Story Telling in the 21st Century

Women's College, University of Sydney, logo for their History/Herstory Conference 2011
Story telling was the subject of a conference I attended at University of Sydney’s Women’s College recently.  History, journalism and fiction writing were covered by the  History or Herstory conference.  Not only were a broad range of genres covered, the conference also covered a wide range of issues from the traditional to those arising from the technological revolution we are experiencing.  For the last few weeks I have been mired in domestic mundanity.  This conference was a welcome diversion!

Over the last few months I have been exploring the use and implications of technology for history, so I was looking forward to the panels which were focussing on these issues.  I was not disappointed.  The panel discussing new ways to share stories and the future of the book generated vigorous discussion and was certainly the highlight of the conference for me as was the session that followed it on the topic ‘e-books vs. books’.  There was the expected concern about the market for books and the disruption to publishing caused by the emergence of the book but it was good to hear a considered discussion that did not settle for one extreme or other.  Pip Smith, who has harnessed new technology in some exciting creative initiatives, captured this mood when she said that we should not be “absolutist” about our position on books and e-books.  Mark Tanner reiterated this comment in the next panel when he argued that it is not an “either/or situation”.  Tanner looks after Google’s relationships with publishers throughout Australasia and south-east Asia.  Despite having a vested interest in the e-publishing business, he had no qualms about arguing that books will continue to have a role to play alongside e-books.

The conference recognised that while the physical book would not disappear, the new technology is imposing an uncomfortable period of adjustment in the publishing world.  Alexandra Nahlous shared some of her insights gained as an editor for Pan Macmillan.  She said that it had been a bad year for fiction and particularly women’s fiction.  While she was frank with the difficulties currently facing publishing she was positive in her outlook.  She cited the decision of self-published author, Amanda Hocking, to sign a contract with a publishing house as evidence that traditional publishers are still valued by authors in the digital age.  She also noted that the book as an artefact will become increasingly important in the market.  These books have high production standards and are appreciated as an artwork.  Coincidentally today I read about an exhibition of such books at the State Library of Victoria.

“Now is the time to take risks”, Nahlous declared.  Her co-panelists Carolyn Burns, Alice Grundy, and Pip Smith are certainly doing that.  Smith pointed out that e-books can do different things to traditional books.  The ubiquitous web link presents profound possibilities to the author of an e-book.  She gave the example of the app for Al Gore’s latest book, Our Choice, as showing the potential of the e-book.  Currently many e-books are merely duplicates of books.  I sat there listening to the conversation buzz and ideas for exploring the medium of e-books to share history popped into my mind.  Are any historians currently producing innovative e-books for the general reader?

There can’t be a discussion about technology and writing without the discussion of social media.  Writers write to be read after all and what easier way to bring your writing to the attention of potential readers than to engage with social media?  Alexandra Nahlous said it was now “mandatory” for authors to be using social media.  Alice Grundy pointed out that social media only works for authors if they themselves are using it – it just doesn’t work if authors delegate this to staff at their publishers.  Yeeeees!  I have winced in pain at reading  ‘official’ blogs of various authors but clearly written by publicists.  These blogs are wooden and impersonal – the antithesis of social media.

However, it is a mistake to regard social media as merely a means to flog your work. I think the word ‘engage’ best describes the attitude that is needed for social media.  If you merely use it for your own ends you will not realise the potential for you and others online.  A person who engages with social media recognises it is a public conversation and as with any conversation you should listen actively and be willing to learn.  Pip Smith observed that being engaged with social media makes you a better writer because you read more.  People share links on social media.  As a writer you will link yourself to other writers and everyone shares their favourite pieces of writing.  Social media can be inane if you choose to follow people who give hourly descriptions of their cold, or graphic accounts of their night on the town.  Why link to these people when you can link to the large number of people who want to share profound thoughts and explore deep and meaningful topics?  Social media for me is a continuation of university, but one that is more interested in originality of thought and depth of understanding than qualifications and CV.

While there was discussion about the impact of technology on story telling at the conference there was also considerable time given to traditional issues in story telling that will always be there whatever the state of technology.  Historian Ann Curthoys stated that historians still need to test evidence, draw evidence from different sources and different points of view, and remember how much is not on the internet.  I concur.  While researching for my thesis it was evident that the sources that were being digitised were those that tended to be mainstream and items that people today can easily relate to.  I found that the newspapers from the labour movement that were relevant for my thesis research had not been digitised.  I would not have covered the diversity of views regarding Queensland’s “Bible in State Schools” referendum if I had not consulted these newspapers. Likewise religious newspapers were widely circulated in the early twentieth century and carried influence.  These also have not been digitised.  If I had not consulted these I would have limited my insight into how the campaign for the passing of the referendum was conducted.  There were many documents of a more private nature that were held in various archives that were also significant for my thesis.  While there is a huge increase in the amount of historical sources available on the internet, historians must still spend considerable time at archives and libraries.

Our society needs to share stories.  Aboriginal academic and novelist, Larissa Behrendt, argued that telling stories is one of the most powerful ways to explain why a law or policy is wrong.  Her co-panellist the editor of the Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald editor and former editor of the Herald’s Good Weekend magazine, Judith Whelan, said that it is through sharing stories that stereotypes can be challenged and the issues behind stories can be examined.  Both Behrendt’s and Whelan’s comments resonated with me.  For many years I have been working to raise awareness in Australia of Iran’s persecution of Baha’is which is sadly ongoing.  Much of this work is about publicly sharing the stories of those now living in Australia who have had to flee Iran because of this.  Just a few days ago I had been working with a Baha’i refugee from Iran and we had discussed the importance of her retelling her experiences in Australian media so that Australians can understand the serious issues that are involved and voice their concerns.

Story telling is as old as humanity itself and has always played a fundamental role in people’s lives. New mediums and forms for story telling have evolved over the ages but rather than displacing old methods, these have just added diversity to the way we tell stories.  People will continue to sit together and exchange yarns.  The book, radio, television, cartoons and computers did not replace oral story-telling, they added to it.   While the number of physical books sold will diminish in the future, I believe that the book will never be completely displaced.  Moreover, we are at an exciting juncture in the history of story-telling where new mediums and forms are being created to tell and share stories in creative ways.  How will historians respond?

References and Further Reading

  • The conference programme and profile of all the speakers can be downloaded from the Women’s College website (pdf).
  • Amanda Hocking has written about self-publishing and the value of traditional publishers on her blog.
  • John Mayer shared some wisdom about social media and the creative process to music students last month.
  • I tweeted during the conference.  Check out my #WCHerstory tweets.
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2 thoughts on “Story Telling in the 21st Century

  1. Thanks for the great write up about the Conference. It is a buzz reading about it as it shows that our hard work paid off! On behalf of my fellow organisers, Kate Calhau, Amelia Walkley, Victoria Harper and Kate Wenban, I can say we really apprreciate it.
    Cheers,
    Jacquei Hicks

    • Thankyou Jacquei for your kind comments. I got a lot out of the conference – thankyou so much to you and your fellow organisers for putting it on!

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