Sunday, April 23, 2017

N. Scott Momaday: on stories

Another quotation from N. Scott Momaday on storytellers and storytelling.  I think there are some ideas expressed in them that wouldn't be accepted favorably by modern critics, and, perhaps, by some not-so-modern critics and scholars. . 

  Stories are composed of words and of such implications as the storyteller places upon the words.  The choice of words, their arrangement, and their effect are by and large determined by the storyteller.  The storyteller exercises nearly complete control over the storytelling experience.

.  .  .  .  .

   Stories are true to our common experience; they are statements which concern the human condition.  To the extent that the human condition involves moral considerations, stories have moral implications.  Beyond that, stories are true in that they are established squarely upon belief.  In the oral tradition stories are told not merely to entertain or to instruct; they are told to be believed.  Stories are not subject to the imposition of such questions as true or false, act or fiction.  Stories are realities lived and believed.  They are true. 

-- N. Scott Momaday --
The Man Made of Words

Aside from John Gardner, I wonder how many critics, scholars, and readers will accept Momaday's statement that stories have moral implications.  

I'm not sure exactly what Momaday means by Stories are not subject to the imposition of such questions as true or false, act or fiction.  Stories are realities lived and believed.  They are true.   I think he suggests the stories somehow are not to be judged by our ordinary commonsense ways of thinking, but exist somehow in another place. 

Any thoughts?


  1. Sounds more like anthropology than literary criticism. That's praise not indictment.

  2. There are lots of interesting things in this quotation.

    I believe that some stories have moral implications.Many, but not all writers include morality in their tales. Sometimes an entire story is built around an author's worldview.

    As for stories always being true, I am not sure if it is what Momaday meant, but sometime stories seem so real, the characters seem like real people. For me, they seem true. That is why a few books really disturbed me. Something terrible happened to a character that seemed like a real person.

    1. Tim,

      Anthropology? I never saw it that way, but it sounds intriguing. Could you elucidate a bit?

    2. I mean storytelling is a cultural marker and a universal impulse rather than a literary sender-receiver dynamic, and it should be understood in terms of the former rather than the latter. But I might be babbling incoherently while drawing upon dim recollections of my nearly forgotten cultural anthropology studies, including Joseph Campbell.

    3. Tim,

      Stories are as you say, a cultural marker and a universal impulse, but couldn't this marker and impulse consist of a literary sender-receiver dynamic--as a more specific type of a cultural maker?

      I mean that a cultural marker is a broad more general descriptive with the sender-receiver as being a more specific type of marker.

      If that makes any sense?

    4. Fred, my mind is not up to the challenge of this topic. I apologize for putting my oar in the water when I lack sufficient coordination to advance the boat.

    5. Tim,

      No problem--I'm thrashing around myself.

  3. Brian,

    "To the extent that the human condition involves moral considerations, stories have moral implications." I guess that the distinction would be to what extent the human condition involves moral considerations. If one believes that the human condition always involves moral considerations, then I guess all stories involving humans have moral considerations. I think John Gardner in his _On Moral Fiction_ would argue that way.

    As for truth or fiction, sometimes I wonder if Momaday is postulating some sort of ideal existence for stories, almost in the Platonic sense of those shadows on the wall of a cave.

  4. What I'm most interested in is that the story-teller has nearly complete control over the experience. That is definitely NOT my experience. The story-teller has complete control over all the choices, but the experience is mediated by both the words of the story and the experiences that those partaking of the story bring to it. A simple example--Beauty and the Beast may mean one thing to a six year-old girl, and quite a different thing to a person who has undergone a string of abusive relationships. The words are exactly the same, but the experience is quite different.

    1. Steven,

      You are saying that Momaday hasn't taken into account what the reader, knowingly or unknowingly, brings to the equation?