Tom Clancy and the Primary Role of Story

Tom Clancy died a few days ago at the age of 66, untimely early by today’s longer-lived standards. As a bestselling author, he was, of course, a towering figure in popular culture. Many of his works made the transition to screen, the most memorable for me being The Hunt for Red October, featuring Sean Connery’s brilliant portrayal of Captain Ramius, the Soviet submarine commander.


The title of an obituary article by Robert Wiersema in Canada’s Globe and Mail sums him up quite perfectly: “Clancy knew that it was all about story.” While Wiersema asserts quite rightly that Clancy’s work is not high literature and even though he approaches it from a left of centre perspective that is the mirror opposite to what Clancy himself stood for, he recognizes that Clancy was a superb storyteller. It’s a magnanimous acknowledgement that, when it comes to fiction, mastery of the art of narrative is the card that trumps all. This goes all the way back to Aristotle, for whom plot was everything, followed in a quite secondary way by the development of character. For Aristotle, critical to plot was the logic of a beginning, middle, and end, in order to create a balanced fabric of story.


With the sea change of modernism, however, and all its corrosive questionings, coupled with the deeper journeys into the human psyche made by Freud, for example, story came to be devalued as an essential mark of good fiction. The literature of narrative languished, at least in the salons and in cultivated society. Figures like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rider Haggard gave way to writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, who turned their gaze inward and drew away from the Aristotelian model. This literary cultural shift came with a great impoverishment. In After Virtue, his landmark work of intellectual history, moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out that, from time immemorial in the West, story or narrative has played a critical role in providing a matrix within which a moral ethos and standards are transmitted across the generations. In a way, story is meant to hold a mirror to culture, while at the same time being vital to its vigour and  continuity.


Nonetheless, great storytelling endures, and it’s what the reading public instinctively gravitates towards, because we’re creatures who revel in the pattern and cohesion of a tale well told. Like the novels of Tom Clancy, the stories are not always artistically significant, but they do strike a chord. At times, though, even in our own day, just as in the past, there are writers who have achieved a sublime fusion of story and art. Think Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Or even other living masters of narrative like Bernard Cornwell or Conn Iggulden, whose work is more likely to be read a century from now than some of the more dreary confections of “literary” fiction.

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