Cardinal Column #14: Performance of Literature

(Editor’s note: I’m running out of comments to say about my early columns, but as I’ve said about the latest ones this one has a great style to it and I like the tone of voice I fell into. I was also able to reference past columns in a sign I was building up a body of work, and draw on a lot of personal examples which really helps to put a strong face on the column.)

Chappell sees a voice – of the best authors

Originally printed in The Daily Cardinal, April 19, 2006

Recently, in the spirit of shared weirdness and as an alternative to productivity, my friend Pat loaned me a recording of William S. Burroughs’ live readings. The albums, leaping through Burroughs’ heroin-induced library of works like “Naked Lunch” and “Exterminator!” are a stirring cross-section of one of this country’s most original writers.

While I personally find Burroughs so powerful and disjointed I have to take his books slowly—I can’t stomach more than a few stories at a time—I could listen to an entire disc of those recordings without fail. Burroughs has an inimitable voice which is strong and raspy at the same time, a New York accent reeling off drug and sex acts like cynical advice to the youth.

Regular readers of this column may recall I once voiced distaste for digital books—to the tune of “I’m personally happier keeping my library on a shelf than on three CD’s”—but there’s a big difference between audio recordings and performance literature. When an author reads his own work it’s a different animal, a move that elevates the relationship between reader and author.

Turning reading into a performance is one of the oldest concepts in literature. The legendary blind poet Homer got his start traveling around Greece to read stanzas from the “Iliad,” and the Aztec codices—long, illustrated encyclopedias—were stretched out several meters long and read as a group. To these audiences, storytelling was the key factor, and the tone of the reader’s voice made as much difference as the right word choice.

Today, adding a performance angle to a book lets the audience hear what the writer’s thoughts sound like for themselves as opposed to interpreting them silently. Last year I saw Chuck Palahniuk read from his collection of stories “Haunted,” and his tone—starting out measured, rising and falling like a heartbeat in a haunted house—was so captivating I riveted my eyes open in awed surrender.

Granted, the stories had vivid details like fat men boiling alive in sulfur springs and cramming sex dolls with razor blades, but I hold the inflection of his voice made it all the worse to hear.

At least half a dozen audience members walked out on Palahniuk during that reading—a reaction he seemed very proud of and which exemplifies the power of audience reaction. Readings are the best opportunity an author has for critique, as a gushing book jacket quote can be solicited by any publisher—wide-eyed audience members clapping or fighting off vomit are harder to replicate.

In fact, the best writers can take this reaction a step further and use it to cultivate their own image. On the rare occasions when he did public speaking and recorded an audio version of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson spoke in Southern tones that were as staccato as his writing, while nonfiction’s Judas James Frey was apparently good enough at his talks he could make anyone believe his story.

Of course, being able to present their work in a public format is by no means a qualifier for success. Bob Dylan used Sean Penn to record his autobiography “Chronicles: Volume 1,” and it doesn’t dent the book’s quality (stepping back was actually a smart move, as Dylan’s ‘voice of a generation’ is lately in bad shape). Good writing will always stand on its own merits, and the written word can still have more impact than the spoken.

Anyone who can cultivate performance, however, will find themselves in one of the most comfortable positions a writer can find: able to interact directly with their work and see how it affects an audience. And, for fun, they can write about bloated warts and leeches and watch the book fans squirm.

One Response to Cardinal Column #14: Performance of Literature

  1. […] a bit more sympathetic to audiobooks than she is, especially ones that are read by the authors (as I’ve said before), but I appreciate the clear emotional connection being made here to the physical act and the […]

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