Embedded in text: A night at The Word Factory

Does the short story have roots in oral storytelling? Should literature be a communal event? And could your short stories benefit from losing their more “readerly” bits? These were the questions thrown around at a night of wine, laughter and short fiction.

I recently dropped into a session at the brilliant Word Factory salon in London, where every month leading short story writers come to read from their collections and engage in debate on the short story form.

The last session saw short story writers William Palmer, Sheila Llewellyn and Clive Sinclair reading their own work, and Times Literary Supplement editor Sir Peter Stothard even gave a reading of Horace’s Fifth Epode, an ancient poem that bears some of the hallmarks of a short story. The discussion ranged from which other short story writers inspired our panellists (“the usual mob”, according to William Palmer) to what short story advice they would give to writers just setting out, and whether the limitations of the form sometimes frustrated them.

One of the main themes of the evening was whether short stories were part of an oral tradition of storytelling, or whether they should exist primarily to be read on the page.

This is a pretty interesting discussion to have at an event that revolves around writers reading from their own works. Another attendee mentioned afterwards that the atmosphere of the night had taken her back to when she was a child and her parents had read to her – the soothing sense of being told a story. I felt the same, actually – that having these stories read to me had been part of a communal experience that has seeped out of literature since the invention of the printing press.

When did experiencing a story become a solitary activity? Could that be one factor in the waning commercial life of the short story – that one of its key ingredients (the camp fire, the audience, the storyteller?) has gone missing?

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One questioner brought up the example of a novelist who read her work out loud in order to ensure that it couldn’t be spoken. She wanted to develop a style that could only exist on the page. Clive Sinclair shook his head as he answered this one.

“I don’t consider myself part of an oral tradition. I’m very much embedded in text,” he said. “But I still read my work back, in the hopes that it does sound spontaneous. I do enjoy using the confessional mode, the first person.”

Sheila Llewellyn agreed. Her background as a scriptwriter, she said, made her particularly attuned to the cadences of speech.

“I do read my work back,” she said. “I don’t write consciously as part of an oral tradition, but I hear the dialogue, as it were – I hear it while I’m writing, and I read my work out loud to make sure it sounds right.”

Interestingly, she had edited her Iranian Revolution story, the Papak Hat, for the reading that night.

“When I found I had to cut about ten minutes from the story, it was the more ‘readerly’ bits of the story that I had to cut out. And it’s quite disturbing for me that the story doesn’t seem to be any worse off without them! So I’m going to have to think about that,” she said, to laughter around the room.

William Palmer added a point about the mode of address in the story or novel. “If you are writing in the first person, people expect a human being to be speaking fairly normally,” he said. And he certainly considered the short story part of an oral tradition.

word factory 3“It goes back to the Grimm Brothers. I like that root to the story. I’ve come across some utterly unspeakable sentences, in both senses of the word. So yes, it is important.”

So is the short story part of an oral tradition? Should they be written for the page or for an audience? This is one of those questions that never really gets answered, but fosters some truly fascinating debate. A lot of writers, even the most “readerly” ones, to borrow Llewellyn’s phrase, advise reading your work out loud to spot gaps in the rhythm and awkward turns of phrase. This is probably one of the pieces of writing advice I’ve heard most often from workshops. Perhaps even in this day of e-readers and online fiction, telling stories has never really left the campfire.

What do you think? Leave me your thoughts in the comments section below.

Read more: Short story creative writing tips from 4 experts

If you want to attend a Word Factory event, check out the events page on their website. 

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12 thoughts on “Embedded in text: A night at The Word Factory”

  1. I don’t think telling stories will ever entirely ‘leave the campfire’, though it certainly has vanished since the printing press. I think for most people, learning to read involves sitting, looking at the text of a book while your mum/dad/babysitter/teacher tells you the story. So most people’s first experience of stories, of even figuring out the form of the words on the page, involves the oral tradition, and that is something that I don’t think can ever be shaken off. I still remember the day I figured out you could read without having to say the words aloud. It was like figuring out a very adult secret, and it made reading stories unnervingly exclusive.

    I also agree with the soothing sense of being a child told stories. One of the reasons I love Word Factory is the storytelling. The Q&As are interesting, but being told stories is my main reason for going. I describe it to friends as Jackanory for adults. Gutted to have missed it this month, but unavoidable unfortunately.

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    1. Yeah you’re right – I think that’s a lot of what’s going on here. I love the feeling of the storytelling circle. when I was younger a storyteller came to our school: he said that when the kids are really rapt in the story he’s telling, he can lean a little to the left, and all the kids will lean the same way. I think that says a lot!

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  2. Paul, hello I’ve just got back to Enniskillen and saw your original tweet on a colleague’s Twitter (I’m not on Twitter or Facebook – must do something about that, I think). Firstly, thank you so much for taking the trouble to both tweet about my reading, and also to write such an interesting follow up to the evening. It was such an interesting question about the oral tradition in story telling and its relationship to the written short story – and as you say, there was such a good atmosphere in the group, it really felt for me as though I might have been reading from a written script, but we were all sharing in the story telling in some way almsot like an oral story telling – I might have been telling it, but the audience seemed to be listening intently and absorbing it and possibly, even feeling it, which was just the best I could have wished for. As for the ‘readerly’ bit I cut out, it really did make me think about its purpose – it was actually a further development of fear and tension and threat, but seen from Ervan the Spice Seller’s children’s point of view – it didn’t develop the story line as such, but it does give richer texture to the story – so it will definitely be kept in! I was thinking afterwards about the Irish Short Story Writers I’ve become familiar with, and how strong the oral tradition is in some of their work – I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Clare Keegan read her work, but she ‘performs it’ almost, in a unique, almost hypnotic way, and it is a very different experience, one to savour slowly, when you read it on the page – so much left unsaid. And Eilis Ni Dhubhne has made a virtue of taking Irish myths and legends, all of them originally oral stories, and re-working them into contemporary written stories to great effect. I should maybe have mentioned those, but didn’t think about them until afterwards and anyway, I ‘d said enough.
    It was a great evening – you’re so lucky there in London to have such an event to go to from time to time – long may the campfire burn.
    Thanks again,
    best for now
    Sheila.

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Sheila! It was a great reading you did – I enjoyed it very much. The influence of poetry you mentioned was very clear in the concise and clear imagery throughout, and you even read a little like a poet. I’ll have to take a look at both the writers you mention. Also don’t worry about the male perspective. So long as nothing in the detail is particularly out of place, my feeling is that there is only one perspective – the human one. And you do that one very well. ^^

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  3. I’m glad Sheila is keeping her ‘readerly’ bit. One of the reasons I read short stories is because those bits send me off thinking, and I enjoy that silent discourse, it’s one of the most rewarding things about short stories – not such a good thing when listening to a story being read, though.

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    1. Haha I know what you mean – sometimes something will set you off on a train of thought and you start losing the thread. I guess listening is a skill in itself…

      I’ll be interested to get my hands on a print copy of the story and see how my impression of it differs. Thanks for commenting, Mand!

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  4. I much enjoyed the evening – and the report of it. But lest anyone be confused I read Horace’s Fifth Epode, about child murder for sex drugs, as a poem which showed early elements of the modern short story – while mentioning that, if I had known I was going to follow Clive Sinclair, I might have chosen a part of a later Latin work, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass.

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  5. Glad to have found this. It was a fascinating and really enjoyable evening: enhanced by this post. And how brilliant to find informative and welcome below the line comments. Thanks.

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