Thursday, June 9, 2011

To listen or to read?

I’ll admit it. I listen to books. But I also buy the hard copy and at some point, if I really love what I’m hearing I switch to the volume itself. I can’t help defaulting to the familiar and gratifying combination of holding what my eyes are seeing. How many times have I rested an open book against my chest and just sat there ruminating over a particularly rich or powerful passage. You can’t exactly do that with a Kindle—the hugging-the-book thing just doesn’t feel the same. As for listening, it’s not that great to keep hitting the rewind button and drifting off in a reverie while driving. Yet . . . what I’ve found by listening is the same thing that people claim who have bought Kindles or any other downloading device for books: I read (hear) far more than I would otherwise.

Not long ago an article appeared in The Atlantic (with a subsequent expansion into a book) called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The essential premise was that Google, and more generally the internet (aren’t they one in the same?), were ruining our attention spans. Fragmenting our ability to concentrate on longer tasks. For instance, those novels by George Eliot, once called “winter novels,” because they took a whole season to finish.

I don’t doubt the truth of this, because as the author pointed out from his own experience, he had just lost patience to devote to a massive classic. Breadth had replaced depth. Coverage not concentration had become the operable principal. In any internet reading, with all its embedded linkage, one naturally becomes a jumpy rabbit—by necessity. By checking out all those links you believe you’re actually gaining a more comprehensive view and not missing anything. Well, certainly sitting down and investing the time to read Moby Dick would make you think you’re missing something. Such dedication to a single book would drive a multi-tasker crazy. And the point is that we’ve all become more multi-taskers than concentrators. Surfing the internet—scanning—has become the means of not losing your place in the world. Quickness means you’re informed. Duration becomes a liability. Data replaces what used to be called knowledge.

So, given this, what hope is there for someone to spend his time reading Moby Dick or The Brothers Karamazov, two books that I now admit, alas, I did not read. I listened to all 25 and 35 hours respectively. Let’s put aside what this says about how much time I spend in my car. My main concern here is not whether I actually found a way to enforce my paying attention to these books that I otherwise would never have “read” (or reread), because I was too impatient or Googlized or tired and hyper to sit still without a windshield in front of me for that long. I’m interested in what is lost or gained in the transaction, just as what’s lost or gained in the transformation of any material from one medium to another: books to film or to plays, or these days from one “carrier” to another: iPod, iPad, Kindle, cellphone, PC, radio, and no doubt soon to be, hologram.

This all comes down to voice. I cannot, for instance, get over that despite my best efforts to be open, the reader of the audio book of Joyce’s Dubliners when doing Gretta’s voice in “The Dead” sounds like Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire. Perhaps if I hadn’t read the story (and taught it) at least thirty times, I could be more generous. Part of the problem is that once you hear a voice in your head, that is, the voice as translated from the page to your ear by your own perception of the syntax, rhythm, and spatial layout, it’s hard not to resist the vocalizing as a false impersonation, especially if you’ve heard that voice so distinctly (think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or Holden in Catcher, to site two well-known narrators). There’s probably a good reason why Salinger never wanted Holden to appear on stage or screen and refused to sell the rights to the novel. But even then, when a book is made into a film or play it’s adapted, changed, and the actors have to flesh out a director’s vision of the characters and story. In hearing someone read a work verbatim, you have no modification, just that reader’s voice, and you either take to it or not. It can and often does grow on you. But it can also grate.

Jennifer’s Egan’s admirable novel, A Visit from the Good Squad, has a female reader for its entirety and its wide cast of characters. One can’t help but be taken by the character Sasha channeled in the opening chapter. Sasha, a kleptomaniac, finds the right combination of sultriness and vulnerability in the audio reader’s rendering of her. The male characters are another story; they sound too much alike and they sound too much like slackers or dudes with issues. What gives, say, Sasha mystery, subtlety, and allure becomes a deficit when the reader speaks on behalf of another character Benny, who in his dialogue cannot escape a whiny flatness that isn’t in the well-developed character himself. And therein lies the problem: reading to yourself you hear the repository of female or male voices long accumulated in your consciousness. Hearing that same character read to you, the voice is no longer being created by you in conjunction with the author: it’s the audio reader’s interpretation alone.

You might get the impression from these examples above that the problem is gender: female doing male parts, or males doing female ones. But I never got used to the celebrated Flo Gibson’s reading of James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I know I was supposed to find it masterful—Flo, who died recently, was known as the grande dame of audio recordings—but frankly I found it overweening, or maybe that was James himself.

In any case, the audio reader’s voice must be wrestled with a bit at first, especially to integrate it with the author's. Try reading your own work aloud if you want to get a sense of this (and catch mistakes and lumpy prose while you’re at it). You supplant as much as echo the sound already there with a different version of the intimate words you first heard in your own mind.

