Those Gosh-Darned Oral Storytellers!

by vinnyhaddad

The trajectory of literacy charted by Roger Chartier in “The Practical Impact of Writing” juxtaposed with Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy” provided me with a few interesting points of note when I consider the development/arrival of the novel as something bought, sold, and consumed (both read and written). What each of these essays makes clear to me is the absolute absence of inevitability that we should have ever had a novel at all (my naturalized relationship with the novel as a medium for exchanged human experience plucks at my heartstrings as I write these words). The first “novel” is always a point of contention. But whether we say Oroonoko by Aphra Behn (1688) or Robinson Crusoe (1719), the lapse between the origin of the printing press (1439), its spread to 270 cities by the end of the 15th century, and the dawn of the novel seems remarkable (about 250 years). The novel could only exist once a mass market of readers was available to self-select and consume texts. In addition, the novel was a medium that relied on both silent reading and leisure time, points of literacy that are less simple for Chartier to chart. Yet a point of note: “For women, more than men, the percentage of signers is an inadequate measure of the percentage of readers” (159). Since women would not only create many of the early novels but also consisted almost the entirety of the reading market, literacy statistics offer in some ways more problems than solutions in understanding the dawn of the novel. Yet, what is certainly mind-boggling is the lingering effects that orality has had on the novel. 250 years is a seemingly adequate window for the transition from the almost religious devotion of oral storytelling to written storytelling to transpire. Yet, the novel has never truly shaken off the shackles of orality in its storytelling.

It is less surprising, then, when I consider this drawn out period of transition between orality and literacy that the first novels were seemingly ingrained with the conflict of not being oral. Early novels were concerned with their textuality in very overt ways. In some cases the plot developed around the ability for the words to exist in print (in Richardson’s Pamela the novel only moved forward when Pamela herself could pen a letter to her family, in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe the narration is in jeopardy when Crusoe’s ink runs low and he cannot write as verbosely his trying experiences of solitude). In other cases, texts offered something orality could not, like for example the instruction of how reading is different than listening (Jane Austen teaches readers that texts can have multiple layers that require close readings and re-readings, a practice that cannot linguistically exist with the re-telling of a story orally).

I suggest that what the novel has done more so than any other written text is completely defamiliarized our relationship with orality. Even when an author attempts feats of intense verisimilitude by mimicking the spoken dialects of its characters, the result in reading is a new recognition of how absolutely strange the relationship between the spoken and the written truly is. That we are sometimes forced to babyishly read out loud (Huckleberry Finn, Finnegan’s Wake) does not bring the reader closer to an oral tradition so much as it markedly underscores the distance between the two.

Contemporary Connection of the Week

In this NYT article, the argument is posed that the survival of the printed book is tied unbearably tight to the survival of Barnes and Noble. As we consider how literacy was measured in early modern periods (by the size of libraries at death), may be we should consider if our legacies will depend on the digital libraries on our Kindle.

Contemporary Connection of the Week 2

Not much a connection to the reading, but will make you a better person =]