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11 October 2010

The art of reading aloud

I'm poking my head out of the superawful deadline hell (but I should be grateful, right?) and kicked myself for missing such interesting posts over the last week or so. With my track record of missing days you might be amazed to see me here at all--generally my excuses are of the pathetic I forgot, sorry sort. But here I am and I want to talk about reading aloud.

Recently, I organized a whole day of writers talking about what they do and reading aloud from their work for my local RWA chapter, Maryland Romance Writers (where Pam Rosenthal is speaking on Oct. 21!) last month at the Baltimore Book Festival, and also had the pleasure of reading earlier this week for Lady Jane's Salon in NYC, which was a lot of fun. You can see some of the pics from the Baltimore Book Festival on MRW's Facebook page.

What I found surprising was the reluctance of many writers to read aloud from their work, and this seems a phenomenon of the genre. Writers in other fiction genres read aloud at the drop of a hat. Yet I think it's one of the most empowering things you can do, because it is also one of the most revealing of yourself:
Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading. Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times.
And here's a fabulous example of this eroticism, from Austen's sexiest book, Mansfield Park, when Henry Crawford reads aloud from Shakespeare. I love the voyeurism as Edmund watches Fanny's reactions:

... whether it were dignity or pride, or tenderness or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. -- It was truly dramatic. -- His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on the stage with Miss Bertram. Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needle-work, which, at the beginning, seemed to occupy her totally; how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it -- and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford's upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken. Then, she was shrinking again into herself, and blushing and working as hard as ever; but it had been enough to give Edmund encouragement for his friend, and as he cordially thanked him, he hoped to be expressing Fanny's secret feelings too.
As well as an acceptable form of parlor entertainment, reading aloud was also showbiz and wildly popular, particularly when Dickens and Thackeray got into the act. Thackeray used readings as promotion for new books, whereas Dickens read aloud "household words" already dear and familiar to the public. The London Times claimed that the vogue for public readings began in 1844 and by 1868,
"Readers are abundant; there is not a literary institution that does not in the course of the year publish a programme of entertainments in which some plays or poems to be 'read' by some person of celebrity, general or local, do not hold a prominent place, and for the innocent amusement of the poor, 'penny readings' in the parish schoolrooms are now commonly encouraged by every clergyman who takes a practical interest in his flock." Quoted in Voice and the Victorian Storyteller by Ivan Kreilkamp.
Charles Dolby, who managed Dickens' reading tours in England and America, wrote an account of them in 1885, which you can find on Googlebooks. Here he describes the immense excitement Dickens' readings produced:
Hundreds poured into a hall already crowded to suffocation, amid rent garments, expostulations, threats, cries for " the manager," and " Where is Mr. Dickens?" It was a surging, roaring sea that overflowed everything, even the platform on which Mr. Dickens was to read. The attendants and men at the doors suffered much—to use Mr. Dickens's own words in telling the tale: "They were all torn to ribbons; they had not a hat and scarcely a coat amongst them." Indeed, so futile were the efforts of the attendants to control or in any way to stem the tide, that Mr. Dickens found it necessary to come forward and address those who were already in the hall, while an intimate friend, from a prominent position, endeavoured to instil reason into those who were outside.
Mark Twain in 1868, was less than impressed with Dickens' appearance in San Francisco:
He is a bad reader, in one sense -- because he does not enunciate his words sharply and distinctly -- he does not cut the syllables cleanly, and therefore many and many of them fell dead before they reached our part of the house. ... I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens' reading -- I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed. The Herald and Tribune critics must have been carried away by their imaginations when they wrote their extravagant praises of it. Mr. Dickens' reading is rather monotonous, as a general thing; his voice is husky; his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language -- there is no heart, no feeling in it -- it is glittering frostwork; his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads to himself.
Do you enjoy reading aloud or listening to authors read? And why do you think the practice is not widespread among romance writers?

p.s. in the spirit of blatant self promotion, I'm at vampchix today talking about JANE AND THE DAMNED and at Word Wenches with the BESPELLING JANE AUSTEN gang, Mary Balogh, Susan Krinard and Colleen Gleason. There are books to be won!

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9 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I love going to readings! There used to be a wonderful book shop in downtown San Francisco (alas, USED to be) that held lunchtime readings. I saw/heard Neil Gaiman, Bernard Cornwell, Gregory Maguire, Ian Kelly, and a host of others. It was a wonderful way to spend a lunch hour.

