Thursday 28 May 2015

Comparative Overview of the Forms of Storytelling with Reference to the Digital Age

Comparative Overview of the Forms of Storytelling with Reference to the Digital Age

 Prof. Dilip Barad,

Dept. of English, M.K. Bhavnagar University

How to cite this article:

MLA Style:
Barad, Dilip. "Comparative Overview of the Forms of Storytelling with Reference to the Digital Age." Spark International Online Journal III.3 (2011): 35-61.
APA Style:
Barad, D. (2011, Aug). Comparative Overview of the Forms of Storytelling with Reference to the Digital Age. (B. Parmar, Ed.) Spark International Online Journal, III(3), 35-61.


Over the ages the form of storytelling has undergone significant changes. The Sanskrit and Greek masters were happy in telling their stories in form of verse letters, plays and epics;  in the 18th century ‘Novel’ was seen as the most suitable form for storytelling. In the 20th century, the fragmented life found its expression in theatre of absurd, problem plays and the life full of hurry and flurry gave shorter forms like novella, one-act plays and short stories. At the fag-end of the first decade of the 21st century, some forms have emerged to cater the needs of techno-savvy netizens. The Epistolary form of telling story initiated by Richardson in ‘Pamela’ found its new manifestation in Matt Beaumont’s novel e’ in 2000. Matt has experimented with the epistolary form by replacing letters by emails among the characters. The advent of e-novels is seen as yet another step further in the evolution of new forms of telling story, and yet another form to mesmerize the world with its synergism of words and videos is in the buds. This new form of storytelling is ‘vook’ – a word coined for ‘video-book’.
This paper attempts to compare the changing forms of storytelling, and also aims to examine the connection between at the forms of literature, changing times and tastes of the reading audience.

Wordle of the Abstract

“Over all [the scholar’s work] should rule a searching intelligence, asking that fundamental question of the septic: just what do you mean by that? And if the question is asked with a real desire to know and understand . . . the work is done.”  - G.R. Elton, The Practice of History (New York, 1967) 141. (Altic 1993)

At the heart of literature is telling story, and its success depends on how well the story is told. How well it is told, however, depends largely on the pleasure it gives to readers. This pleasure, if it is conditioned by ‘the law of poetic truth and poetic beauty’ (Arnold 2001), elevates the story to the height of a classic. The pleasure quenched by the reader from the truth and beauty of literature is also governed by the race, milieu and the moment. I mean to say, the taste of the reader and the time in which it is written also has its own aesthetic influence on the art of telling story.
The poor peasants and brave warriors of Greece and Mahabharata found dramas and epics better forms of story telling to quench their thirst for aesthetic life. Reaching to this point in the history of narrating story for aesthetic pleasure and to teach moral lessons on niti-shastra, it has undergone important changes. Slowly and steadily, the oral tradition metamorphosed into written and from there into performing art. The Aesop’s fables (Long 2011) in the West and Panchatantra & Hitopadesha in East had its beginning in oral story telling (Wikipedia). Later on they were found in written form.
From here on wards, I would rather concentrate on the literary tradition in Literature in English than on world literature, because by speaking on changing art of story telling of world literature, I would display my ignorance than knowledge.
Coming to the 18th century, the century where in new forms of telling stories are experimented and invented, we find that the fire, fine feelings, enthusiasm, the glow of the Renaissance and the moral earnestness of Puritanism (Long 2004) is lost from their art of telling story. Renaissance was the time of fiery passion, hunger to grow, unlimited enthusiasm to achieve the unachievable and never ending passion for life. Thus the classical form of telling story i.e. Drama, found its new format in Christopher Marlow. Though, still it is drama and poetry only, yet the performance of drama is quite different than that of classical Greek & Latin masters. Use of Blank verse, breaking of unities and mixture of tragicomedies gave new style to the old art of telling story. Shakespeare polished all the gems that were invented by Marlowe in such a shining state that none can make it more polished there after. It was John Dryden (1668) Who said this to enumerate the phenomenon in ‘Of Dramatik Poesie, An Essay: “Those beauties of the French poesy are such ... it where it is not: they are indeed the beauties of a statue but not of a man”. The plays written by Shakespeare and University with all deformities of plot construction and characterization were still true representation of human soul and nature.

