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Saturday, February 02, 2008

 

Reading aloud

Some readers, to the horror of writers, are put off the books if they hear the author reading them badly. Others are just disappointed. Here's the situation from the writer's perspective...

The problem with reading your work aloud is that your writing voice and your speaking voice are two completely different animals.

Your writing voice is flexible as water; you can sweeten it, acidify it, pour it out in a torrent, freeze it, change it as far as your imagination can stretch. You can speak through characters, saying things you don't mean, things you couldn't pronounce, use incantatory rhythms you'd never have the nerve or the floor-space to use in ordinary conversation. It's a very rare experience to be uninterruptable, and writers, introspective people on the whole, generally lack the social aggression to behave uninterruptably in real life. When you take the floor in writing, you're free from self-consciousness, because you're unobserved. You can be and say anything.

You can see this, in part, with letters. A letter-writing voice is again different from a fiction-writing voice, but I'm sure many of us know people who correspond differently from how they talk. Some people are shy in person and positively suave in e-mails. Some people don't write for months, and sent the stiffest of letters when they do write, but are voluble and chatty in person. Some people have sad voices and write bouncy letters.

Reading aloud is quite another matter.

Writers aren't actors. Many a writer, I've suggested before, is an actor who can't actually act. And when you're reading your work, the voice you have is no longer flexible: it's trapped within the confines of your larynx. All sorts of problems arise.

A major one is accent. Not everyone can do voices, and most writers have to read in their own accent - which may not suit what you're reading at all. Nobody sounds exactly the same in person as they do in their heads to begin with, and the accent you assume under pressure (and reading aloud is a pressure situation for someone who isn't a natural performer) can change from normal.

To take myself as an example: my natural accent is basically middle-class English, an educated Southern accent with a slight blur from having an Irish mother that makes people occasionally mistake me for Canadian, American or Australian, plus a slight London tendency to drop Ts. But put me in front of a microphone, or even a telephone, and something changes: I turn into cut glass. I don't do it on purpose. Possibly I go acrolectal as a defence mechanism, but as being posh garners scant cultural kudos in Cool Britannia (man I hated that lame phrase), I don't think that quite works. More likely is simply this: in front of an audience, I try to speak clearly. My understanding of 'clearly' was heavily trained throughout my teens by a taskmaster choir conductor, who said the phrase 'Round sound not foul vowels' so many times we could all recite it in our sleep. By a coincidence of teaching, my accent slides up the class scale whenever I'm called on to perform.

And this often doesn't work with what I'm reading. Bareback, for instance, explicitly states that the narrator's accent is less educated-sounding than her sister's. The book is deliberately set in an unnamed country, and the idea was always to have the reader feel as if it was happening in their own; hence, ideally Australian readers should hear an Australian voice, American ones an American voice, and so on. Listen to an author reading that in an upper-middle-class English accent like mine, and it becomes confusing.

It's that kind of randomness that dogs authors when they have to read. They know what a voice unlike theirs sounds like, and it sounds that way in their heads when they write it, but ask them to read it, and all sorts of things kick in. The author may capture beautifully the airy drawl of a Southern gentleman in prose, but if he got kicked in the shins for sounding posh all the way through school, it might make it hard for him to get his voice to comply. Your accent is affected by a lot of chance things, and having lots of eyes upon you can push it in the wrong direction.

Pitch, of course, is another problem. Imagine if Brian Blessed wrote a children's novel narrated by a little girl, and had to read it out loud. It would sound - well, entertaining, because Brian Blessed is a talented actor, but it wouldn't sound right. Even if the narrative voice is the right gender, or gender-neutral, there will almost certainly be characters the opposite gender from the author. The best thing an author can do is to read the lines normally, as an attempt to make your voice all booming or squeaky generally calls far more attention to itself than reading a man's line in a woman's voice, but still, it can put a crimp on things.