I really hope that I someday get to read at Lady Jane's Salon in NY. Living 3K miles away makes it a bit of a project though.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

YESS!!! Reading out loud is sooo important, and relatively neglected in our genre, though it's always been part of the brick and mortar bookstore culture and the erotic writing culture. I love to do it, and I was shocked when I read a few years ago with fellow erotic writers Lacy Danes, Eden Bradley, and Lillian Feisty, that I was the only one of us with any experience. The first time I read out loud, at an open mic at San Francisco's Good Vibrations, I met erotic writing phenom Tristan Taormino (years later a Village Voice sex columnist). I can still remember her voice curling around one particular sentence of her story (duly stolen for one of mine).

Anyhow, it's a great thing to do and every writer should.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Plus, when I was reading BLEAK HOUSE recently, the only way I could really get into that novel's amazing changes of mood and voice was to read a page or so aloud to myself from time to time.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading aloud to my children when they were younger - read all of Harry Potter to my son, then did it again for my daughter.
In a somewhat different vein, I sometimes read snippets from Black Lace books to my husband in bed. I felt very awkward at first, but now am more relaxed, and it's fun for us both. Coincidentally, just last week I finished Forbidden Shores by Jane Lockwood, and I think he might enjoy some of that too.
Lesley

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't mind reading aloud to others, but conversely and probably egotistically can't abide being read to, especially when the reader has no idea about how much syntax matters, giving little attention to how parts fit to whole in a sentence. Torture!

dick

7:53 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Popping out of double-deadline hell to chime in here: I adore reading aloud! I love being read to (and grew up with it), but only when the reader has spark and passion (viz: Marianne's view of Willoughby's efforts in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY). It often surprises me when I attend a reading and signing at a bookstore and the author can't read aloud his/her own work well. I always think it's part and parcel of the territory, especially these days when promotion is so much a part of the writing itself.

But even more than that, as I write I hear the words in my head as if they are being read aloud, the dialogue as if it is being spoken by real people (which is why in my house wooden, inorganic, poorly crafted dialogue in Someone Else's Fiction can turn a novel into a projectile). I read my own work aloud to see if it flows. Whether it's my fiction or my nonfiction, wordsmithing (and voice) has a certain music to it, and as soon as I read it aloud I can tell if it's discordant or harmonious.

As for being read to: my grandmothers did it; my lovers have done it (esp. their own work). I can't think of many things more charming or more intimate. The Brownings daring to be so vulnerable as to read their poems to each other: he, full of excitement/she, atremor with trepidation: (darling, does this image work, line scan, etc...). It makes me tingle to think about it.

Of course when the reader is utterly clueless, or tone-deaf to the music of the work she/he is reading, then it's sheer torture. Hoydens and other authors: have any of your books been recorded for audio books by someone who completely mangled your text? That happened to me. OH, how I wish (esp. being an actress) that I'd been given the opportunity, but a third-party bought the audio rights to one of my chick-lit books and turned a very voicey, peppy, and buoyant novel (written in three different voices, one of which is a precocious child) into a soporific! I DO NOT want to be responsible for any auto accidents if people are listening to the tapes in their cars as they drive and are lulled to sleep by the reader's voice.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Valerie L. said...

I know a couple, retired school teachers, who always have read aloud to each other. They share the joy of their books and are closer in their marriage because of it. Now, as her health is failing along with her eyesight, he's the one who reads and she is the one who listens. She has a Kindle for when they are apart, but the bond they have over their books has made all the difference to them.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Janet, let me posit a theory as to why so many Romance authors are reluctant to read from their work. Read in private, the love scenes are a contract made between author and reader. But read aloud in public (and I have been present at many Lady Jane salon evenings), the love scenes become gigglefests, and I sit in the audience and surmise that titters weren't necessarily the reaction the author intended, given the tone of the rest of the scene(s) she read. Grant it, a Romance author need not read one of her love scenes aloud, but when she chooses to do so, and in mixed company (which can include non-Romance readers, other patrons meandering about a bookstore looking for Clive Cussler or "Goodnight, Moon," or someone's redfaced husband), the temperature of the room becomes awkward when the author begins reading some of her steamier passages aloud. Heaving bosoms and throbbing members don't play well to the back row.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

Coming in late (this is my theme tune), I think you have to choose your scene to read aloud with care--unless you have some sort of training as an actor, for instance, lots of dialogue can be tricky. I do fine with it because of my (long ago) radio background

And love scenes, if they're not well written, can be awkward, because one thing reading aloud does reveal is the ease of the prose. If something is clumsily written, it's going to show.

We had two really great readings at the Baltimore Book Festival. One was by someone who'd read aloud a lot and writes sci-fi/fantasy. Another was by an author's friend, who really went to town on the material. I don't know what her background was, only that she's unpubbed, but she had a blast reading, and it showed.

And quite honestly in our genre I don't think there's enough attention paid to the flow and cadence and choice of words that make writing that's also good read aloud.

5:45 PM  

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