During renaissance and reformation, we had the tradition of telling story in prose form also. The University Wits and thereafter John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, Addison and Steele carried on this tradition and went on adding a component or two by the time Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) and Henry Fielding (1707-1754) turned it into the new form of telling story – well-known today as NOVEL. (Watt 1957)
The spread of education led to more readers. The way technique of making papers migrated from China to Europe and Gutenberg’s printing press encouraged more writing, similarly education helped in the spread of more magazines and prose writing. Thus 18th century has more number of magazines and novels to cater the needs of the reading public. The education to females in 18th century gave rise to more number of female readers. (Compton-Rickett) The coarseness of Fielding, Smollett and Stern did not satisfy the aesthetic urge of these female readers. Thus we have women novelist in abundance in the same years.
Thus we can perceive that the time, the moment, the philosophies and thoughts of the era has tremendous impact on the art of telling story. Compton- Ricket has rightly noted in The History of English Literature (1946) that the masculine qualities comprehend a broad grasp of general principles, a logical constructive power of a faulty for dealing largely and sanely with the big issues of life. The feminine qualities on the other hand, lie in subtlety rather than vigor of perception, an intuitive insight into the delicate complexities of character and an intensity and tenacity of passion.  As illustrations of the masculine and feminine methods of approaching the social life to the late 18th century we have Fielding and Jane Austen, each of them essentially a painter of manners, concerned in the difference between town and country, satirical in treatment, eschewing sentiment as far as possible. Between the, we have a wonderful picture of the time, and the one complements the other, for the difference are rather sexual than purely literal – the one, bold, dashing, painting strong, vivid colours; the other, delicate, subtle, avoiding violent contrasts, and dealing rather in nuances.
This proves the point how art of story telling differed from man to woman. The education and experience of Fielding, the man on the roads, and Austen, the woman of the house, reflects the moments lived by the society in their predefined horizons.
The increasing number of readers gave rise to NOVEL as the most sought after form of telling story. The Victorians found in Novel what Elizabethans sought in plays.
The rise of magazines contributed to the rise of short story also. (Watson 1994). Short stories were a staple of early-19th-century magazines and often led to fame and novel-length projects for their authors, similar to one-act plays.
In the modern times, industrialization & growth of factories influenced the reading habits of people which in turn influenced creative writing also. (Ward 1978). The life became so fast that people were not able to spare more time to read long novels or see long plays. The short story and one-act plays were more suitable form of telling story for such an audience. Thus we find more numbers of such arts of telling stories in 19th and 20th century.
But still we find that the art of telling story is not that experimentative. The path and faith breaking philosophies of 19th and 20th century has its own toll on the art of telling stories. Darwin’s proving that the world in not created by God (1860), Freud’s libidal interpretation of human relationship (1896c) and Nietzsche’s final declaration – God is death (1882), shattered the faith of creative genius. It is well said by Mahesh Bhatt (film maker) that artist as a creative person is abnormally and inhumanly sensitive – for him a touch is a blow, a sound is noise and ay misfortune a tragedy. (qt from The Times of India article – “Is M.F. Hussain a Victim?”)
The influence of art of telling story does not require detailed mention here. The shattered faith fragmented the lives of people. The remaining work was done by two world wars. The witness of First World War and life under the thread of second was terrible for the sensitive creative mind. What we find in fragmented art of telling story. In fact, there is no story at all. It is all rambling of thoughts, trying to say something, utterance fail to express their anguished anxiety. Thus, the stream of consciousness in novel, collage in poem of TS Eliot, Auden and Yeats, absurdity in plays took place of sanity in telling stories. Martin Esslin (1967) makes a working hypothesis of the traits of story-telling art of these decades in his famous book. ‘The Theatre of the Absurd’.
The modernist art of telling story is the best example of how philosophical discourse can interpose its influence on it. The time it self was shattered and fragmented. Nothingness was the meaning and nihilism was their only optimism. The story tellers of the time faithfully reflected this in their art of telling stories.
