Friday, 14 May 2010


Aspects of Storytelling
blog 11 of author James Watson


Previous sorties into storytelling –
BLOG 7 – Triggers
BLOG 8 - Props
BLOG 9 – Frames, Codes and Characters
BLOG 10 –Fiction and News

Part 5:


Stories not only influence us, they are part of us. In his book Narratives in Popular Culture, Media and Everyday Life (Sage, 1997), Arthur Asa Berger says that we ‘spend our lives immersed in narratives. Every day, we swim in a sea of stories and tales that we hear or read or listen to…from our earliest days to our deaths’. We are truly Homo Narrens, the storytelling animal.

Of course, we can’t be exact and we certainly can’t predict what stories will influence, whom and to what degree. Very often we have to judge the potential power of stories – to influence or change attitudes, and sometimes to influence and change behaviour – by the reaction to stories; by the behaviour of those who would censor those stories.

When the Roman Catholic church introduced the Index Librorum Prohibitorum they were seriously worried about the power of books. Authoritarianism in all its forms
fears what books can do; in fact it very often shows more respect for the potency of reading than perhaps it warrants. Nobody ever suggested that, for example, the bar should be raised on Jane Austen’s work, unless it was those worried about people idling their time away with ‘a good read’.

On the other hand, Tom Paine would have been hanged, drawn and quartered by the British ruling establishment if they had been able to lay hands on him for his scurrilous condemnation of monarchs and self-serving governments in The Rights of Man and other works.

Fear of the collective
Attempts to curtail tale power have only marginally anything to do with what readers get up to in their own homes.

Rather it is about stories that bring people out of their homes to join the company of others with questions to ask, demands on their lips. What the censors fear most is people power. When those responsible for publishing D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in paperback landed in court the target was not the book but the kind of people who might read it and be influenced by it; that is, what Edmund Burke one termed the ‘swinish multitude’.

Today those who rule us are more polite about these things: we are customers, sometimes citizens and the Official Secrets Act keeps the only really dangerous ‘tale power’ under lock and key.

Slow seeds fermenting
For most of us, reading remains a personal experience. What impresses us, we share with friends and family. If we are teachers, we spread the world a little farther. We not only wish to communicate the specifics of a story or stories, but transmit our enthusiasm for reading itself.
Little by little, personal enthusiasms are shared, passed along, passed down.

At this level we are considering personal empowerment, but it would be risky to underestimate the transition of acorn to mighty oak. Indeed every collective begins with individuals, minorities; every ideology that at first struggles to surface is the work of individuals.

Without St. Paul, where would Christianity be? Without Karl Marx would the most populous nation on earth be a Communist regime?

There are tales which so powerfully take hold that we can no longer control them. What begins as a narrative slowly or even suddenly becomes promoted to the level of myth. This takes the form of explanation, then hardens into definition finally graduating into an incontrovertible truth: one word for this is religion.

Those who might challenge that truth – a new generation of writers, for example, may find they are regarded as enemies and punished for daring to call Truth Myth.

As races, as nations, people seem to have a profound need for collective reassurance which is what stories are good at providing. American professor Ernest Borman has referred to what he calls ‘rhetorical fantasies’ that ‘fulfil a group psychological or rhetorical need’.

In the Journal of Communication Autumn 1985, Borman writes that when members of the mass share a fantasy, ‘they jointly experience the same emotions, develop common heroes and villains, celebrate certain actions as laudable, and interpret some aspect of their common experience in the same way’.

Ground prepared
1930s Nazism in Germany was delivered through propaganda but it seems to have been sown on receptive ground. There came a time when principles of democracy, tolerance, fair-play and justice tippled over into their opposites. Arianism, notions of white dominance, became the key narratives of the time, with variations at work in Italy and Spain.

How do you undo a ‘true’ story that has gathered up the power of myth and become the only story in town; the only tale the powerful will tolerate? One might suggest that honest history will do it combined with fearless journalism; but how long will that take?

It was a puzzle to me on visiting post-Franco Spain how little there was in the public domain telling visitors, or indeed the Spanish people themselves, about the Civil War; how little that war was commemorated.

Tell me how it happened…
The true story was so horrific, reminiscence about it so sensitive, possibly hazardous, that it remained for more than a generation a secret, no part of public discourse.

Yes, there was Picasso’s Guernica, the most dramatic counter-narrative to Franco’s fascist tyranny, but it was not until a TV soap, Cuentame Como (Tell Me How It Happened), first broadcast to the Spanish people in 2000, that the story of the Civil War and its aftermath became a public property.

Writing in the UK Independent (9 August 2002), Elizabeth Nash viewed the soap opera as catching ‘the imagination of all generations of Spaniards: those who remember Franco relish the authenticity of every detail; youngsters who never knew him are fascinated by this window on their otherwise silent and invisible history’.

Similarly, in Uganda, a radio serial modelled on the BBC’s The Archers, Ngom Wa (Our Land), told the stories of the victims of the Civil War in that country – the massacres, the kidnappings, the rapes, the forced marriages; allowing communities to come to terms with the suffering of the Ugandan people at the hands of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.

It is crucial to ask whether tale power is gaining or losing in the Age of Tweet, where 140 words may be our lot in a speeded up world where that number of words might be sufficient for most purposes of communication.

Fears abound about the younger generation abandoning their reading for text-tale; and in the wider context of Internet postings and exchange there are legitimate anxieties about the risk to traditional storytelling professions, journalism in particular.

Watch this space
We are not, of course, talking here about the dislodging, or failure to survive, of media forms. We are deliberating on the power of the story. If, in the past, the story had power became it was communicated through limited channels, is there an argument for saying that the more diverse those channels, the more story-power might be diluted?

At the moment, it is impossible to say, but what can be affirmed is that people are slower to change than technology, and that they are more likely to adapt that technology to their requirements than become its slaves.

Blaming the means of communication rather than attitudes towards its use makes for easy excuses. We may mourn the apparently trivial driving the serious into the margins of cultural life, and rue the dominance of those Usual Suspects, Profit and Celebrity.

Yet it was ever thus as any swift glance at history indicates. The difference is the opportunity to communicate now available to hundreds if not thousands where in years past those presenting their literary wares to the public were numbered in hundreds.

Today as never before there are detours around traditional gatekeepers. Nothing stands in the way of writers posting their stories, poems, protests, arguments. Naturally the downside of such opportunity is that distribution may be confined to one’s granny or the cat. However, the potential is what counts and with a little bit of luck the writer can, in theory for most of us, but actually for others, turn a dozen followers into
a thousand or even a million: they are all out there.

Ultimately, storytellers both influence and shape the world. As Plato (c.428-347 BC) believed, those who tell stories also rule society. Today, narrative is two-way, multi-way, feedback instant. Just occasionally our stories tune in to grander narratives in which the power-elite discover that communicative dominance is no longer their private, uncontested territory.
It is a tantalising question: bearing in mind the exponential growth of the blogosphere, where cyberspace and ‘my space’ have become synonymous, could it be that citizen stories pose a potential threat to existing structures of order and control, the ultimate example of tale power?


The Bull Leapers pictured at the beginning of this blog aimed to bring a myth down to a degree of historical earth without losing the magic of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Where would western history, culture and art be without the stories that have come down to us from Greece? The loss of the metaphors alone would have made our civilisation a a fairly barren peninsula had it not been swept by Homer's 'wine-dark sea'.

BLOG 12 will review the new biography by Michael Scammell – Koestler: The Indispensable Intellectual (Faber and Faber).

Thanks for reading this! As ever, feedback welcome.