- The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories
"There is no story—told, written, filmed, sung, or otherwise performed—without story listening, seeing, or reading. Every fiction writer, alone in a room, posits a reader or a hearer," writes Bruce Jackson in The Story Is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories (p. 90). This observation, which runs like a thread throughout the book, applies equally well to works of nonfiction or to works not intended to be taken as fiction, as the author frequently demonstrates. Every story also has a teller, and it is the interaction between what is said, the one who says it, and the one who hears, sees, or reads it that is critical to the meaning of the performance—and to its success. This is as true of the sorts of works reviewed in Journal of American Folklore as it is of Bram Stoker's Dracula or adolescents' scary stories. It is particularly true of this book.
The Story Is True is divided into three parts: "Personal Stories," "Public Stories," and a sort of long reflective coda. It begins with the most personal, informal stories, progresses to stories with a wider significance, and ends (immediately before the summing up in the final chapter) with two essays that have serious political or professional implications: "Words to Kill By" (pp. 187-203) and "The Storyteller I Looked for Every Time I Looked for Storytellers" (pp. 205-30). Throughout this journey the reader is asked to engage with a variety of narrative forms, their style, structure, implications and meanings. Throughout the book, the author is a formidable presence, a major character in the stories he is presenting.
But what about the audience? The writing style is warm, lucid, and informal—at all times humane and accessible. Roughly 40 to 50 percent of the fifteen essays that make up this book have been previously published in a slightly differing form in journals or as book chapters. One therefore guesses that the imagined readers of [End Page 339] these pieces are not already specialists. Although the author displays his vast research, reading, and understanding, this is not an "academic" book. There is very little in the way of scholarly paraphernalia, few footnotes, few citations, and absolutely no jargon. Nothing stands between the reader and the author's ideas.
In part 1, via a dozen or so mainly oral stories, Jackson whizzes the reader through a number of basic narrative concepts such as framing, structure, ownership, truth, tellers' strategies for controlling story and audience, and the way an apparently single story may be told with differing effect by differing tellers or by the same teller on differing occasions. A lot of this will be familiar ground to some readers, but they will find that it is presented here with economy and without scholarly pretension. Of special interest is a discussion of the physical components of framing in literature and film; here, Jackson points out that the front matter of a book is a preparation for the act of reading and that the journey through the cinema foyer, the finding of a seat, and the trailers and advertisements that precede the showing of the film are stages in an essential rite of passage from the outside world to the world of the story (pp. 9-12). Another enlightening discussion concerns Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; in a section of chapter 7 titled "The Believable Absurd," Jackson demonstrates how the structure of the novel lulls the reader into accepting the outrageous plot (pp. 95-7).
Although such passages are useful, many readers will feel that they are too short. Those who are already folklorists or literary scholars might, for instance, like Jackson's discussion to have been extended to include other examples of the technique Mary Shelley uses and to have been shown alternative strategies used by other authors to produce the same effect. Or they might like to have been given an analysis of the contrasting structures used by...