The tall tale is one of the most traditional and familiar story types which continue to be told to the present day. It is almost instantly recognizable and forces an acknowledgement of the storyteller/narrator that many modern stories gloss over.
The primary traits of this type are simple to meet and allow for nearly endless variation. First, the impression of authority must be presented. If told in the first person, the storyteller must be the one the event happened to or at least a direct observer of it. If told in the third person, the storyteller must allude to the source of their authority, as in, "my sister told me about this guy once...". In this fashion, a chain of transmission is shown as evidence that this is a story with a source, and not simply something woven from thin air. It should be stressed that the impression of authority is necessary whether the tale is completely fictional or not.
The second necessary trait is that of questionable of truth. The events in the story must always be possible, perhaps very unlikely, but never entirely impossible. Even if the audience is inclined to dismiss the story out of hand, there should always be the sense that maybe, just maybe, there is a hint of truth within the story. Otherwise, you no longer have a tall tale, but something else entirely, a fantasy. This is quite a different beast. In the same hand, tall tales require that something very unusual takes place. This is what separates it from a simple account of what happened down at the corner store the other day.
The tall tale has traditionally flourished as an oral form. One can easily imagine a grandmother telling stories of her wilder days and embellishing them a bit or a drifter conjuring tales of his travels to charm a local girl and giving them just enough of a truthful air to keep her intrigued. Without a doubt, many have participated in this tradition without being particularly aware of it. After all, the story of how big that fish Earl caught last summer was hardly stands up to literature, right?
Interestingly, it is in written form that tall tales attain their greatest potential. The more mainstream manifestation of this is identifying a character as a teller of tall tales and including them as narrated by this person as a framed narrative. This is more or less mimicking the oral form. Far more artful is the self-conscious subversion of the form by a writer. My sister, a published author, has the following to say concerning point of view: the only good reason to write in the first person is if your narrator is either crazy or lying. I do not necessarily agree that this is the only reason to do so, but there is something to the sentiment. To use the first person to tell a straightforward, surface-level story is something of a missed opportunity. The use of first person narration is a chance to build a story consisting of both explicitly stated and implicated material.
The tall tale is the perfect forum for such an undertaking. However, care must be taken to provide enough clues for the reader to pick up on the meta-story. If lying, inconsistencies should arise, bringing attention to the narrator's veracity. If insane, this should be insinuated subtly so the reader comes to see this through the structure and details of the tale rather than any overt tip-off. Subversion of the form naturally can also be expressed by starting in the tall tale format and sliding gradually into genres that would not normally mix well, such as fantasy, science fiction, mythology, or fairy tales.
Despite its continued resilience, and possibilities for experimental writing, the tall tale has become something of a relic. This is because of its dependence on narrative authority. Although there is much fictional writing that does preserve narrative identity, it is at least as common in modern writing to lack this feature. I have heard it said that unless contradictory evidence is offered, the average reader will assume the narrator is a heterosexual, protestant, white male (if there is any thought given to it at all). I admit that this has often been true of me, but this could be because I am three of those four myself. My point is that the narrator has become ephemeral in much of modern fiction.
In traditional oral storytelling, the narrator could not be easier to pinpoint; it was always the person whose mouth was moving. Of course, modern times did not bring the first step in this process of dissolution. For the majority of texts written in the Medieval period or sooner, the author is anonymous. It was only toward the end of the Middle Ages that the sense of authorship as we now know it began to form. The modern age brought the second step in the process. Namely, this is the dissociation between author and narrator. It was once an assumption that these were one and the same, likely because of the still strong oral influence on literature. A disconnection has since grown as readers have become long accustomed to the possibility that the narrator may be completely unlike the author in all respects. This distinction is especially sharp when multiple first person/third person personal perspectives are employed. This, however, does highlight that the dissolution is by no means absolute.
So who does the author think of when the narrator is given no hint of distinct identity? I can hardly aim a guess at that. Perhaps the better question is, does the author think of anyone at all? If you are anything like me, you may rarely if ever bother to make such a query. As much as it lacks prestige, it is the tall tale that serves to remind me that as long as words are produced, there is a person speaking or writing them, someone with a voice and identity. While that may seem laughably obvious, it is something which seems to be all too often forgotten.