The post modernist era was the time of deconstructionist ideology. In the modernist art of telling story, thought the stories were fragmented and nothingness was the only thing, yet the centre hold the ground strongly. In post modernism, the centre is de-centered. There was an attempt to identify meaning in meaninglessness of modernist art of telling story; here the meaning is nothing but free play of difference and deffarance (Derrida 1966). The centre is at the periphery and the periphery is at the centre. Thus Coetzee’s (1986) art of telling story has the centre in Friday ( in novel , 1986) and not in Robinson (Defoe). Mahabharat is retold from Draupadi’s view point. (Vaidya Spivak) Julian Branes’s The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters has a narration form woodworms angel and not from Noah’s. Derridian influence gave free play of experiment in telling stories. Derrida’s philosophical discourse impacted the art of story telling. Dattani’s plays have entre in eunuchs and HIV patients (Kumar T). Sarojini Sahoo’s feminist discourse undermines the western feminist discourse of Simon De Bouevier and gave rise to Indian feminism. Similarly, Dalit aestheticism is also on the high rise.
Whatever may be the influencing force, the last decades of 20th century betrayed several experiments in the art of story telling. Thus, Author John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) has three endings. This novel is a period novel inspired by the 1823 novel Ourika, by Claire de Duras, which Fowles translated to English during 1977 (and revised in 1994).
Other interesting experiments in art of telling story were done by B S Johnson. The Unfortunates (1969) was published in a box with no binding (readers could assemble the book any way they liked) and House Mother Normal (1971) was written in purely chronological order such that the various characters' thoughts and experiences would cross each other and become intertwined, not just page by page, but sentence by sentence. B. S. Johnson's infamous book-in-a-box is, if remembered at all, notorious for its presentation rather than its content. The "book" consists of a first and last section plus 25 other chapters, each one coming as a self-contained "pamphlet", that can be read in any order the reader likes. The subject matter concerns a journalist's day covering a football match in Nottingham, remembering previous times spent in the city with a lover now gone and a friend now dead. The innovative format permits Johnson to echo the random thought processes of his protagonist--the associations and reminiscences bubbling up in no fixed order as he walks through the city, watches and reports on the match and returns home afterwards. 
We have curios experiment in novel ‘A Void’ by Georges Perec (1995). A Void (translated from the original French La Disparition (literally, "The Disappearance") is a 300-page French lipogrammatic novel, written in 1969 by Georges Perec, entirely without using the letter e (except for the author's name), following Oulipo constraints.
The website has curious collection of such experimental novels written and published in later decades of 20th century.
If all these ages were marked by some peculiar social, political, economical, philosophical, anthropological etc contemporary issues, the 21st century is marked by the IT revolution. The time in which we live is known as the time of e-renaissance. Information and communication technology has brought in sweeping change in all walks of life. The technological tsunami began in wild waves in 80s and 90s. Today, as we enter second decade of 21st century, the world in deluged under the splurge of techno-tsunami waves. Now the question is has this revolution brought any change in art of telling story?
Well, forget about the literary value of his novels for time being. Just see what is the moving fore in the plot in his novels: the mobiles, internet and call centers. Yes, Chetan Bhagat’s One Night @ Call Centre (2005) has technology at its centre. Now, the God does not say in thunder, but He rings and talks on your mobile phones. Now, too much of thinking or rash actions are not fatal flaws or hamartia. The fatal flaw is leaving your email account open without logging out/signing out before leaving PC/laptop. In Three Mistakes of My Life (2008), the mobile call from best friend’s sister during climax brings havoc in the life of protagonist. Today, it is unimaginable to think of the story where in mobile or internet is not an important part of the play and vital part to play.
It is not only movers and shakers of plot, but the form of telling story is also affected. At the fag-end of the first decade of the 21st century, some forms have emerged to cater the needs of techno-savvy netizens. The Epistolary form of telling story initiated by Richardson in ‘Pamela’ found its new manifestation in Matt Beaumont’s novel ‘e’ in 2007. Matt has experimented with the epistolary form by replacing letters by emails among the characters. Thus, the novel is a multiple-perspective narrative where events are seen through the eyes of various people working for the agency, from temporary workers to CEO. e (novel) centers around corporate business structures, leadership, creativity, headhunting for and firing people to keep up appearances, work efficiency, business ethics, and all kinds of human weaknesses which stall progress by having employees waste their time and energy on unimportant things and which eventually prevent success. The advent of e-novels is seen as yet another step further in the evolution of new forms of telling story.
The characterization, situations, plots, etc are changing and finding new alterations. Even Sidney Sheldon type pulp fiction or J.K. Rowling type child fiction or Poe type detective fiction are affected by the digital wave. We have not Cyberpunk to replace traditional classical pulp fictions. Cyberpunk is a postmodern and science fiction genre noted for its focus on "high tech and low life." The name was originally coined by Bruce Bethke as the title of his short story "Cyberpunk," published in 1983 It features advanced science, such as information technologyand cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. Cyberpunk works are well situated within postmodern literature.(Wikipedia Cyberpunk).

