The writer of fiction, the memoirist, and the family historian are all story tellers. To be sure, they tell stories differently. But in each literary form, the author is the teller of a tale. In that role what do these story tellers have in common?
It is instructive to see what two of our greatest contemporary storytellers have said about their art. E.L. Doctorow, winner of two National Book Critics Circle Awards for Ragtime (1975) and The March (2005) and The National Book Award (1985) for World’s Fair, focused on the nature of stories themselves in the Introduction of his 2006 book of essays titled Creationists. He wrote, “Stories…are revelatory structures of facts. They connect the visible with the invisible, the present with the past. They propose life as something of moral consequence. They distribute suffering so that it can be borne.”
Michael Chabon, who won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay sees the storyteller in a somewhat different light. “…I read for entertainment and I write for entertainment,” says Chabon in an essay, Thoughts on the Modern Short Story in his 2008 collection Maps and Legends. He continues, “I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.” The storyteller must seek “…to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two way exchange of attention, and the universal hunger for connection.”
One the one hand the author focuses on what is inherent in the story to discern its meaning and insight into the human experience. On the other the author focuses upon providing his audience with an engaging and entertaining experience. What makes the task of the author even more daunting, as I’m sure both Doctorow and Chabon would agree, is that the storyteller must maintain both lines of focus simultaneously.