On Storytelling: A discussion of the privileging of certain forms of storytelling over others

Part One: Please don’t tell me that the movie was better than the book.

I suppose the first stories I was introduced to were the ones my parents told me, the ones that sent my infant self into sleep. As soon as I could talk, I was the one who held those books, told the story that I could see even though I couldn’t read yet. I would make up stories to go along with the pictures, each time telling a different story even if the pictures didn’t themselves change.

Soon after that again, I was introduced to the magical world of movies, animated Disney classics at first, but with the occasional slightly more Hollywood Classic thrown in every once and a while. I became deeply attached to these people, these stories acted out in front of me.

Music wove in and out of each day, listening to the 80s music my parents would play around the house, and occasionally sitting my parents down to treat them to my tone-deaf toddler theatrics. I would tell my parents stories of great adventures, and occasionally write them down when I learnt how.

So, you see, I’m a longstanding fan of stories. In all their forms.

***

I’m sitting in the break room at work with a book in one hand and an apple in the other, absolutely gobbling up the story and pretty much ignoring the apple entirely. A co-worker walks in and audibly snorts when they see I am reading a book.

They then proceed to interrogate me about my reading habits, which I inform them are less like habits and more like a long-term addiction.

And then they say the words that any avid book reader dreads.

“Why don’t you just watch the movie. It’s probably better anyway.”

I won’t lie, hearing this for the millionth time that day alone made me want to throw my book at them.

As one of the many times I am regularly asked why I am always reading books, as if the possibility of watching ‘the movie version’ is infinitely better, this particular moment stood out for me because my co-worker also told me, mere moments later that they don’t read books at all, simply because they prefer movies instead.

This shocked me beyond belief. How could they not read books when they are so much better than movies?

And then I realised I was part of the problem.

***

For some reason, books and movies have been pitted against each other for nearly a century in the battle for the ultimate storytelling form. For many people, this is the most common example of the privileging of certain forms of storytelling, though this act of privileging specific forms is not exclusive to film and books. Television, visual art forms, music and theatre, along with other literary forms are often subject to this system of privilege as well.

I suppose it is easy to blame it all on the old High Culture/Popular Culture dichotomy, to point the finger at centuries of aristocratic shaming of any forms of creativity widely available to the public. However, it clearly goes beyond this.

To place certain forms of creative work over others is to privilege particular forms of access, with movies and television often being more accessible to a mass audience (I speak here of course of low to middle class people in developed nations where these forms are readily available. I will continue to address other traditions of storytelling below.) These fast and easily consumed forms are often more accessible to audiences, whether they are paid for or otherwise. It clearly takes less time to watch a film or television show than it does to read a lengthy book, and so for more people, this is the most accessible form of storytelling for them and seems the ‘better’ form for this very reason. Similarly, the restricted accessibility of certain forms of traditionally high culture forms of storytelling such as theatre, dance and opera often see these forms labelled better because of their long-standing (and often expensive) cultural value.

But I feel there is another problem at work here. To engage with other forms of storytelling can be quite easy also. It takes less time again to listen to a good song, or moments to view an astounding piece of artwork. So why do we prefer films and television, or other video media?

***

For thousands of years, our primary form of storytelling was exactly that, telling stories. The verbal tradition of storytelling is often ignored in debates about creative forms of storytelling.

And I think it is because we want to think we have found better ways of telling stories, when in fact, verbal storytelling forms the very basis of all other forms of storytelling. Films, plays, songs, even novels, rely upon the tradition of verbal storytelling in order to create the foundation for the work they do. Every form is developed with an understanding of the role of the storyteller and their voice in the sharing of stories.

We experience this on a personal level every day, telling our friends and family what we did that day, any funny anecdotes, things that made us sad or made us laugh. We rely upon verbal storytelling for so much of our social interaction.

We even have social media accounts dedicated to telling our stories.

I don’t want to compare tweets and novels and say they are all equal in merit. Often, there is more effort put into a published novel, or completed film than goes into a single tweet.

But that isn’t a matter of the strength of the form. That is purely the work of the person behind the story. An artist, a true storyteller could take any form and share their story with immense power.

That is the power of stories.

***

We are constantly trying to one-up ourselves, trying to convince ourselves that each move we make can be characteristically better than the next.

But when it comes to storytelling, I think we need to take a step back and really consider that all forms of storytelling are equally as valid and equally as important.

One form is not characteristically better than the other, simply because it is a different form. It is the way in which a storyteller chooses to use the form that really makes the story worth paying attention to.

So we should stop trying to convince one another that the book was better than the movie, or vice versa, and instead just be grateful that we are all as equally invested in storytelling, in all its varied and exciting forms, as we are.

‘Part Two: They better get this adaptation right’ is coming soon.

 

 

© Hayley New 2015

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