Giving Daily Life the Dignity of an Epic
How far past "realism" do you have to go to tell women's stories?
Welcome to new readers of Other Feminisms! If you’ve come here from my piece on child allowance from The New York Times, here’s a little introduction to this substack. Other Feminisms is a community for people who are an awkward fit within mainstream feminism.
To excerpt a little from my about page, Other Feminisms is about advocating for women as women. That means rejecting any offers of equality premised on remaking ourselves to be more like the median man. The world must remake itself to be hospitable to women, not the other way round.
Every Monday, I post a conversation prompt, and on Thursdays, I share highlights from your discussion. The recaps are staggered to run a week and a half after the conversation intially kicks off. This week, I’m sharing highlights from “Telling Stories Without Climaxes” a conversation prompted by the dearth of good film adaptations of Mansfield Park. Next week, I’ll share posts from our discussion of “The Romance of Regularity.”
One reader recommended Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” Le Guin lays out an alternative way to understand what stories are, beyond heroes and conflict.
I would go so far as to say that the natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.
One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd. (I have read a how-to-write manual that said, “A story should be seen as a battle,” and went on about strategies, attacks, victory, etc.) Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag/belly/box/house/medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.
To an extent, our narrow sense of plot and conflict is the result of narrowness in our reading. When I saw Sarah Ruhl’s play For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, I was struck by a note in the program about how her plot structure was inspired by Noh drama.
As I understand it, it comes in three parts: a traveler meets a ghost, does not recognize the ghost, then recognizes the ghost and either dances with the ghost or embraces the ghost.
I recognized this structure from some of the books I’ve loved (including Le Guin’s own A Wizard of Earthsea), but it wasn’t covered as an option in the rising action-climax-denoument discussion in my high school English classes. I like having a larger set of options in my bag.
Several commenters suggested films from Studio Ghibli. Kathryn recommended “Whisper of the Heart,” which she loves for the attention it pays gentle moments in everyday life.
One key part of the "climax" of the story, such as it is, is Shizuku deciding she wants to write a story and then writing the story, and then she gives it to one person to read who gives her honest feedback and appreciation. She doesn't win any contests, she doesn't suddenly get catapulted to a life of art - in fact, she decides to work harder on getting into a good high school so she can learn more about writing. The story is very much about her interior development and discovery of this thing she loves, rather than an external achievement or the sudden attainment of a miraculous ability.
Vikki noted that “a huge epic can be a fitting place for hidden lives of faithfulness and virtue to be revealed” provided you’re willing to look past the hero and pay attention to the contributions of minor characters.
This is part of what I love about Kristin Lavransdatter. It’s a trilogy that needs the space of an epic in order to show the small movements of Kristin’s heart. It’s such a tender book that I always forget how violent it (and its world of 14th century Norway) is. The small moments eclipse what we might otherwise think of as the plot.
And for one final nomination: Bill Cain, in his play Equivocation, makes a case for Shakespeare’s late romances. The play imagines Shakespeare being asked to write a history play about the Powder Plot, and exclaiming in frustration “I’m trying to write a play that isn’t about revenge.” Along the way, he writes Macbeth. But, in the final scene, we get a glimpse of Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest.
They all have the same story—those last four plays.
A father throws away his daughter. And nothing will ever be right until he gets her back. They’re full of impossible coincidences. Miraculous statues. Pirates. Shipwrecks. Bears. Resurrections.
The last plays are completely unbelievable.
As Le Guin says, it’s in the genres that let you push a little past realism that you can find more space for the simple truths of the everyday.
Science fiction can be seen as a far less rigid, narrow field, not necessarily Promethean or apocalyptic at all, and in fact less a mythological genre than a realistic one.
It is a strange realism, but it is a strange reality.
Finally, I’ll be part of a panel discussion next week hosted by Capita on “Building a Culture of Solidarity that Works for Mothers and Children.” I’ll be joining Jennifer Banks, Anne Snyder, and Margaret Prescod on Tuesday, February 23rd. You can register here.