[Ads-l] Adage: Only two possible stories: you go on a journey, or a stranger comes to town

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 1 17:27:40 UTC 2015


An adage about literature has been attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo
Tolstoy, and John Gardner. Here are three versions:

1) There are only two plots in all of literature: you go on a journey, or
the stranger comes to town.

2) All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a
stranger comes to town

3) There are only two possible stories: a man goes on a journey, or a
stranger comes to town.

I've been asked to trace the expression. Current hypothesis: The saying was
derived from a writing exercise John Gardner presented in: The Art of
Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (1984). Details are given further
below.

Any help with early citations and information would be greatly appreciated.

Below is the partial data for two citations I am attempting to learn about
and verify.

The metadata for the first citation is based on extracted text and
guesswork. Google Books did not specify the article title that I list.
Also, Google Books ambiguously listed number 1 or 2 of volume 14.

Year: 1986
Volume 14, Number: 1
Periodical: Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter
Article title: Notes from a Contest Judge
Article subtitle: David Long reports on his experiences
Article Subsection Number: 7
Page Number: Unknown

[Begin excerpt]
7. John Gardner once observed that there are only two plots: A stranger
rides into town, and A man goes on a journey. I think he's right: there's
no such thing as a new plot, and I don't expect to find one in the stack of
manuscripts.
[End excerpt]


Year: 1987 to 1989
Periodical: Literary Magazine Review
Volumes 6-7
Quote Page 11
Database: Google Books Snippet View; data may be inaccurate

[Begin extracted text]
John Gardner once said (I am told) that there are really only two plots: "A
stranger rides into town" and "A man goes on a journey." Both of these
plots examine a man or woman's ability to deal with an unfamiliar culture
(and the culture's ability to deal with an unfamiliar man or woman).
[End extracted text]

Back in 1984 John Gardner did not make any grandiose claims about all great
literature or all possible stories in "The Art of Fiction". But he did
refer to the "usual novel beginning" while presenting an exercise.

[ref] 1984, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John
Gardner, Section: Exercises, Quote Page 203, Published by Alfred A. Knopf,
New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
II. Individual Exercises for the Development of Technique  . . .

5. Write the opening of a novel using the authorial-omniscient voice,
making the authorial omniscience clear by going into the thoughts of one or
more characters after establishing the voice. As subject, use either a trip
or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order--the usual novel
beginning).
[End excerpt]

Some of Gardner's exercises were reprinted in "Harper's Magazine" in March
1984 including the text for exercise 5 given above.

[ref] 1984 March, Harper's Magazine, Volume 268, Section: Readings,
Exercises: For the Young Writer, (Excerpt from "The Art of Fiction" by John
Gardner), Quote Page 39, Column 1 and 2, Published by Harper's Magazine
Foundation, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

"The New York Times" was an important locus for the dissemination of the
adage, I believe.

[ref] 1987 April 30, New York Times, Hers by Mary Morris, (Hers was a
regular column; Mary Morris was the guest writer for a few weeks; Morris
was described as the author of "Nothing to Declare" to be published by
Houghton Mifflin), Quote Page C2, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
John Gardner once said that there are only two plots in all of literature:
you go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town.

Since women, for so many years, were denied the journey, we were left with
only one plot to our lives - to await the stranger. Indeed, there is no
picaresque tradition among women who are novelists. Women's literature,
from Austen to Woolf, is mostly about waiting, usually for love. Denied the
freedom to roam outside themselves, women turned inward, into their
emotions.
[End excerpt]

In 1989 a writer in "The Miami Herald" reprinted the assertion made by Mary
Morris about John Gardner.

[ref] 1989 June 18, The Miami Herald, Article: A Young Woman's Escape from
Life on Hold, Author: Debbie Sontag (Herald Staff), Quote Page 9C, Miami,
Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
Morris is fascinated with journeys, internal and round-the-world. In her
last book, Nothing to Declare, she offered a frank, gripping narration of
her own travels in Mexico and Central America. And in a column that ran in
The New York Times in 1987, she wrote:

"John Gardner once said that there are only two plots in all of literature:
You go on a journey, or the stranger comes to town. Since women, for so
many years, were denied the journey, we were left with only one plot in our
lives -- to await the stranger." Always, the stranger is a man.
[End excerpt]

Apple Computer executive John Sculley included the saying in his 1987 book
about his experiences in business:

[ref] 1987, Odyssey: Pepsi to Apple - A Journey of Adventure, Ideas, and
the Future by John Sculley with John A. Byrne, Section: About the Book,
Quote Page 423, Published by Harper & Row, New York, (Verified on
paper)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
Novelist John Gardner once said there were only two themes in all of
literature: someone goes on a journey, and the stranger comes to town.
Perhaps publishers sensed both themes in my experience.
[End excerpt]

In 2007 an article in "The New York Times" noted that several names were
attached to the saying:

[ref] 2007 November 4, New York Times, Town Without Pity by Stephen
Metcalf, New York. (Accessed nytimes.com on May 1, 2015)[/ref]

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/books/review/Metcalf2-t.html

[Begin excerpt]
Someone -- it's been attributed to everyone from Dostoyevsky to John Gardner
-- once said there are only two possible stories: a man goes on a journey,
or a stranger comes to town.
[End excerpt]

Garson

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The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org


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