Creative Writing Rant: On The Spectrum of Storytelling

Consider the following spectrum:

Allegory_______________________________________Police report

On one extreme, on the left, is allegory or fairytale, that is, any story that has an obvious “message.” On the other is a police report in which a cop is only interested in the facts as eyewitnesses are able to relate those facts. Both are narratives. One may be more or less true, though probably isn’t; the “truth” of allegory in indeed in the alleged wisdom of its message. The police report should be true if it is to have any value; there should be absolutely no “message” in a police report other than the facts of a particular event. The commonality of these narrative extremes is that they have beginnings, middles, and ends, and present related events, real or imagined, in time.

Let me suggest that almost all stories fall within this range. Now, let’s put aside the distinction between (more or less) true stories, and (more or less) untrue stories, that is, between fiction and nonfiction. Where do the stories usually assigned in creative writing classes fall within this range? Which stories are more realistic, closer, that is, to police reports than to allegories?

It seems to me that “Sonny’s Blues,” “Cathedral,” “The Dead,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Babylon Revisited,” “The Conversion of the Jews,” “Shiloh,” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” nudge closer to police reports than to allegories. By contrast, “Gimpel the Fool,” “The Rocking Horse Winner,” “The Library of Babel,” and “A Hunger Artist” nudge closer to allegory.

Yet, in even naturalistic stories, narratives that relate events seemingly unadorned in any overt “message(s),” there are usually allegorical dimensions, and in allegories, even the most blatant such as, say, Aesop’s Fables, there are realistic features.

In all storytelling, there is a dance between fact and fancy, and between image and idea. You can take this assertion to the bank!

When the narrator/brother in “Sonny’s Blues” regards his brother jamming on the piano, he becomes “us,” the readers; he is our lens onto Sonny’s performance, and Sonny becomes the quintessential artist. Indeed, in that tableau at the end of the short story, we (the readers and the brother who is our emissary in the story) experience an allegorical, transcendent moment. The “message” is however one wishes to articulate it, but whatever that may be it has to do with the artist in society, her or his place in the greater order, her or his value. Sonny becomes not just a junky, a loser, a guy beaten down by racism and the cruelties of a market-driven social order; he becomes a symbol of human transcendence, of the artist living entirely in the moment and inviting “us,” the brother/narrator and all of us, the readers, to follow him there. We don’t hear the music he’s playing, but we do hear the music of James Baldwin’s sumptuous prose; in a sense, Baldwin’s writing, the lyricism with which he tells the story, stands in, so to speak, for Sonny’s music. And I’d suggest to you that on a deep, psychological level, every sensitive reader “gets” that switch. Though the story is composed in first-person, the writer, as an artist, simply must identify more with Sonny than with the math-teacher telling the story!

“Sonny’s Blues” is a realistic story, but it achieves allegorical resonances. The same may be true of the other stories we’ve read that seem, at first flush, closer to “police report” than to “allegory.”

In “Cathedral,” doesn’t blindness become not only the defining condition of one of the characters, but, in the end, a metaphor, and an ironic one at that, for how the narrator, and most of us, make our purblind passage in the world? Again, it is a realistic story that achieves allegorical resonances. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” (have you ever known a more darkly humorous, ironic title?), we witness, I would argue, an allegory for the human condition: we all have a gun pointed at us (knowledge of our own mortality), and by various means attempt to talk Death out of taking us!

Regarding the stories closer to the “Allegory” end of the spectrum: Well, “The Rocking Horse Winner” is clearly meant to resonate in similar fashion as a fairytale, and this is true of the two Kafka stories as well.

I won’t belabor this; I simply want to provide a way to gage, in broad terms and on a fundamental level, how any particular story exists. Some are overtly allegorical, some covertly so.