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Podcast stories, like reading, have the advantage of engaging the audience’s imagination. And lest the technophobes among us decry the dominance of gadgets, rather than the gadgetry taking us into a brave new world, the technology is actually allowing us to participate in a much older form of literature: storytelling…

storytelling

Some time ago, on these pages, I predicted the end of the written word in the age of the screen. Several forces in a technological revolution, I pointed out, are coming together to bring about the demise (or at least the decline) of the written word:

The computer and the screen have revolutionized book production, but the prophet in me sees another more radical revolution, and it has to do with the nature of language itself. With the predominance of textual language we forget that language was first meant to be spoken not written and read. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was spoken. Stories were told. Instructions were given. Then the stories and instructions were memorized and passed down not in scrolls and scriptures, but by word of mouth. Stories were dramatized and then became dramas that were acted out. The actors memorized and passed the text on to the next generations through the formal traditions of drama, storytelling, teaching and memorization.*

While I still write thousands of words a week for my blog and various websites, journals, and papers, I am aware that many editors and readers want shorter essays, shorter paragraphs, and shorter words. At the same time the appetite for podcasts and YouTube videos is increasing. Bloggers have morphed into vloggers, and broadcasters have become podcasters. My own blog has evolved to be a blog and podcast website, and the ease by which I can record and save a podcast means I am podcasting now as much as I am blogging.

Some writers will lament the decline of the written word. I’m not sorry. I write to communicate, and if my audience will listen but not read, then I’ll talk. Furthermore, I have felt for some time that short stories and novels have been migrated to an ivy-walled ghetto for literary types. A great gulf exists between cognoscenti and hoi polloi, so that fine literature like fine liturgy has too often become a matter of good taste for educated people who sip sherry afterwards and discuss the nuances of symbolism, irony, bamboolism, schenectady, or some other arcane figure of speech.

Everyone asks, “Where are the fine Catholic writers of our age?” Maybe that is the wrong question, and if you ask the wrong question it is impossible to get the right answer. Perhaps we should be asking, “Where are the fine storytellers of our age and how are they telling their stories?” I believe some of them are to be found writing books, but they are also writing screenplays and drama and exploring new, old ways of telling stories.

One of those ways is to return to the spoken word. At my blog I have started a podcast channel, for example, called Stories of the Unexpected, in which I simply tell a true story about the miraculous, the marvelous, the supernatural, or the paranormal. Then I reflect on the story and ponder the mystery of the “other side.” There is an immediacy to stories told mouth to ear that suits the content.

Another channel I have developed is True Fairytales. I have dusted off some Narnia-like tales I wrote years ago when I was a school chaplain. They were designed to be told, not read, so I am recording them as podcasts, adding some whimsical music and a little introduction about fantasy literature. Along with my own stories, I am telling some of the classics from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and George McDonald. My hope is that the stories will be listened to by families on car journeys, by folks out walking or exercising, fed into little imaginations through electronic gadgets, and used by schools and families as an introduction to the fantastical world of fantasy literature.

Delivering stories in this way costs next to nothing, and the listener engages quickly and easily from his device. Yet, podcast stories, like reading, have the advantage of engaging the audience’s imagination. The film or television version of a story shows all and therefore dulls the imagination. Peter Jackson’s version of Middle Earth for example, will always be seared in our minds, and thus one’s own imaginative encounter with J.R.R. Tolkien has been steamrollered by Mr. Jackson’s vivid interpretation. A story that is heard, on the other hand, still engages our imagination, and lest the technophobes among us decry the dominance of gadgets—rather than the gadgetry taking us into a brave new world—the technology is actually allowing us to participate in a much older form of literature: storytelling.

The potential for this form of literature is enormous. Already creative types are re-creating the old days of radio drama with drama podcasts and short stories. I have developed what I am calling a podcast novel—in which I will play a character who tells his tale as it would be told in a first-person narrative. Renegade Priest will be serialized and published on my blog as stories, radio dramas, and popular fiction once were in weekly magazines.

Along with the change in content delivery has come a change in audience reach. The earlier form of publishing required broadcasting to be cost-effective. Publishing a book, magazine, or newspaper, or running a radio or television station, was an expensive undertaking. To make it pay the publisher had to aim for as large an audience as possible. This determined what books he would publish and what programs he would produce. With the new technology all that has changed. Instead of one book reaching millions, millions can produce one book, video, or podcast. Their audience might be small, but if it is global it could still be significant. Will the quality be high and the literature immortal? Probably not, but then some of the greatest literature was produced by journalists who saw a market, honed their skills, and produced content that was both popular and immortal. The good stuff lasted. The wind blew away the chaff.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. The increased quantity will produce an increasing amount of dross. But it also means that bright, creative talents who would never have had their work published will be able to gain an audience, even if that audience is small—and from that small start, excellent storytellers will emerge and timeless tales will be told.

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*See “The Screen Revolution.” 

Editor’s Note: The featured image is licensed under Creative Commons 4.0.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Maybe I’m just an old timer, but I have a hard time picking up the nuances of a spoken story over a written one. You can savor the beauty of a well written sentence when you see it on the page. It flies by too fast when it’s spoken. Or maybe I’m just too much of a “cognoscenti” to not want to see words on a page. I do enjoy a good audio book, but only when I can read along with it.

  2. Thanks for this article. This is exactly what I’m trying to tell people too. Our world has become so complicated that we can rely on the old forms (stories [whether written or spoken]) in a new way (blogs, videos, audio) to take a break and truly encounter our world, our selves, and Our Lord.

  3. There is a difference between the oral tradition of telling stories face to face, campfire style, and broadcasting mp3s.
    Also, literacy is so important. . we must do all we can to support it. So yes, listen to mp3 in the car when necessary, but if mom is there in the passenger seat why not have her read aloud if not tell the story herself, following up with discussion questions (analyzing rhet figs like synechdoche if audience-age appropriate!) All of these practices increase learning and literacy, and fight 1984.
    Long live the written word!

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