[Up] [Introduction] [Art?] [Reading vs Listening] [On Narrators] [Directing] [On Producing] [On Abridgement] [On Sound Quality] [Narrative Voice] [To Voice or Not to Voice] [Literary tact] [On Author-narrators] [OTR] [Whither Independents?] [Is It Art?][email]
Dear Uncle Yuri,
Why do some listeners swoon over authors reading their own work? Most of these writers have speech impediments and irritating voices. What about us trained actors who study for years? These writers are going to put us out of business. And they can’t even get a simple declarative sentence out of their mouths. I can’t for the life of me figure out the attraction. Can you enlighten me? My career weighs in the balance.
Your worshipful niece,
Once again you have come to the right source for your answers. We all-knowing experts here on Parnassus posit several reasons why fans salivate over authors’ voices:
1) Authenticity. True literati want it from the horse’s mouth. Presumably, not only will the writer give the correct interpretation of his own stuff, but will reveal something about its nuances, about his very personal relationship to the work- as when a composer conducts. Indeed, NPR once hired your uncle to adapt F. Scott Fitzgerald stories to radio. The most revealing item I found for this purpose was an ancient recording of Fitzgerald reciting Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot. His lugubrious, Byronic oral interp showed that he who coined the phrase "Jazz Age" was not spiritually of the epoch he named, but an Edwardian romantic of the adolescent variety.
On the other hand, using the composer analogy, an author can be like the deaf Beethoven, who, when conducting the premiere of one of his symphonies, ended considerably later than the orchestra. Nineteen-year-old composer William Walton, the future Sir William, wittily set Edith Sitwell poems in a piece for reciter and small musical ensemble called Façade. Tin-eared Dame Sitwell performed it at the premiere, sitting on a ladder behind a screen. They should have screened her voice. She could not follow the rhythms scored for her. As you point out, some writer/readers are unlistenable. How can they strike a true note when, as readers, they can’t hit any note at all?
2) Showmanship. Much of modern poetry these days is enjoyed in tournament-style readings. Whether the poets can extrapolate any meaning or beauty from their own work is beside the point, as long as they can perform. If they’re tap dancing to a ballet, what’s the dif, if they have the panache to pull it off? Commonly, they adopt some mannerism that has nothing to do with the sense of the words. Mayhaps ‘twas Dylan Thomas who made this fashionable. People still thrill to his recordings, and they are thrilling. But mannered. Terribly mannered. More poets adhere to his aesthetic of a put-on reciter’s voice than, say, to the beauty, sincerity and intimacy of my favorite, Seamus Heaney. But it keeps ‘em cheering in the balcony.
3) Star Mania. A kind of canny vanity plays upon the public’s fascination with celebrity. Not content merely with huge sales and critical acclaim, some authors, the Gore Vidals, Norman Mailers and Truman Capotes of the world, seek personal fame. Sure, Capote could have enlisted some equally or more famous actors for the numerous recordings of his work, but his distinctive, albeit hideous, voice carried its own cachet. So what if he added insult to injury by narrating leadenly in that squeaky lisp. It was True Tru.
4) The Emperor’s New Clothes. Tailors are ever busy in all fields of public endeavor designing new birthday suits for His Majesty. In his own audio work, Uncle Yuri works on the principle that a professional narrator has the talent, experience and training my deathless prose requires and deserves, not I. Although your uncle is a card-carrying actor, he is a mediocre one and, therefore, doesn’t hire himself to perform in his own brilliant productions. That’s what makes them brilliant.
Dear Uncle Yuri,
You are so full of it!
© 1986 - 2001 AudioFile
magazine. Used by permission.