Today I read the teeniest-tiniest book. It’s actually an essay, masquerading as a book. It’s Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, and it is, for some reason, quite offensively purple (my copy, that is).
But let’s not get distracted by the purple. Maybe you love purple. Maybe you even love purple the way that I love Ursula K. Le Guin.
I really believe that she was a true visionary—a unique thinker who was also very generous, and wise, and just a really, really good storyteller.
The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction has a pretty on-point title. Building on the theory that the first cultural inventions must have been some sort of containers (A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a container. A holder. A recipient.), Le Guin puts forth the idea of the novel as a bag, something in which we can have space to carry and hold things.
I love this concept. And I love that it is in direct opposition to the notion of story as conflict, which she also declares is reductive nonsense.
I am a person who is endlessly drawn to fiction-writing, although plagued by the usual self-doubts and limiting beliefs, which have to be resolutely set aside daily in order to take up my pen. As a less-than-confident writer, I have read and listened to my fair share of writing how-to guides and advice, and have frequently come up against this idea that story=conflict. It has always stymied me. I write for love of language, to capture the slow moments of life, for its beauty and depth. Not for what Le Guin calls “the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero.”
And so I am 100% on board with the carrier bag theory of fiction. The idea that when the shape of narrative is a container and not a weapon, it can hold so much more, and that it “cannot be characterised either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.”
Plus, she points out, the Hero isn’t at his most attractive in this bag: “You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.”
Remember when I said that Le Guin was a visionary? Well, she’s a really, really down to earth one. I laugh-snorted, quite unattractively, the whole way through this essay, which is another reason why I love her.
It’s a very female kind of idea, this carrier-bag-shape vs. that of the arrow or spear, and she references Elizabeth Fisher’s book Women’s Creation as the source of the phrase “carrier bag theory of evolution.” I also love her idea as a subversive, feminist reclaiming of a story that is life-giving, rather than conquering.
My teeny-tiny edition, which was published by Ignota Books, includes an introduction by Donna Haraway, a feminist scholar and scientist who has the distinction of becoming the first ever tenured professor in feminist theory in the U.S., at the University of Santa Cruz. Haraway’s introduction links the essay to three literal carrier bags, given to her by various women in Colombia during a working visit there in 2019. The connection between Le Guin’s essay and the textile arts of the women in Colombia—who weave and sew and embroider as a way to facilitate healing, storytelling, and rebinding—is quite interesting. It’s another layer to this tale. I feel it would have been better served as an afterword, once Le Guin has laid the foundation with her unparalleled skill, but it is a thought-provoking inclusion nevertheless.
And now off. As Le Guin says, there are stories to be told, things to be gathered and held like the precious and tiny and potent seeds that they are.
“I would go so far as to say that the natural, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings.”