Who Says? Essays on Pivotal Issues in Contemporary Storytelling

Edited by Carol L. Birch and Melissa Heckler. August House, 1996.

Awards: AnneIzard Storytellers’ Choice Award, 1998.
Storytelling World Honor Book, 1997.

“WHO SAYS? is a must have for anyone serious about storytelling.” Jane Yolen, Author

Twenty years ago this anthology grew out of conversations initiated by hearing people say – usually under their breath – “Well, that’s not storytelling!” Melissa Heckler and I wrote this book in response to provide “models to think with” rather than rigid, singular perspectives or rules that only detract from the suppleness and fluidity of all that storytelling is and can be. In addition to our essays, there are essays by eight others with contrasting perspectives: anthropologist Mathias Guenther; folklorists, Joseph Sobol, Kay Stone and Barre Toelken; and storytellers Joseph Bruchac, Bill Harley, Rafe Martin, and Peninnah Schram.


“To coldly list the themes and issues discussed does not do justice to what is a vibrant and engrossing collection….you will be sparked to analyze, consider, even debate.” – Mary-Eileen McClear, editor, The Second Story Review. December, 1996.

“…Like a banquet with a variety rich foods and provocative guests, this book demands that the reader bring his intellect to the party and join in the dialogue and contemplation.” – Annotation for Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award.

“Birch and Heckler solicited manuscripts from some of the most eloquent, thoughtful people working with storytelling today. Their own lucid introduction narrows the task of this first volume to defining the distinct provinces of traditional oral stories and original literary creations. Barry Toelken, Joseph Bruchac, Kay Stone and Mathias Guenther discuss various aspects of what is happening to oral traditions today. Birch and Peninnah Schram address the connection between written and told stories. Bill Harley and Rafe Martin write about the interaction between audience and teller. And Joseph Sobol’s essay (which alone would warrant getting this book) ties these themes together in a penetrating analysis of where today’s storytelling movement came from and where it may be going. This book is not “light summer reading,” but if you’ve hungered for substantive discussion of our field, you will devour it. Very Highly recommended.” – Territorial Tattler, Summer, 1996. Review by Fran Stallings

“Birch and Heckler set the tone by titling their books with a question, which is at once colloquial and provocative. They offer the reader ten essays by anthropologists, writers, folklorists, musicians, teachers, and librarians, many of whom are distinguished storytellers. In their introduction, the editors clearly state their goals of exploring “an expanded vocabulary” for discussing storytelling” and of “synthesizing many models into an emergent aesthetics of storytelling.

“The writing styles and points of view vary widely from eloquent to informal to scholarly. All are intellectually challenging rather than practitioner-oriented (no tips on “how to learn a story” here). Heckler traces the divide between the oral and the print cultures in contemporary storytelling. Toelken convincingly discusses “the delicacy, perhaps the impossibility of using outer shells of stories whose inner life does not belong to us,” particularly emphasizing the Native American. Schramm probes alternative formats for more successfully translating “the artistic verbal performance of storytelling into print medium.” Birch, in analyzing the role of the narrator, urges tellers to make sure that their listeners always know not only who the characters are, but who is relating the story. Stone, examining a traditional Gaelic teller and his interpreter/listener, emphasizes the challenge to tellers who, unlike scholars who describe storytelling events with objective accuracy, retell their stories in entirely different contexts. Sobol explores the difference, through close comparison of two tellers, between two types of storytelling: oral traditional (conversational, without reliance on a written version) and oral interpretive (which begins from memorized written text that is overlaid with performance elements).

“Who Says? is like an intellectual salon in which the reader would like to gather the essayists together to challenge and yes, even shout. The book’s greatest achievement is the passionate dialogue it is sure to inspire among those who are devoted to this art.” – Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, Summer 1997. Review by Kate McClelland

“In a movement that is only two decades old, the ten essays found in Who Says? are educating, inspiring and challenging. To those of us who look at storytelling as not just a tool for education or a form of entertainment but, what’s more, as an integral part of our own culture and an answer to the plight of our present state of less and less personal communication, this book is a real treasure. Who Says? touches the very fibre of our modern storytelling society and give us what we all seek: real answers in an unreal world.” – Tale Trader, November, 1996. Review by Ben Ruiz

Excerpted from review by Gwendolyn Jones:

Collections of essays are often treated to the “dip and sip” method of reading…”sipping” this book will turn to “savoring…” [and] leave you wanting more!

The excellent introduction to each essay by the editors provides us with a sequential thread that pinpoints the linkages among the ten essays… There is a wealth of wisdom, experience, knowledge, thoughtful seeking and respect for storytelling and storytellers and their cultures contained in this essential volume.

