The Ecological Function of a Story

Yeah, you’re much prettier outdoors…

Our house has been beset by black wasps for the past couple of weeks. They’re digging wasps, and seem to have nested in the soil of a giant potted rosemary that we keep on the porch in nice weather and in the living room in the winter. They aren’t really a hazard—they’re kind of sluggish and not aggressive, so mostly we’ve been able to trap them under a glass and take them outdoors.

I looked them up, and found the following:

Adult females of S. pensylvanicus build an underground nest which they provision with various orthopteran insects… Prey are stung three times, once in the neck and twice in the thorax, and are paralyzed by the wasp’s sting, although they can survive for weeks. The prey are then carried to the nest. While collecting their prey, the females are vulnerable to kleptoparasitism, in which birds, including the house sparrow and the grey catbird , steal the prey that the wasp has collected… The eggs of S. pensylvanicus are 5–6 mm (0.20–0.24 in) long and 1 mm (0.04 in) wide; they are glued to the underside of the prey insect between the first and second pairs of legs. Each of the several chambers in the nest houses a single larva, which consumes 2–6 katydids or grasshoppers. 

Wikipedia, oracle of all that is known

Well, there’s a pretty specific ecological tale, eh? These wasps take down katydids and grasshoppers like a mob hit (once in the neck and twice in the thorax), and have to get back to the hideout before another gang can hijack their victims. Then they glue eggs onto the victim’s belly so that their kids can cannibalize their way to adulthood.

(There’s a Jared Kushner or USC Admissions joke waiting in there somewhere, but it’s too early in the morning, and not my primary task today.)

And the sparrows and catbirds in their own role, waiting on the trail like bandits to steal the already misbegotten goods. And the katydids, innocently chowing on some leaves with a side of aphids when the hit man busts into the diner. The whole thing is a nested tale of ecological functions.

I’ve been thinking about this lately for a few related reasons. First, I’m doing a talk next week at Trinity College in Connecticut, and I’ll be talking about my ecological framing of the adjunct crisis. Second, I’ve been thinking about all of my worry in the past week about honoring both characters and readers, and wondering if I haven’t been really more worried about me. I’m the writer, after all, so it’s no surprise that I’m concerned about my own culpability and capabilities. But a productive way out of this dilemma might be to understand what ecological niche my stories might fulfill. To quit worrying about my own survival as a wasp or a katydid or a sparrow, and to imagine what happens out there because of these stories.

And it’s clear that stories accomplish work, for good and for ill. One of the members of my writing group, homesick for his MFA cohort that he’s now graduated from, has assembled a local reading group to go through the novels of William Faulkner. He said that one of the members asked at some point, “When will something good happen to these characters?” And my friend laughed and said, “You might be in the wrong reading group. Nothing good will ever happen for anyone in a Faulkner novel.”

And I thought to myself, well, Faulk that! Contemporary literature is so oversaturated with misery, it’s like an algae bloom that chokes off all of the oxygen of hope from the biblioscape. Why would I want to provide more misery to a world already suffused with it?

Brandon Taylor describes the first time one of his stories was on the table at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop:

Another thing about that first workshop was that I heard something about myself that I had never heard before: that my story story was protective and civilized and carefully managed. These to me seemed the primary virtues of fiction that I loved and that I wanted to write. There’s nothing I want more than peace and order. I had a difficult life. A strange life. And so in turning to fiction, I wanted to create for my characters a space where the urgent material of their lives would not contain the question of whether or not they would live or die. I wanted to write about people moving through the world who could count on more time, who didn’t have to confront the ugliness of violence and harm and malevolence. I wanted only to make for my characters a space where they could be. I left the workshop that night feeling like I had been struck by lightning. I was angry and ashamed.

The thing I have been thinking about for the last year—every moment of every day almost, and certainly every time I sit down to write, or think about writing—is this question of protectiveness, of orderliness. These traits were presented to me in the way a doctor describes some malformation of the inner ear or bad nerve in the lower spine: not a catastrophe, but not quite as it should be, either. Like I’d have to spend the rest of my life compensating in ways minor and major, making myself slightly more brutal, slightly crueler.

That’s exactly my experience of any review in any fiction workshop, whether in a classroom or at a conference or informally with people trained in one of those realms. It’s like Christopher Walken and “More Cowbell!!More Misery!!! More Trauma!!! More Suffering!!!

Yeah, that’s a hard no.

I count hospitality as one of my primary ecological functions, the fact that people can come to my home and relax and laugh and have a good time with one another, no matter what other crap is going on in the rest of their lives.

The insistence on cruelty feels to me to be oddly gendered: that serious literature is written by men, and for women to gain entry to the serious camp, they have to be just as cruel as men can be. Every few days, I get an ad in my e-mail from Random House, a regular scrolling feed through mystery and thriller and romance and young adult. And when the “women’s fiction” comes around, I can count on seeing the word heartwarming in more than one of the book descriptions.

Guys don’t get to be heartwarming, nor do serious writers. “Real literature” bears exactly the field markings that Susan Faludi identified for contemporary American masculinity: stoicism, self-sufficiency, competition, and vanity. No one will help you, the world is against you, you’re on your own, and you’ll suffer through it. It’s every bad father ever.

So the ecological function of my stories, regardless of their specifics, is to work against that tide of cruelty, to help re-oxygenate the lake. To say: We can do this. There’s a way through. You’ve got abilities you never imagined.

Every creature, from bacteria to aphid to wasp, is doing something. The difference between us and the lower orders is that we get to decide what role we want to play.