Talking Down to Readers

The Storyteller

The Storyteller (Eugene, Oregon), by Visitor7. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

That Pedantic Tone of Writing

 You know the style of writing – “Now let me tell you a story…” or “As you shall see in the end…” The style of writing where a strong narrator’s voice almost intrudes into the story, reminding the reader that it is a story. Often this is thought of as children’s literature, because the tone of voice appears to talk down to the readers, and because it’s often used for fairytales and such. It was also used in two classics I’ve talked about before: The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. This has been a reason for some to heap scorn on these books, insisting the authors are being ‘twee,’ and that no self-respecting adult can actually enjoy these books anymore once they’ve grown up. Obviously, I disagree. But does this pedantic tone of voice really spell a death-knell for any book that uses it?

Interestingly enough, Tolkien himself came to regret the tone of voice he’d used in The Hobbit, and wanted to re-write it closer to Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings starts off a bit pedantic itself, but by the end it is a much more serious and ‘adult’ book. Tolkien later began to argue strongly against associating ‘fairy stories’ with ‘children,’ and felt he had betrayed himself a bit by earlier using a tone of voice in The Hobbit that talked down to children. He actually began re-writing it, but people told him “it just wasn’t The Hobbit” anymore, and he had to stop.

Personally, I am not insulted when an author uses this tone of voice on me. Some are – see, for example, this quote from Michael Moorcock (which refers to A.A. Milne but implicates a whole host of pedantic authors such as Tolkien, Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton) – “There is an element of conspiratorial persuasion in his tone that a suspicious child can detect early in life. Let’s all be cosy, it seems to say (children’s books are, after all, often written by conservative adults anxious to maintain an unreal attitude to childhood); let’s forget about our troubles and go to sleep. At which I would find myself stirring to a sitting position in my little bed and responding with uncivilized bad taste.” He must’ve been a smarter child than me, because I don’t remember feeling conspired against. I enjoyed both this style of book and the ‘more adult’ styles, including some Moorcock uses as examples of better books. I don’t think it has to be an either-or proposition.

But after all, this strong narrative tone was used for centuries. Epic ballads, narrative poems, you name it. “Let me tell you the story of Robin Hood,” or “This is a story of King Arthur.” Just because a story uses this tone, doesn’t mean it can’t be a rip-roaringly good story. The voice of the author does add an extra layer of separation between the reader and the characters engaged in the story, reminding the reader that they are safe at home and no danger is coming to them. But, if the reader cares about the character that is involved in the danger, this doesn’t matter. You want to know what happens to the character.

I think I am nostalgic for story-tellers, and that includes this story-telling tone of voice. My clearest memory of first grade is how after lunch we all sat around our first grade teacher and she used to tell us the most amazing fairytales. She got them out of a book, but they were spellbinding because they weren’t just the usual ones about Snow White and Cinderella. I still remember a few of these. Now, to live in a time where people told stories like this to each other everyday, and even made up more of their own, would be lovely.

Unfortunately, in the end I have to agree it is one of the worst mistakes to use this tone of voice nowadays. Unless you actually are writing for children, and even then you might face some opposition. People of our day and age are not used to being “talked down to” while being entertained, while in the past villagers may have thought nothing of sitting around the feet of some travelling bard while he told the story of King Arthur or something. However much I enjoy this style of writing myself, I think if you tried to publish a book like this you wouldn’t get far, and if you did publish people would instinctively put it down after reading the first couple chapters. Like I said, we’re not used to it. This may change someday, but we got to wait till then.


What do you think?

1 Comment

Filed under Lord of the Rings, On Writing, The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

One response to “Talking Down to Readers

  1. Pingback: Top Couples in Fiction, Breaking the Rules of Novel-Writing, Killing Off the Printed Book – All Discussed Here at Stories and Stuff in 2012! | Stories and Stuff

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