Isaiah Sheffer, Founding Artistic Director of Selected Shorts died the other day. “Storytime for Grownups,” as I like to call Selected Shorts, is one of my favorite weekly podcasts. His reading of “The Dead” is probably the only story that can make me laugh and cry all at once. Partly because James Joyce is so. Unbelievably. Amazing, but also because Isaiah captures it. (I really wish I had burned it to CD, because now it’s no longer available on the site.) I like the New Yorker Fiction Podcast too, but Isaiah brought a down-to-earth, joyous zing to his selections and his readings and his discussions that Deborah Treisman just can’t quite get to because she is too high-minded. Equally awesome, of course, but Treisman reminds me of the perfect hostess, trying to make sure everyone is satisfied and has enough to nibble, whereas Isaiah is the storytelling uncle regaling the kids in the corner, or the librarian you always dreamed of, picking out the stories you will surely like, and ones that perhaps you won’t at first but will knit themselves into you nonetheless.
That’s why stories matter, of course, because they are a set of lies told by one person to another that, in the hands of the right teller and the right reader, become true. I was reading The Gentleman from Cracow, by Isaac Bashevis Singer (a writer I discovered through Isaiah!), which is in a consciously fairy-tale style, and when the mysterious gentleman descends from his carriage in his beaver-lined caftan, he was there, visibly, conjured out of nothing. I had a similar feeling toward the end of Vanity Fair — cheering for Dobbin and utterly horrified at Becky, as though they were real people with choice instead of characters whose fate was scribbled down irrevocably more than a hundred years ago.
It’s almost frightening, sometimes, how much power the storyteller can have. Of course, even the dumbest politician realizes that, which is why we have censorship in dictatorships and Banned Books Weeks here. I realize that fiction is inherently political — that’s what drives the majority of literary criticism these days — but fiction is also inherently intimate. That’s where it glistens, when you’re curled up on a sofa with a blanket across your knees and a pot of tea and a story. That’s what fiction has in common with medicine, you see, because medicine is also inherently intimate. Fewer sofas and pots of tea, but one person telling — often with lies and elisions — and the other retelling.