A Nobel Prize for Storytelling?

It’s far too easy for us self-styled “literary types” to have a cheap laugh at the expense of Jeffrey Archer. I’d like to think, however, that this blog is above that. Especially now, in the lead-up to the Festive Season. “Goodwill to all men, except for Jeffrey Archer” does seem a bit churlish at best.

I’d like, nonetheless, to comment, not on Mr Archer the person, nor even on Mr Archer the writer, but on a line from some article in the Daily Telegraph in praise of Mr Archer that is now quoted on the covers of his books. “If there were a Nobel Prize for storytelling,” we are told, “Archer would win.”

archer-us

I personally have no quarrel whatever with this line. The judgement expressed may or may not be a good judgement, but I am not sufficiently interested in the matter to try to find out for myself: life is too short to take an interest in everything, and, beyond a point, one’s curiosity does begin to dwindle. But I can’t help noticing that this line has been the subject of much ridicule and scoffing on social media. There already does exist such a prize, the scoffers tell us: it’s called the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Well, actually, no. The scoffers are wrong. Storytelling is certainly an aspect of fiction (or, for that matter, of plays, narrative poems, screenplays, operatic libretti, or whatever); but as a criterion of literary merit, while it can on very rare occasions be a sufficient criterion (I am thinking here, say, of the likes of Dumas), it is by no means a necessary one. There is much literature of surpassing high quality where storytelling skills play little part.

I can’t help feeling, though, that it would be no bad thing if there were to be a Nobel Prize for Storytelling, for good storytelling is a fine skill, is possessed by few, and deserves to be celebrated when found. Whether or not Mr Archer should win such a prize, I am in no position to say, but this particular skill, as and when I come across it, is one I find myself much admiring. As is only to be expected, I suppose, from one who would unhesitatingly pick The Sherlock Holmes Stories as his single Desert Island Book.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by martin johnson on December 12, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    It would have been a help to define what might be meant by ‘storytelling’. There are few novels, for example, that don’t tell a story, and short story writers by definition tell them. Not sure how many of the latter have won Nobels. Alice Munro won a couple of years ago but not the great Americans Raymond Carver or John Cheever..

    Reply

    • Hello Martin,
      Yes, you’re right a definition of “story” would help. I could define it as “a sequence of related incidents”, but that doesn’t really help. It’s like defining “melody” as “sequence of specific pitches lasting specific durations” (or something similar). What we are really interested in is “what makes a good story?” or “What makes a good tune?”

      And furthermore, a good story may be diminished, or ruined altogether, if it is not told well. So a related question to “what makes a good story?” is “How should the story be told?”

      Maybe all this would be a good topic for discussion in some later post. The current post is really no more than a passing thought.

      Cheers for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Maggie on December 12, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    I remember Jeffery Archer famously being berated for pinching the plot of a Somerset Maugham short story , The Luncheon. Nothing wrong with pinching plots though. Somerset Maugham wrote a rather good short story called The Lotus Eater, based on the episode in Homer’s Odyssey. Gavin Lambert borrowed the Somerset Maugham story for his story, Nukuhiva! , in his collection, The Slide Area. A much better story in my view. Plot is important, EM Forster said “Oh dear, there must be a story.” , but it’s what the writer does with it that makes the difference between plot and story.

    Reply

    • Hello Maggie,
      I don’t remember “The Lotus Eater”: I’ll look it up. I do feel Somerset Maugham is a much neglected writer these days.
      Of course, there is that old argument that there only are a handful of basic stories, and that everything is a variation on one or the other of them. But while the plot is of central interest in The Count of Monte Cristo, say, or Murder on the Orient Express, I can’t really imagine anyone turning the pages of L’Education Sentimentale or of Doctor Faustus curious to know what happens next!, And then there are novels such as, say, Nostromo or Absalom, Absalom! where the story is broken up and the fragments re-arranged (with some of the fragments left out altogether), leaving the reader with the job of re-assembling it all. It’s fair to say that the appeal of the “story” is not the principal reason why these books are read!

      This post was just intended as a record of a passing thought, and nothing more. But it would be interesting to talk about the importance (or otherwise) of plotting. Best perhaps to leave that till next year, when our minds (well, mine at least) are more sober!

      Reply

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