Headless chickens and campfires

P1010494_editedThe flickering of the flames, the feel of the earth beneath shifting buttocks, the rising rhetoric of the shaman as he (it usually is he, isn’t it?) weaves his emotive yarn … it’s all very stirring isn’t it? But when you did last take in a short story or – and I hope you brought a pullover and a cushion – a novel this way?

It’s a guilty inner giggle, but I do quietly snigger to myself when I witness this trope being wheeled out. It’s not just that it feels a little deluded.

It’s a vision of story-telling that seems to hugely privilege the author/performer, and reduce the reader’s involvement to applause and possibly marshmallow-toasting – but it also feels affectedly primitive. A ruder man than I might even say ‘reactionary’. (That may have offended a few, I realise. So it goes.)

What’s brought on this insignificant little rant-ette? The immediate trigger is Facebook, where I’m seeing a lot of postings that boil down (and probably not in a billycan) to ‘Feeling, not thinking’. Mmm. One of my first thoughts – and feelings – on reading them was to remember a blog posting by Sharlyn Lauby, writing about a human tendency to think in binary logic, to reduce choices to A or B, and how better solutions might arrive from approaches that are less binary. A plus B gives us potentially greater options, greater depth and breadth. She wasn’t writing about fiction or literature or story-telling, but I still think she has a generally applicable point. (I tried to make that case in a blog written as part of my day-job here.)

The iconic image of the sage raconteur, howling their words over the roar of the flames, is only part of a human equation. I have a heart (yes, really, I do), but I have a head too. If you’re only appealing to one or the other, you’re only reaching part of me. And you’re leaving part of me unaffected. That’s not just reducing the experience for me, it’s reducing the range of possible touchpoints for you, no matter how eye-catching your storyteller’s robes or how dramatic your delivery.

(Another interesting point, perhaps: I recently listened to a story delivered with sermon-style brio and vigour, the content of which simply didn’t live up to the ‘drama’ injected into it. Story-telling isn’t just rhetoric. Drama isn’t just a tone of voice. It needs a modicum of content, surely? Fiction is manipulation, granted, but not manipulation alone.)

So why does this notion hold such appeal? It’s 2014, after all. Most of what we ‘read’ is consumed off pages or screens, and mostly solo. I’d hazard a guess that this has been largely true since literacy became the exception rather than the rule. Moveable type made moving words possible by means that didn’t depend on firewood or campsite gatherings. (I have sat on bare earth listening to a story-teller: last time was probably at WOMAD. It was mildly endearing, but it was more crowd-pleasing (although not terrifically so) that fiction. And I did devour a whole book at WOMAD once. But I did that in my tent, by torchlight, so gripped by the writing that I stayed up all night to read it. No lip-moving was involved on anyone’s part, except to say ‘are you going to put the torch out soon?’.)

So why the retro appeal? Is it that the attention-demands of an age of information glut make the ‘visceral’ (now there’s a modish word) a way of cutting through? Or is it that our heads are harder to reach than our hearts? Heads are, after all, the parts of ourselves we use to discriminate, to judge, to weigh things up. Heads offer more resistance to being ‘won over’, especially when they are operating outside the emotional tides of a group: they’re not so easily swayed.

I’m not promoting a ‘brain chemistry’ analysis that insists that emotions are mere chemical reactions, but then again I have been made to cry or feel joy by writers whose work I’ve encountered merely as black marks on a page. And I also wonder if a story that really ‘gets inside my head’ might stay with me for longer than one than grabs my heart. Emotions change more rapidly than moods – their half-life is shorter. Establish a compelling mood, provide telling details that can linger in the mind when the heat of the emotion has inevitably passed, and your impact may ultimately live on more powerfully?

Maybe I’m the kind of reader whose head kicks in as quickly as – or quicker than – his heart, but if it’s doing so in an act of judgement that might be an acknowledgement of the awareness of the power of stories: how far am I prepared to be swayed by my emotional response when what I’m hearing may not merit that reaction? Why is the story-teller hoping to have their intended response, and would it be deserved? Would be responding to the tale at purely a ‘gut’ level be an act of abdication? And isn’t responding without involving your head the behaviour of – metaphorically at least – a headless chicken? Is that what I want to be? And is that what the story-teller wants me to be?


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