What Makes a Story "Big" or "Small"?

There are few ways to see the fundamental sexism of American culture as clearly as by observing what stories many people consider “big” and “small.”

This week my historical novel, Lilli de Jong, comes out in paperback. The novel brings forward the history of girls and women forced by prejudice to give up their “bastard” babies. Being forcibly separated from one’s offspring is a fundamental human tragedy. We see this lately through immigrants whose children have been ripped away and parents whose children have been killed by murderers bearing guns. Do children have to be caged and murdered in order for the powers at large to consider the bonds between parents and children a big story?

In 1883 Philadelphia, Lilli, a Quaker schoolteacher, realizes she’s pregnant after her lover has left for Pittsburgh. Expelled from home, she gives birth at an institution, planning to return home without her baby. Most unwed girls and women gave up their newborns then — many still do — due to the consequences, which could include permanent expulsion from home, rejection from most forms of employment, and exploitation due to their desperation. But Lilli decides to keep her helpless newborn. Motherhood can be a radicalizing experience, especially if society pits itself against your ability to provide for your child and arrays its forces against your child’s well-being and yours. Lilli de Jong is transformed by motherhood into a more powerful voice and presence.

Recently I spoke with an expert on Hollywood — a very nice one whom I hold in high regard — who talks all day with a wide range of Hollywood producers. This conversation allowed me invaluable access to the way those producers think. This person told me that I needed to understand that Lilli’s is “a small story.” Hollywood, I was told, is looking for “big stories.”

“So what’s a big story?” I asked. “One with bombs and war?”

I was partly joking, since this is such a cliché. The answer was yes. 

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Janet BentonComment