Friday, 9 December 2016

Sad Books, Readings, Performance

Me. Doing a reading. Yonks ago.

And while I'm on the subject of storytelling ... a member of one of my reading groups said they were in the mood for a sad book and asked for recommendations. One book that springs to mind is Watership Down by Richard Adams - a book so sad I can't even read it. Just knowing what it's about makes me want to cry - reading it now with the knowledge of how much more has been lost would be too much for me.

But I remembered something else that deserved a mention. Last year one of the writing courses I went on was Writing Women’s Popular Fiction led by Julie Cohen and Rowan Coleman. At the start of the course I saw something profound. Julie did a reading from Rowan's book We Are All Made of Stars and it brought a room full of adult women to tears. Literally. Sniffing and hankies and everything. It was a powerful experience demonstrating the impact good words can have. A book should always make the reader feel something: fear, sadness, excitement, intrigue, arousal, whatever (it depends on what genre tickles your pickle). A book without feeling is an empty book.

(Note that We Are All Made of Stars isn't just a sad book: Julie described it as "such a beautiful, sad and happy book. I love it so much.").

The spoken word is important. As an act of communication it can transfer emotion. I believe the ears are less of a censor than the eyes, so the words go straight into your brain. You will read the words "I love you and I hate you" in one way, but different speakers will perform that phrase a hundred different ways. Angry, softly, shouted, sneering, plaintive, emotionless. And 94 more (trust me, I counted). I studied Classics at university, translated poems that were never meant to be read on a page, that would have been oral performances spanning several evenings of entertainment. Thanks Homer et al. (If you want to know more about Greek oral performances, read my article on Ancient Greek Drama.)

It's one of the reasons I enjoy well-narrated audiobooks. I'm proud that my first audiobook is now available and was so convincingly performed by Rosie Alldred. Performance is the key word. You can't skip ahead. The story will unveil itself at its own pace.  And the story has more chance to surprise you. Or shock you. I once wrote a nasty character piece: a dramatic monologue about a man describing his wife's death. I read it out to a group of fellow writers, and afterwards the room was silent. The anger I felt while reading aloud communicated itself only too well. One of the audience later wrote about it:
"Another interesting thing was that Karl read a powerful, challenging story [...] Karl’s story was an assault on the psyche of everyone in the room. It was vile, repugnant, out of control, despicable - and deliberately so. At the end of the story, the response was not an intellectual one of “I like what you did with X, but not so keen on Y,” rather it was a coming to terms with the emotions we were each feeling, and why we were so appalled, and what it mean for the person in the story. It was an important lesson."
Written words do not assault the mind as spoken words do, because we can shut our eyes and take the power away from the words on the page; we can not block out another person, cannot close our ears, so easily. If the story is an accusation then we can't help but identify with the accused. It's the identification with another being that powers most fiction. And, so help us, this world needs a lot more empathy.

Anyway, it's one of the reasons I enjoy doing readings, even when the story isn't an intense one. Here's an old one I gave at Aberystwyth Arts Centre; and one I gave at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff (you'll need to turn the subtitles on for that, it wasn't a pro-recording).

Okay, that's enough of me. Go have a read of Julie or Rowan's books. Listen to an audiobook. And have your say. What's your saddest, most heart-breaking book? Have you ever been affected by or really enjoyed an author's reading? Cheers.

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