There's also just the element of the reader's internal voice. It probably doesn't sound exactly like their speaking voice, any more than the author's does, but that's the voice they hear your book in. A writer who doesn't sound like that internal voice - and odds are they can't sound like everybody's - is just going to sound wrong, like an actor miscast for a role because you always imagined the character as small and blond where the actor is tall and dark.

As well, there's just self-consciousness. Writing voices can be passionate, but without an actor's love of the spotlight, it can be extremely embarrassing trying to be passionate on your own in front of a group of strangers; it's like that schoolroom underwear dream, only in real life. Some readers may feel it's the author's job to make an effort, and most authors will do their best, but it's really not the author's job to be an actor, it's their job to write. If they didn't write better than they read, they'd be recording books on tape.

So there are, in short, a number of reasons why many a writer freezes up when asked to read their word aloud. If you hear a writer mumbling their way through a story, I'd suggest cutting them some slack: they may be altogether cooler on the page than in front of the mike.

Comments:
The best thing an author can do is to read the lines normally, as an attempt to make your voice all booming or squeaky generally calls far more attention to itself than reading a man's line in a woman's voice, but still, it can put a crimp on things.

The best "voice actors" could do male or female voices without calling attention to it. The two best examples I know are both male, so the "default" problem may be in effect, but Jim Henson did great female voices, and I heard Tess of the D' Ubervilles being read by a wonderful actor.

That said, the difference between writing and reading aloud is dead on. And that's not considering that the writer may have an odd voice, a speech defect, or no voice at all.
 
Voice actors, undoubtedly; it's truly amazing what a really skilled actor can do. But I suspect that any writer who isn't also an actor would quickly make a prat of themselves! :-)
 
I had to record a short story of mine recently. It didn't sound anything like how it sounded in my head. I read it too quickly and all the subtle nuiances I thought I was applying actually didn't make it as far as my vocal chords. I suppose it's a bit like singing for the non-singer (this is also me) - in my head, I know exactly what should come out of my mouth but my head and my voice don't seem to communicate on the matter. I wonder if a writer who could sing would have a better chance of sounding how they intended when reading their work.
 
I went to hear Randy Wayne White (mystery writer from Florida) but when I got to the bookstore, Mr. White refused to read. He said he's terrible at reading his own work and we'd just do Q and A instead. It was an extremely entertaining evening and the audience loved it.

I always squirm with impatience when an author reads. Hand me the book and let me read it for myself! I don't like books on tape either, no matter who does the reading.
 
I would universally prefer to hear an author talk about nearly anything rather than read from their own work. I think it sounds like something a publisher came up with in order to coax a bashful author out in public to promote their work. "All you have to do is read the stuff you've already written. Now stop making excuses and get out there!"

Regarding the un-placedness of Bareback: a laudable goal, but it failed to work for me. What did it in for me, ultimately, was the part where you said that Lola didn't spend a lot of time in parks because there were no parks in the poor area where she lived, and the fashionable neighborhoods were clustered around the parks. Maybe that's true on the East coast, but on the West coast of the US it's the opposite: poor neighborhoods have plenty of parks because land is inexpensive, so a public official who wants to dedicate a park in his name finds it easier to do so there. Only children's playgrounds and dog off-leash parks are appreciated in affluent areas, and both would be nearly deserted, and possibly closed, after dark.
 
You've gotta understand that to me, America is basically one country, regional differences notwithstanding, and there are lots of other countries to consider when trying to be open-ended. The idea was that it could be set in a city in any nation, be it England, America, Australia, Ireland, or indeed Germany, Japan, Denmark or any of the countries that have tranlated versions published, rather than sounding like the city was exactly like every single city everywhere. That isn't possible, because no two cities are alike.

If I was going to give any descriptions of the city, which I had to for plot purposes, inevitably it wouldn't be exactly like anywhere real, but the point was to make it sound broadly applicable - and in fact, I've had different people assume it was set in both London and New York, which suits me fine.

Also bear in mind this is an alternative reality and the presence of lycanthropy predates the founding of cities, so cities would very likely be constructed on different plans from ours.

If it sounds like it could be set somewhere in America, that's good enough for me.
 
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