Public Readings and Fractured Voice in New Media



My relationship with literature, like that of most people who’d claim to have a relationship with it, is multi-faceted, complicated—even fractured.  At work, I spend several hours every week in front of a computer, reading submissions, essays, blogs, etcetera.  When not working, the majority of my time with a screen is dedicated to writing, be it academic or personal.  I don’t own an e-reader, so when I’m reading at home it’s usually a paper book or journal.  Then there’s the constant dialogue between my friends and coworkers.  This dialogue, even if the moment’s topic is as seemingly mundane as the weather or lunch, is related to literature, for it is that shared initial interest that allowed the moment to occur.  These facets, of course, are linked, and constantly inform one another.

However, there does seem to be another facet of this relationship which is more distinct than the others: live readings.  These ceremonies are rare in a couple of senses.  First (at least here in Columbia), they are rare because they are few.  Each semester, the MU Creative Writing Program does organize a new student reading series (which you can check out here) and a visiting writers series.  And of course, TMR hosts a few too, like the one happening October 8th, but these are nonetheless infrequent, much-anticipated events.  This anticipation relates to the second sort of rareness of these ceremonies: the primary act itself, or hearing and seeing an author read his or her words.  At live readings, the author’s chief goal in writing is inevitably achieved: he or she connects with the audience in a pure and authentic way.  You hear and see the author’s voice and words—no matter if you’ve read them previously—and they resonate, if only on an auditory level. Thus, live readings are a facet of literature whose immediacy seems unparalleled.

Supposedly depicting Dickens’s last public reading

Immediacy here is linked to voice, one of the most fundamental subjects in my relationship with literature.  Common discourse and phonocentrism position spoken speech as primary, and because we call what emits from the author during a reading his/her voice, I use “unparalleled”.  However, voice is complicated and fractured, too, much like the stated aspects from which it originates.  When we describe voice as spoken or auditory, that referent may be negatively described as “not-written”.  Furthermore, when we discuss voice in literature, we describe it as “narrative”.  In both cases, voice is considered inextricable, and its transcendent presence as both a word and idea suggests a primacy more fundamental yet.  This is most apparent in literature, where apparently voice must exist.

What I am wondering, though, is how the tradition of live readings—and moreover, its status as literature’s paramount manifestation of voice—will be affected by the constantly diversifying concept of voice in contemporary literature.  I’d say that my understanding of voice has developed, but I’d nonetheless have trouble identifying a single ubiquitous quality—that is, one independent from and indifferent to the subsequent criticism of it.

This diversifying of voice is most readily apparent in the increased role of New Media in contemporary literature.  The examples are numerous: we have seen a novel chapter in PowerPoint, a short story in Tweets (1 of 153), video trailers for books, and more.  Each emits “voices” that are multi-faceted, voices that are “fractured.”  In the first example, there is supposedly the character Alison Blake, but there is also the PowerPoint interface, its various constraints, and of course, Egan transcending all.  Each are a voice—disparate, autonomous, whatever else.  In the second, there’s Electric Lit., Twitter, Rick Moody’s shrewd narrator, and Moody himself.  These go beyond words: they are more than words.  That you could argue that there are more voices, or that there are less, or, finally, that my understanding of voice is general or incomplete, reveals much about the complexity of voice, its “inherent” difficulty.

Representative New Media users, engaged

In this developing realm called New Media, some have attempted to establish a concentrated presence which accounts for such diversity.  Most literary journals have embraced social media, sure, and several offer content in additional mediums, but there are others still that somehow manage to emerge from the rest in a markedly progressive way.  Not The New Yorker or Harper’s, whose historical weight propel them inevitably forward, rather, I’m speaking of ones like Electric Literature and Blackbird.  Is formal inventiveness crucial, like the Moody story mentioned above, or is it the words the journals themselves produce (e.g. editorial policies, missions, forwards, etcetera)?  Both?  But is this not conceptually identical to Egan’s PowerPoint chapter?  Presence, then, or dominance, is another sort of “voice.”

Even The Moth, a organization unique in its focus on live, unscripted storytelling, exists as an autonomous entity.   “Each story is true and every voice authentic”, yes, but The Moth also maintains a blog, social media presence, and does radio broadcasts—in short, asserts it’s self.

New Media looms at a public reading. Threateningly?

Even so, New Media and its entities have yet to authentically (re)create the inexplicable magic of live readings.  A video of an author reading does not compare with being in the same room with that author, his/her words assuming a new texture both visceral and singular, undeniably true, indifferent to your cursor, your mouse’s erratic clicking.  It seems this is will always be so, that recreation is only an insufficient prosthetic, and I am happy for it.  However, this language is “fundamental”, not fundamental.  Nor are live readings.  Likewise, some other “true” may emerge.  Live reading culture could wane.  If this happens, what will be lost?