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February 7th, 2007

Writers Reading

Oh, frabjous day!  For once, I have time to post when I can still remember what I wanted to write about. 

Since we got to New York, we've been going to a lot of readings--mostly KGB and NYRSF at South Sea Port.  I love hearing authors read their work.  It's like having a tape of the inside of their brain--the cadences, the voices, the tone.  The first time I really noticed how useful it could be was when I heard Toni Morrison read from Beloved at Bard College in Maine.  I'd tried reading the book before I heard her, and found it hard going.  The words didn't do what I was used to, and I just couldn't tease the sense out of them.  And then I heard her read--almost sing--the first chapter, and I realized.  It's music.  Toni Morrison writes music.  Not poetry--it's too concrete for that.  Music--cadenced and rich.  Ever since then, whenever I read anything by her, I hear that warm, deep, flexible voice telling me how to read the words I see. 

ellen_kushner had a similar experience with Grace Paley.  Ellen discovered, when she heard her read, that her stories were supposed to be funny.  The bare words hadn't told her that.

The writers I've heard recently who read the best were Ysabeau Wilce, reading from Flora Segunda, and John Crowley, reading from a work in progress about the history of aviation.  Two more different readers dealing with two more different texts you'd have to go far to find.  Flora Segunda is a charming and very funny YA that does interesting things with language.  I'd describe it, but it's lots more fun (and much clearer) just to quote you some:

"Up narrow staircases and down broad staircases we went.  Through antechambers, bedchambers, closets, parlors, dining rooms, sitting rooms, furnace rooms, bathrooms, water closets, attics, cellars, receiving rooms, and on and on.  All the while, Valefor kept up a running commentary, like a tour guide:
    ". . . Slippery Stairs, where Anacreon Fyrdraaca broke his nose sliding down aon a tea tray . . . Beekeeping Room, don't bother the, Udo, and they won't bother you . . . Formerly secret Cubbyhole . . . Because it can't be secret if you know where it is, that's why, Madma Smartie . . . Luggage Mezzanine . . . I wonder if that salesman is till in the linen basket, I should come back and check. . . . . "

OK, it's easy to do this kind of thing when you're writing description, but she does it in dialogue and narrative, too, when it's appropriate.  When it's more appropriate to just get on with it, she can do that, too.  I would have loved the language (and the book) even if I'd never heard Ysabeau read it, but now I've got her own voice in my ear--slow, thoughtful, wry--and it makes it even funnier.

The word you want to be paying attention to in that last sentence is "slow."  She did not read as if she thought we might be bored.  She did not read as if she were parked in a 20 minute parking space and was afraid she'd get a ticket.  She read as if she and we and the characters, had time to kick back and enjoy ourselves.  She also read as if she were telling us a story she really wanted to tell.  She's not a super-dramatic reader of the Doing the Police In Different Voices (that's from a Dickens novel, I think, although I can't remember at the moment which one) school of Dramatic Reading.  She didn't act it; she read it as if she were talking, with changes of tone and pace and cadence, so that every sentence.  Didn't have the same.  Rise and fall.

And John Crowley?  I could say exactly the same things about the way he read.  He didn't rush, he took pauses when it made sense to, he read as if he were talking to his audience.  And his book is full of technical details about early experiments in heavier than air flight, told in third person omniscient.  His prose is measured and formal in the way early 20th century texts are formal, his sentences mostly long and heavily subordinated.  This kind of prose can be hard to follow read aloud, but he read it so it wasn't.

Neil Gaiman reads like this.  So does ellenklages and Ursula K. LeGuin and Theodora Goss (and Ellen Kushner, of course).  There are others (and you can probably name them for yourself), but these are the ones who spring to mind just now.

Now, I know that reading too fast and without inflection, or with the same inflection on every sentence, narrative and dialogue alike, is born of nervousness.  Heaven knows that I have been guilty, in my time, of ripping through my own prose like sharp scissors through silk.  I also know that writers (considered as a class) are globally insecure about the quality of what they're reading and their voices and just about everything else.  Still.  If a writer reads a story as if it's both interesting and golden, the audience is more likely to go out and buy the book they've been reading from.  And that's why we do it, right?  To sell books?  And maybe to get a little of that instant gratification that is so lacking in the writing life.

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