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24 September 2008

The Story Machine

So I just had this really interesting meeting at the Australian Children's Television Foundation. And it got me thinking about stories, and narrative. And the way we consume those things.

There was an article in the New York Times that I meant to blog about a couple of months ago. It was one of those OH NOES kids don’t read anymore articles. The kind that seem to be written entirely with the purpose of pissing people like me off.

One of my favourite bits was this:

“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,” Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., wrote in the report’s introduction, “they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

This is the kind of ridiculous truism that really gets my hackles up. No, electronic media doesn’t provide the same kind of intellectual and personal development as reading does. But neither does watching TV/ getting plenty of fresh air and exercise/ eating leafy vegetables/ being good to your mother. BECAUSE THEY ARE DIFFERENT THINGS.

Nobody (outside the sensationalising of journalists) is saying that one should replace the other. And there are plenty of benefits sustained from engaging in electronic media that are not sustained from frequent reading.  

I spend a lot of time talking to teachers and librarians about technology, and why it’s important to use it in their classrooms (and why writing up an essay using Microsoft Word isn’t using technology any more than using a pencil is). I also spend a lot of time talking to teachers about how to foster a love of reading and books in the classroom.

The other day someone asked me if I thought there was an inherent contradiction there.

And I laughed.

Back to this New York Times article. It mentions a teenager called Nadia, who got really attached to a Holocaust memoir, and her enthusiastic parent tried giving her a fantasy novel (because that’s OBVIOUSLY the next step), and she didn’t like it.

Despite these efforts, Nadia never became a big reader. Instead, she became obsessed with Japanese anime cartoons on television and comics like “Sailor Moon.” Then, when she was in the sixth grade, the family bought its first computer. When a friend introduced Nadia to, she turned off the television and started reading online. Now she regularly reads stories that run as long as 45 Web pages. 

Okay. So she didn’t like the fantasy novel, and that experience turned her off reading novels. That’s sad. But she reads manga, and online fanfic, often. Voraciously, even. So exactly what part of this demonstrates that she is not a big reader? None of it. Nadia is a big reader. She spends a significant amount of her leisure time reading comic books, and reading online.

As do I.

The article goes on to say that Nadia writes her own fanfic as well, but then spends several paragraphs pointing out that some fanfic has lots of spelling mistakes.

Way to bury the lede, New York Times.

Can we go back for a minute? Past all the doom-and-gloom-kids-today bullshit and just rethink this?

This girl, Nadia, loves story.

She loves it so much that consuming it isn’t enough. She wants to spend more time with her favourite characters. She wants to push them into situations beyond the ones they experience in canon.

And every time Nadia reads or writes or watches or hears a story, it feeds her own story machine. It deepens her understanding of the way narrative works. And this understanding of story, of the mechanics of story, makes her love story even more.

Every time you read a book, an article, a piece of fanfic, watch TV, go to the cinema, you are feeding your story machine. It’s like breathing in.

And when you write a story, or blog, or draw a picture, or tell someone a lurid anecdote about what your crazy aunt got you for your birthday, or make a video, or write a song… you are also feeding your story machine. You breathe out.

And everyone who loves stories does this. Even if it’s just telling someone about a great book you read. 

It’s all breathing in, breathing out. 

Feeding the story machine.

(for a good way to feed your own story machine, check out the Inkys Creative Reading Prize)


Paul Stewart said...


A wonderful rant. Made me think of all those nights I spent huddled over the ducted heating with an X-Men comic in my hands and a look of total absorption plastered on my twelve year old face. I dined on servings of comics and pulp fiction (Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard...) and all the while my palate was being prepared for whatever was next. I eventually went on to teach Shakespeare to senior students which probably earns me some credibility in somebody's eyes, but that's not the thing. What's important is I was permitted to read whatever I could find and that freedom to choose my reading matter without any conditions placed upon the medium encouraged my appetite.

Nothing has changed for today's kids except the menu is considerably longer and more diverse. Not only can they read online, on iPods, Kindles, phones etc. but they can also easily produce their own works and deliver them to a massive audience. Today's kids can also be involved in a new sort of critical literacy via the crucible of debate that messageboards give rise to, and in expressing their point of view, they grow as writers, readers and communicators, contributing to - as you say - the story machine. (I wonder if Dana Gioia has ever put forth her views in that context?)

Oh dear. I've ranted too.

Thanks - a most enjoyable post.

RoboFillet said...

Thank you for this post! It is excellent and rational.


jonathan said...

I attended a seminar a little while back at which the presenter (whose name I can't remember) said, "a book is just a prop for telling a story".

As are so many other things, as you mentioned.

Wonderful post, thank you.

Jellyfish said...

This is an excellent piece of rantology.

I think it is really lucky that we have people like you, ones with a 'profile' (ooh-er), standing up and saying this kind of thing, because there are an awful lot of loud-voiced gibbons out there who just. don't. get it. We need to hear more from the likes of you and less from the likes of them.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. The writer of the New York Times conveniently forgot that stories were once passed around by bards and storytellers--a decidedly oral tradition and not a writen one. As you said, feeding the story comes from many sources and we stifle creativity if we limit it to only one.

Suzanne said...

spends several paragraphs pointing out that some fanfic has lots of spelling mistakes

In my experience as an editor, I can tell you that lots of 'real' writers can't spell either. But that doesn't make their writing any less brilliant.

And the rest of the article: daft.

Your post: spot on.

from the royal fortress meadow said...

I agree with you, the article was ignorant, at best, and ignored the core element of love for story.

It seems the people bemoaning the state of reading and technology are the same ones who use technology (like Leapfrog 'self-reading' books or the 'jump-start' video games) in place of actually sitting and reading to children. Or sitting and talking with a child/young person about their story choices (I like fantasy novels, but not every single one ever written).

from the royal fortress meadow said...

By the way--
Tag. I hope you'll play Eight Random Things blog tag with us, because you are interesting. Click on my link for more info.