I mean we as humans? I have a theory. In the DNA of mankind is a story-telling gene. Survival of our species has forced our evolution. We got the taste for meat and learned how to stand on our hind legs and run after food on the hoof. We fashioned spears and knives to make the kill. And with the hunting came the know-how about digging traps and herding prey. About signalling to each other as the hunt moved forward. Reading the spoor and leaving signs for the others to follow.
We moved with the seasons and the ice-pack and it taxed our memory. We had to remember where to find the dry cave or the hidden spring burbling beneath the desert. Or where the herds would congregate in the Spring.
It began with scribbles in the sand to work out the tactics of the kill. Then came rock paintings on the cave walls to teach the young and honour the prey. The grunts became more complex, became words, phrases, sentences that meant the same as the drawings. Round the fire the women taught the kids how to work together, how to behave, what plants to distil and lay on a wound or ease a fever. The storyman, the cavedrawer told tales of great hunters and hard lessons. The tribe’s memory was shaped and given life beyond the short span of any man in it. They sang and chanted their experiences to each other and wove themselves a civilization.
We’ve evolved from cave to penthouse, from spring water to Cristal champagne, from burnt rib of sabre-tooth to three star Ramsay. But we still distinguish ourselves from every beast that walked the earth or swam the seas or flew the air, by our music, our paintings, our stories. It is our essence.
Now we call the words literature. But never mind the elegant prose, the ‘literary’ quality or the sensitively painted scenes and characters. At the heart of any great novel lies the story. If it doesn’t tell a story it’s a telephone book. Bad writers [I name no names, except in ‘Code’] can still sell millions because they write great stories. We want tales that touch us in some way, explain some mystery, leave us a message or give us a warning: beware of blondes in tight red dresses; always suspect the vicar; don’t turn your back on men with suspicious bulges under their jackets.
It’s about the big themes: life, death, love, justice, revenge. Or else why bother? And what better way to view it than through the prism of a story. That’s not to say that I think writers should lecture readers. We should not presume. But we should offer the choice. Set loose our protagonist and throw rocks at him. See how he reacts. Is it how we would respond? Is his frailty like ours? Do we recognise the situations and have we reacted the same way? Where do we stand on the taking of a life, even the life of a psychopathic serial killer?