I'm glad, for their sakes, the book's been written.

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  26. I think fiction can be worse than non-fiction - because there's some irredeemably voyeuristic quality about tying some of these stories to books (or even television shows) meant to be consumed as entertainment.  My standard example of this is Stieg Larsson's 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' (the only book in the series I read) which I felt crossed a line that made me very uncomfortable.  And not in a thought-provoking, soul searching, taken outside of your comfort zone kind of way.  It was more a case of: he seems to be enjoying this too much and is that why they're making such a big deal about him being a feminist?  Add that to a main character who is the walking embodiment of a stereotypical male mid-life crisis fantasy and it just felt wrong. 

    I don't know if I would use the term dangerous, but I do feel that some books don't need to be written.  Or maybe it's that some scenes/events don't need to be recounted in detail.  Is there truly a benefit to 'A Stolen Life', other than monetary?

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