Collaboration as against isolation is the key word in the digital age. Social media is nothing but collaborating. It seems that suddenly everybody want to ‘speak/write’. Listeners or readers are fast becoming rare species. Well, this trend of life is mirrored in Penguin project of WikiNovel.
A Million Penguins, the wiki-novel experiment currently underway at Penguin Books is trying to find out if a self-organizing collective of writers can produce a credible novel on a live website. A dubious idea if you believe a novel is almost by definition the product of a singular inspiration, but praiseworthy nonetheless for its experimental bravado. Though the project has not succeed yet, nearly 1500 individuals have contributed to the writing and editing of A Million Penguins, contributing over 11,000 edits making this, in the words of Penguin’s Chief Executive, ‘not the most read, but possibly the most written novel in history‘. 75000 people have visited the site and there have been more than 280,000 page views.( Ettinghausen 2007)

Such experiments in writing literature along lead one to think of the demise of literature. Kernan Alvin (1992) takes a critical look at the changing paradigm in society because of the influence of digital ways of life and tries to connect with with the literature. Let me quote at length from the review of his book ‘The Death of Literature:
“Kernan Alvin probes deeper, relating the death of literature to potent forces in our postindustrial world—most obviously, the technological revolution that is rapidly transforming a print to an electronic culture, replacing the authority of the written word with the authority of television, film, and computer screens. The turn taken by literary criticism itself, in deconstructing traditional literature and declaring it void of meaning in itself, and in focusing on what are described as its ideological biases against women and nonwhites, has speeded the disintegration. Recent legal debates about copyright, plagiarism, and political patronage of the arts have exposed the greed and self-interest at work under the old romantic images of the imaginative creative artist and the work of art as a perfect, unchanging icon. Kernan describes a number of the crossroads where literature and society have met and literature has failed to stand up. He discusses the high comedy of the obscenity trial in England against Lady Chatterley's Lover, in which the British literary establishment vainly tried to define literature. He takes alarmed looks at such agents of literary disintegration as schools where children who watch television eight hours a day can't read, decisions about who chooses and defines the words included in dictionaries, faculty fights about the establishment of new departments and categories of study, and courtrooms where criminals try to profit from bestselling books about their crimes. According to Kernan, traditional literature is ceasing to be legitimate or useful in these changed social surroundings. What is needed, he says, if it is any longer possible in electronic culture, is a conception of literature that fits in some positive way with the new ethos of post-industrialism, plausibly claiming a place of importance both to individual lives and to society as a whole for the best kind of writing.” (Kernan
It is difficult to disagree with Kernan. The Gutenberg has tolled the death of printed poem or novels. As an alternative to this Apocalypse of print, some theorists, critics or artists have already found solutions of „escape”. New forms of literary practice access digital resources and force the boundaries of „literature” to expand to visual, cybernetic, hyper-textual territories. (Echinox Journal 2011). This experience of visual, cybernetic & hyper-textual is experimented in form of Vook. (

A vook is a new innovation in reading that blends a well-written book, high-quality video and the power of the Internet into a single, complete story.
You can read your book, watch videos that enhance the story and connect with authors and your friends through social media all on one screen, without switching between platforms.
Vooks are available in two formats: As a web-based application you can read on your computer and a mobile application for reading on the go. With the web-based application you don't have to download programs or install software. Just open your favorite browser and start reading and watching in an exciting new way. You can also download and install the mobile applications through the Apple iTunes store and sync them with your Apple mobile device.
Vook has a simple idea: put great filmmakers together with great authors and let them create a new kind of media. But for this to succeed, we need a talented filmmaker who can be imaginative, work with another creative vision and shoot and edit for an entirely new form.
For more than 500 years the book has been a remarkably stable entity: a coherent string of connected words, printed on paper and bound between covers. (Vook)
But in the age of the iPhone, Kindle and YouTube, the notion of the book is becoming increasingly elastic as publishers mash together text, video and Web features in a scramble to keep readers interested in an archaic form of entertainment. The readers are invited to log on to a Web site to watch brief videos that flesh out the plot.
Some publishers say this kind of multimedia hybrid is necessary to lure modern readers who crave something different. But reading experts question whether fiddling with the parameters of books ultimately degrades the act of reading. (Rich 2009)
I would like to quote at length form what Moroko Rich reported in The New York Times (Oct 1, 2009 Pg A1)
“There is no question that these new media are going to be superb at engaging and interesting the reader,” said Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.” But, she added, “Can you any longer read Henry James or George Eliot? Do you have the patience?”
The most obvious way technology has changed the literary world is with electronic books. Over the past year devices like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader have gained in popularity. But the digital editions displayed on these devices remain largely faithful to the traditional idea of a book by using words — and occasional pictures — to tell a story or explain a subject
Simon & Schuster is also releasing two digital novels combining text with videos a minute or 90 seconds long that supplement — and in some cases advance — the story line.
“Everybody is trying to think about how books and information will best be put together in the 21st century,” said Judith Curr, publisher of Atria Books, the Simon & Schuster imprint that is releasing the electronic editions in partnership with Vook, a multimedia company. She added, “You can’t just be linear anymore with your text.” (Rich 2009)