The editors state, “We feel that we cannot repeat too often our basic conviction that there are no rules that fit across the board of storytelling; there are only models with which to think.” (130) Ten essayists have provided feasible and carefully articulated models; it will be to our advantage to share them and discuss them with others as we practice the “aesthetics and ethics of storytelling (14)

In a movement that is only two decades old, the ten essays found in Who Says? are educating, inspiring and challenging. To those of us who look at storytelling as not just a tool for education or a form of entertainment but, what’s more, as an integral part of our own culture and an answer to the plight of our present state of less and less personal communication, this book is a real treasure. Who Says? touches the very fibre of our modern storytelling society and gives us what we all seek: real answers in an unreal world.

“Who Says? The Storyteller as Narrator” Carol Birch states that it “requires tremendous intention, intelligence, integrity and imagination to speak words from printed sources with fresh spontaneity and with absolute conviction, making fictitious events and people seem real…” (109-110) She maintains that “storytellers have to give up trying to be someone else or trying to be invisible altogether…” (128) This essay should be required reading for all would-be and even established storytellers.

Essays in Who Says?

“Two Traditions”

Melissa Heckler speaks eloquently, eruditely and passionately as she explores the history and development of the “oral” and “literary” (printed) traditions in terms of storytelling and their impact on contemporary storytelling. Authorship, ownership and value systems in terms of taking from and giving back to a culture are addressed.

“The Icebergs of Folktale: Misconceptions, Misuse, Abuse”

Barre Toelken speaks from an impressive knowledge base and an ever-present reverence and respect for different cultures… [He] makes it absolutely clear that we should refrain from”exploitation, entitlement, cultural arrogance and misrepresentation of cultural detail…” (60) when we tell stories from other cultures. He raises our level of awareness and provides well-documented and digestible food for thought!

“Jewish Models : Adapting Folktales for Telling Aloud”

To understand Jewish models in adapting folktales for telling aloud, Peninnah Schram… gives an example of a “transformed” tale from her childhood and also makes excellent suggestions, with examples, showing how words or phrases in the original language add to the flavor of a tale, how “long convoluted sentences” can be condenses for the listener (as opposed to the reader), how lengthy descriptions can be replaced by mainly nonverbal devices and how archaic language can be translated into more familiar terms.

“The Continuing Circle: Native American Storytelling, Past and Present”

Joseph Bruchac tells an engaging tale as he traces his own growth as a storyteller from his initial contact with his grandfather who “raised him” to hearing his own grown sons tell stories that he had heard as a child… Of Abenaki ancestry, he respects Native American cultures and speaks eloquently on story ownership. [An] absorbing essay.

“Playing with the Wall”

Bill Harley maintains, “Understanding how the fourth wall works does much to separate good storytelling from the rest…” (130) Working from four postures, he gives practical advice with clarifying examples so that the fourth wall may be used to advantage by the teller to enhance his relationship with the audience.

“Between Teller and Listener: The Reciprocity of Storytelling”

Rafe Martin maintains that we need to move beyond the liking or disliking of a story or a storyteller and develop critical responses based on knowledge and awareness of the”complex linguistic-gestural-emotional-psychological-mythic experience…” (144) which constitute storytelling. The power of imagination is emphasized both from the teller’s and the listener’s point of view…as the author shares his extensive wealth of knowledge.

“Old Stories / New Listeners”

Kay Stone takes us on a journey into storytelling using a translation mode…We are introduced to Joe Neil MacNeil, a Gael-speaking (Cape Breton) storyteller of advanced years, and John Shaw, a meticulous translator of the Gaelic Language…Working together as teller and translator for ten years, they then performed…stories together as platform performers. [Ms Stone] notes that what was accomplished was “transformation not merely translation.” (162) An engaging, informative and well-documented essay.

“Old Stories/Life Stories: Memory and Dissolution in Contemporary Bushman Folklore”

Mathias Guenther describes his experiences when living with the Nharo Bushmen of Western Botswana…He shows how personality and experience provide the “linkage between story and life story…” (178) how conversion to Christianity and the loss of their land to colonization affected the Bushmen and, therefore, their stories. Revealing, reflective and informative, this essay has excellent clarifying notes and references to aid further investigation.

“Innervision and Innertext: Oral and Interpretive Modes of Storytelling Performance”

Joseph Sobel introduces us to thoughts from Plato and Marshall McLuhan (among others) to prepare us for his subsequent discourse on storytelling from oral and literary sources and the effect of modern technology on storytelling…[analyzing] two highly entertaining excerpts from stories performed by Jim May and Syd Lieberman to show how the tellers express idea units (213). Thumbnail profiles of the two tellers aid our understanding of the analysis. [Sobol] has provided us with thoughts to ponder, practical suggestions and the message that storytelling always has been , and always will be, whatever the mode of performance or the labels used to describe the art.