How Stories Last Through History By Neil Gaiman
“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”
Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:
A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar…
One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up — she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book.
And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.
And I said, “Why? Why would you risk death — for a story?”
And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto — they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.
I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind…
We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial — the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.
Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it — that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape — escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.
Remarking on how Helen’s story changed him, he adds:
Stories should change you — good stories should change you.
Tom Sebeok concluded you couldn’t actually create a story that would last 10,000 years; you could only create a story that would last for three generations — for ourselves, for our children, and for their children.
But what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.
On how the internet is changing storytelling:
A lot more writing is happening because of the internet, and I think that bit is great — I just love the fact that more people are writing.
I think the biggest problem that we have … is that we have gone from a scarcity-based information economy to a glut information economy. In the old days, finding the thing that you needed was like finding the flower in the desert — you’d have to go out into the desert and find the flower. And now, it’s like finding the flower in the jungle — or worse, finding the flower in the flower gardens.
The task becomes finding the good stuff, for whatever your definition of “good stuff” is — and your definition of “good stuff” might be some horribly specialized form of Harry Potterslash.
On humanity’s long history of thinking with animals and why so many lasting stories feature animal characters:
Animals in fiction … are your first attempt to put your head into the “other” and to experience the other, the idea of another…
The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes … but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.
One of the things that fiction can give us is just the realization that behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us. And, perhaps, looking out through animal eyes, there’s somebody like us; looking out through alien eyes, there’s somebody like us.