Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Storytellers suck

I was a little depressed to hear on the radio the other day that we now have a 'storytelling laureate' (Taffy Thomas, pictured) because, I'm afraid, I just don't get on with storytelling.

Before I have to duck a few bricks I ought to explain. I know some enthusiastic storytellers, and they're good at it. I don't mean people who excel at gossip, I mean those who practice the ancient art of oral storytelling. We are a storytelling species - it comes naturally to us - and for many thousands of years the only storytelling form was oral. And it still works fine for an audience of children, but for some (and I stress some) adults, myself included, it just doesn't make the grade.

When compared with reading a book, I think storytelling is a bit like going back to a typewriter after you've been used to a good computer. It sort of does the job, but nowhere near as well. The thing is, I'm a very fast reader. I hurtle through books, taking things in at breakneck speed. I probably miss some of the nuances of fiction because of this, but it's how my brain works. Oral storytelling is, by comparison, desperately slow.

You can listen to the new laureate, Taffy Thomas, here to get a feel for the sort of thing I'm talking about. Not only is the pace fairly turgid there's a lot of repetition. This is common in oral storytelling, and is, I think, both for rhythm purposes and to aid memory in the oral tradition. But I just find it irritating. The other problem I have is that oral storytelling often labours the point. In Thomas's story on the radio, there's a punchline when he reveals the grandmother watching them rock the baby in a golden cradle, but then he has to go on to explain why this fulfills the wishes of the protagonist. I don't need that. It was obvious. Move on.

I love books, and loving good books (fiction or non-fiction) means loving story. But I don't have to love a particular medium. I'm not that fond of graphic novels either. They just don't work for me like a proper book. And the same goes for storytelling. Sorry, Taffy, but you're boring.


  1. Have to agree. I actually know Taffy. Well, I knew him best when he was in the Salami Brothers, but I've also seen him at very many folk festivals over the years - telling stories of course. To be honest [sorry Taffy], whilst it was great to see him getting better, and finding a 'new thing', he's not a very good story teller imho. BUT, keep in mind that his audience is very largely under 10 years old I would say.

    >>The thing is, I'm a very fast reader...

    This is interesting - and you're like most of the other people I know ['that expressed a preference']. I'm the reverse, i.e., I read at the same pace that I'd use if I were asked to read something aloud. And, I quite like that - like a story teller, I keep the suspense/plot building at the rate that I think the author had in mind [or maybe it's more that I've a slow mind].

    Which all suggests to me that writers write at story telling pace; yet that most readers consume prose somewhat faster. I've never written fiction, or anything that one might call readable for that matter, so, as a past author, I couldn't really say whether this is largely true though.

    PS, one can see why I don't write – there's some weird sentences in that lot!

  2. Might I beg to differ? I think storytelling is great and fills a void - in adults as well as children. I enjoy reading aloud to my kids. I think I'm good at it, and so do they. I'm so good, in fact, that I am ofteen asked to read stories to kids at our local library as part of their outreach programme.

    I also have on my desk a leaflet called 'Daddy, Read To Me', put out by the Children's Society as part of 'National Bedtime Reading Month'. This suggests that storytelling is in decline - to the detriment of children and parents alike. The leaflet says:

    Research shows that if boys don't see the men in their lives reading or talking about their favourite books, then they think reading's not important. But when dads do engage with their children's education, they significantly boost their children's IQ. their performance at school and their chances of having successful lives

    Now, I don't know how overblown these claims are, if at all. But if they are even a quarter true, theen the Storytelling Laureate is doing a good thing, because even a bad storyteller is better than no storyteller at all.

  3. Of course you can beg to differ, Henry, though it doesn't necessarily make you right.

    In fact there's nothing you've put that disagrees with what I said. I too loved reading stories to my children - and I've nothing against a book being read aloud.

    What I don't like is the oral storytelling tradition that uses a different word form to the written word with a lot of repetition and heavy-handness. Quite a different kettle of words.

  4. I feel sorry for Brian Clegg for not being able to enjoy storytelling. It is sad that he can't share what so many enjoy. However this does not take away the magic of Taffy Thomas and I can forgive Brian for being unkind to storytellers.

  5. Thanks for your sorrow and forgiveness, though I do find the third party mode of address a bit strange feeling.

    I accept absolutely that others DO enjoy storytelling - and good luck to them/you - but it's just not for me.

  6. Sorry, Brian, for the "third party" mode of address". I didn't mean it to sound like I was writing to "Points of View" and now realise that it was your blog I was writing to. I apologise.
    Taffy is in fact a very dear friend of ours and not just a storyteller to us. He has had an incredible journey through his life. He does deserve this recognition. I must admit that I have not enjoyed listening to every storyteller I have heard and I am guilty of using Taffy as my storytelling measuring stick. For me, he is the best. Perhaps you might consider going to one or two of his gigs.

  7. Thanks, Jeanette - I understand.

    There was no intention to put down Taffy - I'm sure if anyone deserves to be a storytelling laureate, it's him. But for me the medium doesn't work for adults. As I mentioned, I did hear him on the radio - and it didn't convert me, I'm afraid.