On the other hand, when it works, it’s simply lovely. I couldn’t get enough of the perfectly matched narrator and the audio reader in Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin. Here you have power and bitterness, yearning and resignation in the reader’s presentation, the reader in tune with the darker narrative but allowing just enough light in her voice to keep breath in the tale. Likewise, the reader of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has a bit of English propriety in her voice, mixed with a dreaminess appropriate to a story of a clone created for her consumptive value in a futuristic society. And the reader of Marilyn Robinson’s novel Housekeeping tells the story with such a pitch-perfect combination of composure, retrospection and keen immediacy that you can easily juxtapose the simplicity of a sentence like “Lucille turned out the lights and we sat at the kitchen table, trying to name the states of the union” with a poetic nugget such as, “Bones, bones, I thought, in a fine sheath of Sunday gloves.”

It’s this very elasticity of voice, as in the last example, that the author must make work on the page but the audio reader must capture without either over dramatizing or missing nuance and subtlety. Resonance itself is a different animal when read than spoken, and the delicateness of that task, which authors tirelessly work at to convey without ruining its effect by being too obscure or direct, can so easily be pummeled by poor spoken expression. Rhythm on the page, for instance, is not just choosing a speed of speaking: commas and semicolons don’t translate so easily. They are the writer’s silent markings of pacing and thought. Sound unifies a work just as much as sense, perhaps even more so in a literary work where content is an equal partner with style, and the latter not just in the service of the former. Voice for a writer is more directly—and intimately—associated with interiority than exteriority. After all, a writer hears the sound of the words in her head when she puts them down and may never speak them aloud. And even when one gives a public reading of a work, the overlay is of this original and more subterranean expression that was first heard in the composing. As one writer has said, to know the voice is to follow a whisper

In a novel such as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the audio can’t reproduce the explosion of graphics, illustrations, and photographs: Oskar Black’s business card (inventor, jewelery designer, jewelry fabricator and fourteen other professions); the pages of colors in opposing colored ink; the single line of “I’m sorry” followed by “I’m still sorry” on the next page surrounded by a sea of white space; the interview format or the block paragraphing or the kinetic cluster of dialogue between Oskar and his therapist Dr. Fein; all the sheer inventive funness, and often sad presentation, of a crazy quilt of visuals, the most striking being the much-noted novel's end pages that can be flipped forward to move a falling body up the World Trade Center or backward to poignantly see it dropping down. In one sense, what Foer does with Extremely Loud is exploit the novel’s bookness, stretching the use of the printed page. The audio version meanwhile has three different readers for different character parts and does a fairly good job of doing the book justice. But you can’t both read this book and listen to it and not expect to have two different encounters. The textual innovations, the graphic elements create an even greater division between reading and listening, and one must almost make the choice of which experience you desire more, unless you’re willing (and have the time) to do both.

I for one have resigned myself to stop fighting the changing technology of the book and just embrace all its forms, drawing the line at any abridgment of the text—that is messing with the words themselves. In their nakedness, they remain supreme.

Friday, April 8, 2011

How to Give a Reading

Don’t look the first row in the eye; they have been forced to sit there because they got here late.

Don’t be disappointed by your host’s introduction, which has consisted entirely of reading from your book jacket.

Try not to drool on the microphone like last time.

Try not to think about that dream you had last night when you turned page after blank page of your manuscript until coming to the very last page that had the single word “minimalism.”

Pay no attention to the man in the ski mask who is walking toward you. Surely there is a simple explanation, given that the room temperature of sixty degrees could be considered cold if you are a reptile.

Do not under any circumstances engage with the girl in the first row who is an eye roller. Tell yourself things could be worse; she could be sticking a finger down her throat.

Ignore the large man in the front row who is eating a monstrous, dripping sandwich that reeks of eye-stinging onions and that he masticates into submission until there is only a tiny bite left and that—seeing you glare at him—he gestures toward you to share.

Tell yourself that you are a professional and that the furious texting by the entire second row is not a comment upon your performance and simply indicates that such individuals are accomplished multitaskers who no doubt are also exceptional at thumb wars.

When you glance up do not be disappointed and lose your place because the lovely, smiling young woman in the third row, whom you were absolutely sure was your ideal listener, has gone over and stood next to the man in the ski mask and they are both writing in identical black notebooks and whispering in Russian.

Remember not to speed up because you fear you’re losing your audience’s attention during the long section that for verisimilitude sake lists every Greek god from the first seven chapters of The Iliad. You knew this would test your listeners’ patience and you are glad that though several of them have clapped their hands over their ears, the majority have demonstrated their stunned appreciation by the slackness of their jaws and their lolling tongues.

