March 15, 2012, by Jon McGregor

Reading aloud and writing aloud.

On a number of occasions recently, I’ve been asked to stand on a stage and read my work to an audience. One of the rewards (and difficulties) of doing this is that it confronts you with the tangles and slacknesses in your prose; it’s easy to sense, by the dips in an audience’s attentiveness, where you’ve slipped up.

A common piece of advice for writers is to read an early draft aloud. This way, it’s said, the rhythm of the prose – or the lack of rhythm – will be made clear. It’s sound advice. It’s something I’ve often done myself. But I’m starting to wonder whether there might be a risk involved; whether the spoken rhythm might not be a little different from the internally voiced rhythm, and different enough to warrant an adjusted attention. The reader’s eye, as it moves across the page, is capable of taking in the words on either side of the one being read, and is also capable of flicking back to check up on or reiterate an earlier word, without breaking the flow or the pace of the reading, in such a way that a structurally complex sentence such as this one can succeed on the page or the screen in a way that it wouldn’t when heard. A listener to the preceding sentence would have lost the thread somewhere around the second clause. (Of course, a good reader of the same sentence would have thrown up their hands in horror. But I was using form to make a point, okay?) By way of example, I suspect that even the finest Alice Munro story would need editing before it could succeed on radio. Not because there is a word wasted or out of place, but simply because the quality of attention is different.

Once I’ve read the same piece to an audience a dozen times, it’s usually ended up edited to about half the original length, as I’ve either heard those dips in an audience’s attention or felt the words stumble over each other as they come out of my mouth. Many of those edits have improved the written piece (and it would be great to be able to tour an unpublished manuscript, in order to work those edits into the published version), but many of them are simply there to create an alternative, oral version of the piece. Most of the disciplines of oral performance – rhythm, clarity, concision – serve to strengthen the prose on the page. But written prose has other possibilities – patience, complexity, languidity – which shouldn’t be ignored simply on the basis that they would lose you points at the poetry slam.

(A side-note: the public reading has become an established part of the professional role of ‘writer’, and is something which not all writers or readers are comfortable with. The relationship between speaker and audience member is very different from the one between writer and reader; and the challenge of making this relationship work is, for me, an enjoyable one. As such, I’m interested in the resistance of many writers and event organisers to engaging with the notion of ‘performance’, and the lack of a critical context for public readings, and so I’ll be returning to this issue in a later post.)

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