Saturday 31 March 2012

Stories to solve: George Shannon

'Stories to Solve' and 'More Stories to Solve' both by George Shannon

Please let me recommend these. They are great for talk, thought, figuring, wondering for almost any age of person. Some are funny, some are really, really difficult. They can be read - but better still, read, learnt and then told. Great for home, school, holiday, anywhere anytime.

That said, they raise some very interesting questions about what we understand by 'narrative' and 'story'. A lot of present-day thinking and practice in schools is dominated by 'genre theory'. This would have us believe that there are distinct genres to the way we write and think and these are predicated on a particular kind of language use. This, it is argued, has to be taught, learned and adopted. If this isn't done, a kind of wilful discrimination of the under-privileged takes place. That's to say, the underprivileged are excluded from the 'discourse of power' if they aren't taught and don't learn the 'powerful genres' - argument, persuasion, discussion, recount and the like. Anyone who is a teacher or who has a child will be familiar with hours of work in this area.

I've written about his before. What's interesting about these stories (apart from the fact that they are fascinating and curious and wonderful) is that they defy a lot of this genre-talk. In order to crack the problem posed by the stories, a person has to enter into many different kinds of thought, investigation and discussion. So a story about a challenge to each other by a frog and a deer involves what is in effect a kind of geography-astronomy concept. One with a frog in a barrel of fresh cream involves something to do with old dairy knowledge. Others are about various kinds of wit and cunning. Many of them show us people or creatures who use their knowledge of the natural world to get the upper hand.

One model of 'narrative' or 'story' would have us think that it's something towards the soppy, touchy-feely end of things. It doesn't really engage with the world as it really is because when people get into difficulties they use some magic stick or meet some little old bloke by the side of the road who tells them what to do etc etc. And anyway, there's always some happy ending or other. In fact, the world is full of what we might call 'wisdom tales' in which either the participant(s) show wisdom and therefore show it to us, or they show folly and we show our own wisdom in spotting their folly, or indeed to see before they do what they might or could have done.

Why should we underestimate this? Why should we call this or think of this as something less important or less powerful than some of the more formal discourses? And who's to say or who could prove that getting to know many of such tales doesn't in fact enable people indeed to have the knowledge and ability to face up to and challenge the powerful. After all, that is precisely what happens over and over again in many of these kinds of stories.

So, a real solid plug to these two books. Occasionally, the language is a bit knotted and needs stretching out into more familiar phrases or expressions. That aside, they are real interesting, challenging and fun ways to explore some ideas and problems.

I'm not sure how available they are in the UK so it might need a bit of internet scouring to get them. It's worth it.