OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAReaders of my blog, and members of the Facets of Fiction Writers Workshops, will probably have noticed me banging on about reading aloud.

Mostly I’m exhorting people to read their own work out loud, as part of the process of writing. Not just to gain listener response, though that’s useful, but also because passages that are difficult to articulate, that stick in your throat or lead you into the wrong tone of voice for what’s coming next, will probably be difficult to negotiate in silent reading too. Silent reading, to some extent, must be an exercise in imagined voices!

By reading aloud I don’t necessarily mean performing. Reading aloud might well be a performance, but the two terms, to my way of thinking, lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. At the performance end the actual words being read aloud will be of lesser importance than at the other – possibly of less importance to the listener, who may well have morphed into a viewer, than the visual and non-verbal audio stimuli that accompany them.

At the reading aloud end of the spectrum there is still a handful of techniques to be employed in the way the words are read: speed, volume, tone are three obvious ones, and of course, variations in these will influence how the words themselves are understood and responed to. When I read aloud there is much handwaving, shoulder heaving and facial contortion! When poet Josephine Dickinson reads aloud there is only the breathtaking purity of her voice.

All of which is a sort of preamble to suggesting that reading aloud has a lot to offer readers as well as writers. In particular I have been thinking of James Joyce [I’m contemplating running a series of reading/study session on Joyce later in the year – any takers????], who in the twenties and thirties, made a series of recordings, and particularly of his reading of the Anna Livia Plurabella section of Finnegan’s Wake. I found hearing Joyce read this particularly helpful in my own approach to what for most of us is a pretty daunting novel. I found a similar effect with poet John Berryman, whose work had seemed impenetrable to me until I heard him read it! – Literature ain’t only for the uber-clever among us ya know!

What I’m going to suggest however, is that hearing ourselves read aloud the work of authors we are silently reading can perform a similar function. The literary equivalent of ‘going a mile in someone’s shoes’, reading their work aloud can help not only with understanding what they meant, but also with getting a sense of what they may have have felt about their writing. More improtantly, it might also clarify , amplify perhaps, what we feel about their words.

I find James Joyce’s voice as thin and wiry, in those early recordings, as is his image in contemporaneous photographs, but it’s a voice I reckon I could catch if I practiced; perhaps to read a favourite passage, such as the last few paragraphs of his short story ‘The Dead’. Yet that would not be my preferred reading of it.

 

It is often pointed out that authors are not always the best, or even good readers of their own work. Are composers of music similarly disappointing, I wonder, when it comes to playing their own music? That authors do often read badly does not necessarily strip value from their readings, not to us as readers, nor to them as writers, but it does suggest that our own readings of their work might be as useful or even more useful, and dare I say it more enjoyable to us than readings in the original voice.

Giving voice to words that are not our own does not mean striving to replicate the voice of the original writer, but rather to create the voice that we think those written words evoke, or even demand. Just as a musician plays his or her interpretation of the written score, so we play ours of the written text, and this, even if only for us as individuals, is a worthwhile thing to do.

 

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