What counts as a story?
December 22, 2011
It seemed so simple: read one book from every country in the world in 2012. What could possibly be confusing about that?
But as soon as I started to plan the project in earnest, the questions started coming in. Was I including poetry? What about plays? And memoirs? Where did I stand on biographies? Did journalism count? Did the books have to be contemporary?
I realised I was going to have to define my terms a little more carefully.
A lot of the people I spoke to about this project felt that I should stick to prose fiction. This was my first instinct too. After all, novels, novellas and short stories are the main media for storytelling, aren’t they? Surely I should keep a level playing field between all countries by reading only one particular kind of book?
But as time went on, I got more and more recommendations for intriguing books that wouldn’t fit that mould and found myself getting frustrated. I heard of literary award-winning journalism that had led to bounties being placed on writers’ heads and biographies detailing extraordinary lives, and I wanted to read them.
There were also books that straddled several genres. Dr Ruth Martin, who recommended Elias Canetti’s autobiographical work The Torch in My Ear for Austria, for example, wrote in her comment that ‘the writing is wonderfully literary and he does “embellish” the truth a little’. One man’s memoir might just be another man’s fairytale…
I also realised that, while prose fiction may be fairly ubiquitous, it’s by no means native to every culture. In fact, in places where stories tend to be passed on verbally, narrative poems may be much truer reflections of literature there.
The question of contemporaneity also gave me a dilemma or two. Much like M Lynx Qualey, who very kindly wrote a blog post setting out her recommendations for Arabic literature in translation, I was tempted to keep to recent texts. But when Dr Valerie Henitiuk of the British Centre for Literary Translation told me that her all-time favourite translation was Sonja Arntzen’s rendering of the 10th century Japanese Kagero Diary, there was no way I was going to bar it from the list.
So, after chewing it over for a while, I decided that I would count all narratives that could be read to full effect by one reader on their own. This means memoirs, novels, short stories, novellas, biographies, narrative poems and reportage are in and, with regret, non-narrative poetry and plays are out.
I also decided that while I would stick to mainly contemporary stories, I wanted to leave the door open for fantastic blasts from the past. The one condition is that the works have to have been created when the country was in existence in something like its modern-day form.
So if you know of an outstanding eighth century Swedish epic, or an intriguing narrative poem from Tuvalu, now’s your chance to tell the world (well, me, at least) about it. Keep the suggestions coming in – there are still quite a few gaps on that there list…