Spit out that word hibernaculum that gave you such trouble when you were rehearsing it. Let it roooolll off the palate with the sonorous joy that you first heard it in your head. It goes well with the fire alarm that has just sounded.

Take a moment to relax and center yourself while your host explains that it is only a false alarm and that there is no need to leave the building despite the shouts of Hallelujah! and the wild stampede by half the audience out the door while the other half have had their exit blocked by your host who is threatening them with a fire hose if they try to leave. All in good fun you are sure.

Remember to read the dialogue with great declamation even though it is a long scene that has no quotation marks and you cannot remember who is speaking. Do not be concerned during this operatic showmanship that your host is literally dragging one member of the audience back to his seat by his ankles.

Pace yourself as you come to the dramatic close of your ninety-three minute reading, raising your voice with grandiloquent, rhetorical flourish to signal you are approaching the end, and then, after your final words, fix your audience with a meaningful stare before saying, “Shall I continue?”

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Updating Your Fiction

Really, I don’t remember this being such a problem before. That is, how swiftly things become anachronistic now. I was working on putting together a collection of stories, most of which were written over the past five years. Wait. Did I say “written”? I mean, published. They actually took their sweet time getting published, so that means I wrote some of them much before that five-year period. And that’s the problem: when you’re writing a story, let alone a novel, by the time you finish and, if you’re so lucky, get it published, characters no longer use pay phones, much less call collect when long-distance is included on their cell phones. They no longer do IMing (“Instant messaging is so old,” writes one former user); they might not even be writing blogs, according to a recent news article that stated it’s all about tweets, Skype, and speedier and broader social networking tools now.

So what’s a writer to do? Do you go back and replace all those clunky landlines with cell phones? Somehow put that smartphone in the hands of the character who’s searching in the torrential rain for a pay phone to save his life (marriage, etc.), a frantic quest that you thought gave the scene so much expediency? Why doesn’t he just whip out the ubiquitous cell phone (or borrow one) and text his recipient?

I wish I could say the answer is as simple as ignoring the whole problem. But when I was reading over my stories, any obsolete or dated technology pulled me up short. It’s one thing if the work has already been published and the copyright dates it, but it’s another if enough time has passed to make readers wonder why the story is supposed to be set in the “present,” but markers keep popping up that identify it as the past.

This is not a new question obviously. The writer has always had to take into account such changes. If you started writing a novel before September 11, 2001 and have the World Trade Center in your story, and intend the narrative to be current, then you’re going to bump most of your readers out of the narrative. If you mention a TV show or movie, and that show or movie is long gone, do you worry about it dating the work? Not necessarily, especially if the mention has thematic significance. Or maybe they’re watching cable. Readers often will provide their own explanation for the outdated. If the usage is arbitrary, however, then why not find a more current replacement, just to keep ahead of the game. Does your character, originally conceived pre-hurricane, really need to be named Katrina?

Though fiction has to reflect that it’s “of its time,” the challenge is how long that time lasts exactly. Writers, unless they’re composing a work set in a definite period (or you’ve decided to date or arrange your work in order of publication, say, for a volume of collected stories), usually want an unspecified time period to suggest the “timeless present.” The writer, oblivious to the future, conceives of it not as a retrospective work but as a contemporaneous one with the urgency of the now. It’s when one goes back and rereads the manuscript from the beginning a couple years later that you realize some of that urgency of the intended time period—the unresolved issues of the day; the pressing cultural, social, scientific questions—has gone slack and no longer imbues the fiction with the same immediacy. The question then becomes how much you can—or should—do about it.

One has to consider that in the course of writing the story, certain decisions were made that aligned with the narrative as a whole, not just for its time period. And tinkering too much too update the work can make it self-conscious in a way that sacrifices wholeness for relevance. The greater good may be served by just accepting the story in its entirety as a product of the original forces that conceived it.

On the other hand, if no harm will be done, nothing is wrong with being flexible and performing some due diligence and going through the manuscript to revise with an eye for keeping it as current as possible. If you have teenage characters (or anyone under twenty-five), it’s more than likely they won’t exclusively be having conversations on the phone; they’ll be texting. If you have a character repeatedly asking directions, you’ll really have to wonder if they’ve heard of MapQuest or have activated that GPS app on their phone or why they’re not using an iPad-plutonium, since now, in the year 2020, when you finally get the book published after working on it for ten years, laptops have gone the way of the IBM Selectric. Of course, you can go overboard, as I said, to the point it just sounds as if all the updating is contrived, like bad product placements. You can only retrofit so much into the context of a work that just isn’t meant to accommodate the newfangled. And in that case, it’s best left alone, letting the reader just accept the work as written, proudly (or defiantly) standing up for itself in its own time.

I’m sure others have their own experiences with this issue (poets?), so comments are welcomed.