November 14, 2006
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Long Stories

The story of City of Heroes and World of Warcraft goes on and on. As Jill says, Onyxia dies every day, and Onyxia goes on forever. On the fifth day, she'll be back.

In Jill's comments, Dennis Jerz writes that

Our literary passion for a long, detailed plot with a beginning, middle, and end, with a protagonist who changes slowly, over time, across several reading sessions (unlike, say, a Greek drama, which happens in one sitting) is a relatively new phenomenon, and form and content are joined in the development of the bound codex and the novel.

It’s also probably worth looking at the economic publishing environment that led Dickens to write exaggerated characters for his serialized novels.

I think it's too easy to remember that Dickens was paid by the word, and too hard to recall that someone was signing the cheques for all those words. People like the detail, the richness, the conviction that the story is not a passion play staged for our moral instruction but a continuous action that started before we opened the book and will continue after the last page. (Think of The Forsyte Saga: how old is very young Fleur today? Is she still living on grandma's farm South Africa? This is a different kind of hyper-fiction, a sort of ultrafiction: she never existed, Galsworthy never wrote about her, but we can still talk about her and we both know who she is.)

Some old stories do have beginnings and endings. The stories of the Exodus and of Saul are recorded in multiple books because they don't fit on one scroll or in one afternoon. Other long stories before the codex include Gilgamesh, Homer, Exodus, Saul, The Peloponnesian War, The Aeneid, The Synoptic Gospels, and Beowulf. I’m not certain that Roland was composed to be a codex, or Gawain and the Green Knight, or Mortu Arthure. I assume that Mohammed, Dante and Chaucer composed in codices? (I expect there are examples from China and Japan with which I’m unfamiliar. The Eddas might be pertinent. I’m sure I’m missing other things.)

Might the multi-day Navaho chants (Kinaalda, say, or Ye’ii bicheii/Night Way) be considered as outside “relatively new”? (Do we have any idea of their age?)

Let's not forget:

Closure is a suspect quality -- Michael Joyce