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Finally, Someone Hates Storytelling!

Photo of angry man with the word "storytelling?" on his foreheadAt last, someone hates us!

Of all the books written on storytelling so far (4,469 hits on, can you think of a single one that opposes storytelling?

But now we have Christian Salmon’s “Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind,” published in March, 2010.

Salmon doesn’t just hate storytelling. He thinks storytelling is dangerous and disruptive to modern civilization.

That’s the best news I’ve heard in our decades of trying to spread the word about storytelling!

Why Is This Good News?

Since storytelling was rediscovered in the 1970′s, the world has seen storytelling as something quaint and harmless. For decades, you and I have tried to correct that view by asserting that storytelling is timely and powerful. Sometimes it felt as though we were whispering into a hurricane.

But now that an author took the time to research and write an entire book against storytelling, our years of work must have had an effect.

Well, Not Exactly Storytelling

If you’re a performer, don’t worry; Salmon isn’t aiming at you. Rather, he is concerned about applied storytelling: storytelling that is used to persuade, sell, or educate. In particular, he rails against the use of stories and storytelling in business and politics – in seven chapters with titles like these:

  • The New “Fiction Economy” (about manipulating workers emotionally so they can, in turn, fool customers)
  • Turning Politics Into a Story (about the role of narrative in recent presidential politics in the U.S.)
  • Telling War Stories (about video-game-like, immersive military training) and
  • The Propaganda Empire (Karl Rove, Fox News, the internet and more.)

Salmon sees all these trends as combining to form a frightening replacement of a reality-based world with a series of “shared fictions” (p.67).

His claim is that storytelling puts emotions ahead of rational thought, elevates entertaining fiction over hard reality, and replaces political skill with “fictional competence.”

Blaming the Hammer?

Like all tools, storytelling can be used for good or bad, to illuminate the nature of reality or to conceal it.

Salmon, to be sure, puts his finger on some disturbing uses of storytelling. But he focuses blame on the tool, not on those using it or even on those of us who allow ourselves to be manipulated.

Too Simple a Story

I would have loved a good book about the dangers of mis-applied storytelling. But this isn’t it.

Salmon writes like a muck-raking journalist. He is good at assembling many examples of storytelling-as-deception and assembling them into an alarming montage. But he has clearly spent more time compiling examples than constructing a penetrating analysis of them – or suggesting a reasonable corrective for society.

To make matters worse, his writing is frequently lacking in the logic that he glorifies. He often uses examples that don’t support his conclusions. He uses emotional language in an apparent attempt to prejudice the reader against his targets. (For example, people in favor of storytelling are usually called “gurus,” whereas those critical of it are “researchers.”)

He doesn’t appear to have noticed that the emphasis during the Industrial Age on “discipline” and “rational argument” has failed to make us either disciplined or rational – never mind relaxed or peaceful. Most importantly, he doesn’t seem to notice that storytelling’s increased presence is in part a reaction to the suppression of important aspects of the human experience.

Altogether, his implied story has more in common with tabloid journalism than with reasoned analysis: “We are being manipulated by unseen forces that are taking over the world. Be afraid!”

Our First Critic. Hooray!

If Salmons’s book were well-argued and well-interpreted, it might be a valuable addition to the literature about storytelling.

As it is, it’s a source of references to story and storytelling in contemporary culture. (Did you know that one of President George W. Bush’s speeches used the word ‘story’ 10 times?) That’s the best recommendation I can give it.

We deserve better critics. I hope that the coming years produce them.

But for now, let’s celebrate: we are powerful enough to be on a critic’s radar. At last, storytelling has come of age!

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