Once upon a time…

DS, when asked recently what kind of stories he liked, informed me that he didn’t like stories which started ‘Once upon a time, blabbedy blabbedy blah, the end’.

This narrative ninja was a little surprised, since she’d noticed that DS seems to enjoy the Milly Molly Mandy series, in which every story starts more or less like that.

Was DS just being obtuse? Who will ever know. But it did make me think about the ‘naming up’ of stories; the self-conscious narrative.

Recently I read an article in The Australian by Delia Falconer (of The Service of Cloudsfame), who embarked on a critique of ex-Guardian-now-New-Yorker reviewer James Wood’s book How Fiction Works. In it, Falconer suggests that Wood shows a disdain for any work in which the narrative is self-conscious: ie. brings the reader’s attention back to the fact that they are reading a story rather than allowing them to be absorbed into the magical world of the story from go to woe.

Once Falconer had pointed this out, the narrative ninja became a little alarmed. How many readers feel the same way?, I wondered.

As usual it’s a bit hard to generalise, but I think there’s a place for a narrative voice to acknowledge the fact that a story is being told. I’m thinking of Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and, more recently, Paul Auster’s New York Stories.

Some of my bias toward settling in for a jolly good story comes from having been read some ripping yarns as a kid (I can’t say I was a big reader – unless it was Nancy Drew- or horse-related). And that process of being read to does involve a certain amount of ‘OK, snuggle in, I’m going to read you a story’.

The power of the oral tradition of story-telling was immense for Aussie Aboriginal cultures. The telling of Songlines or Dreaming was integral, and I defer to the Wiki:
In Australian Aboriginal mythology, The Dreaming or Altjeringa (also called the Dreamtime) is a sacred ‘once upon a time’ [1] in which ancestralTotemic Spirit Beings formed The Creation.)

Not a self-conscious narrative, perhaps, but definitely a tradition of uttering the ‘once upon a time’, for which context matters.

But I do wonder if a self-conscious narrative has garnered a bad name for itself via the Enid Blyton style of narrative, which frequently married some classic moralising with a righteous, self-satisfied tone; as though that’s just what a story ought to be.

And yet, even today, Blyton’s books are widely read and thoroughly enjoyed. Go figure.

I suspect it has to do with the deeply escapist nature of reading a novel, in which one can be transported to another place, time, world. Having the narrator remind you it is ‘just’ a story can be at once a relief and yet at the same time a great disappointment.

PS. You are reading a blog.

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