Reflections on The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction opens with anthropological accounts of the times of early man. She describes how the majority of food was gathered, and that hunting meat was primarily done in cold climates or in more dire times. She describes how the average prehistoric worker likely had an approximately fifteen hour work week, and in the time left over, people had the time to make art and tell stories. The main attraction in a story came from danger and conflict, from tales of brave hunts and near-death experiences.
Le Guin goes on to discuss the theories that the most important human inventions were weapons, but she disagrees with this idea. She speculates that the most important invention was a carrier bag, someplace to store your food and take it with you. A spear would only take you so far when you’re hungry. What good is gathering and meat if you have nowhere to store it?
She extends this idea to fiction, speculating that the point of a story is not to provide an image of violence and conflict, but to be a carrier for human emotions. This goes against what a lot of us are told as writers. One of the main pieces of advice is that a story must contain a conflict of some kind, whether it be man v. man, man v. nature, or man v. self. We are taught that a story without conflict is pointless and not worth our time as readers.
I am with Le Guin on her disagreement with this point. Some of the most moving books I’ve read have not been centered on conflict. Take, for example, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. There is no central conflict in this book. It is simply about a family, and their life throughout the years, as they grow, like a tree, in Brooklyn (hence the title). While of course there are conflicts, as there are bound to be between any people, it is not the main point of the book. Most of the plot points are just about things that happen in life, things that are not caused by any one person or force. There are the mundane joys of everyday life, moments of connection with family, but also elements of tragedy, such as death and loss. It is exactly what Le Guin meant by a “carrier bag for human emotion”. In my opinion, that’s the reason the book has stayed so popular. It is no great adventure with violence and foes and triumph, it is simply the story of a life.
This idea can extend to fantasy as well. Fantasy can be simply a container of magic and humanity, it doesn’t always have to be a sweeping story of battles and heroism. Sometimes a little adventure and escape is all that’s needed. I love books that simply allow you to explore a fantastical new setting, a slice-of-life story in a world that isn’t our own. Of course conflict can add a lot to your story, and it can be great to watch your heroes (or villains) triumph, but sometimes the melodic, meandering pace of life is all that’s needed.
Ursula Le Guin’s essay urges its readers to reconsider the limits of story structure, and of human nature itself. It posits that love and deep emotion does not always need to stand in the face of adversity. Sometimes it’s enough for stories and characters to just be.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favourite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.