Well, the question may arise at the end of this paper reading that ‘what is the meaning of this comparative survey of art of telling story? I would end this paper with following stolen words – quoted randomly from ‘The Search is All?: The Pursuit of Meaning in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, Staring at the Sun and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters’ written by Wojciech Drag.

“For Oliver, who found the whole idea deeply embarrassing?” Originally used by
Terry Eagleton to opens his recent book entitled The Meaning of Life (2007). What is more, in the preface he notes that writing about such a suspect concept as “the meaning of life” seems “fit for the crazed and the comic”. Why is the notion of “meaning” embarrassing to explore? Why are we so wary of it? Possible answers are many. One of them is that we have come to live in an age that distrusts “big words” and concepts which purport to account for the totality of human existence, which disregard variety and difference. The postmodern thought, which highlights the contingency of human life and announces the lack of any solid foundation to it calls into question the notion of absolute meaning and regards it as redolent of “an old-fashioned metaphysics”. The search for absolute meaning, I will argue, can also find its expression in a desire to establish a stable context of interpretation (such as religion or art) – a framework through which one can understand one’s own experience and make sense of it. It may also take the form of a longing for truth and authenticity, which would stand firm and intact in confrontation with the relativity, skepticism and moral chaos that appear implicit in the postmodern age marked by the demise of grand narratives. In the times when no new ideas are to be expressed, what we find is experiments with forms of expression. The end of cognitive receptivity deadens the creative grey cells of human mind. Is it the absence of creativity that more importance is given to form of expression rather than the idea of expression? May be it is the urge for instant gratification or to satisfy sensual pleasure that these sort of mingling of words and videos are experimented. May be it is the habit of techno-savvy mind to go for multi-tasking – doing several things at a time – reading, viewing, listening, discussing on social network, interacting with author and other readers – that these forms are emerging. During Modernist era, Eliots, Pounds James Joyces and Beketts were in search of form of expression which can express the fragmented existed of world war worn generation. They found in stream of consciousness, absurd theatre and mythical technique. May be today’s writer wants synergism of words and videos for better expression of their ideas and to give what reader wants.

Yes, the traditional ways of writing literature and reading literature is on death bed. In all ages past, we have experienced at each and every fin de si├Ęcle there is conflict between the new and the old. For the time being while the transition is happening, we find literature with the traits of the old and the new. It’s a different matter that such literature is hated by both, the old readers and the new readers. Shakespeare’s plays were compared with bedlam asylum. Wordsworth’s poems were considered childish, D.H. Lawrence was porno-writer, T.S. Eliot was not understood to the Moderns. Today, they are all ‘classics’. In a new era of globalization and terrorism, Eagleton (2003) warns, the bundle of ideas known as post-modernism is essentially toothless. In this eloquent synthesis of a lifetime of learning, Eagleton challenges contemporary intellectuals to engage with a range of vital topics-love, evil, death, morality, religion, and revolution-that they've ignored over the past thirty years. In his cry for more holistic and humane way of "reading" the world, it becomes essential to see how art of storytelling is undergoing sweeping change under the influence of digital age. It would be interesting to watch how will comparative literature and literary theory respond to these new practices? Will the theorists and critics consider “old” theories fulfilled by the „empowerment of the reader”? Will they feel the need to forge new concepts and new methods? Or will they seek entirely new perspectives to which traditional methods can be adjusted? Alternative conceptual and methodological discourses emerge in present-day discourses on literature, springing from totally different points of view. The expansion of literature beyond the paper-written support and the expansion of digital media to the realms of literature engage writers and researchers of the literary field in a rethinking of their own creative identity and of their disciplinary approach. (Echinox Journal)


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