Friday, 4 April 2014

Short stories: reading, reading aloud and listening

Stories may be layered, not linear

One of those pieces of advice that comes round again and again for writers is to read your draft work aloud – ideally to a real live human audience (imagined audience or cat will not do). This advice gets repeated because it works. Katherine Mansfield, a consummate short story writer, used to read her stories out over and over again, in much the same way she practiced pieces on her cello. She was listening for faults in rhythm, phrasing; correcting down to the syllable. It is a terrifying and wonderful revelation to read a story aloud to others and instantly be able to see so much of what is wrong with it and how to improve it.

Even read aloud in the writer’s own voice, a story can take on another life from the one it has on the page. So what happens when someone else reads your story aloud? And especially, what happens when that someone is a trained performer, an actor? Last night I was present for readings of three of the six stories short-listed for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2014, where actors read (and in some cases very much performed) the stories while their authors sat with us in the audience. I had not read any of the work beforehand, and was there with Tania Hershman mainly to see her friend Marjorie Celona’s story ‘Othello’ read and to meet Marjorie herself. Asked in the Q&A at the end whether any of the writers were inspired by the actor-readings to write for the stage or screen, Marjorie was honest. No, not at all, she said, but what I do want to do is hear my work read aloud to me again! Away from the stage she said she thought the actor (Damien Molony, of Ripper Street, doing a convincing American accent) made her story funnier than it was on the page.

It is true that the audience laughed often during’ Othello’, both at and with the characters, and this was partly due to the energy, timing and intonations of Molony’s delivery. But at an event like this, where a £30k prize glistens in the distance for the winner, it is impossible not to wonder how I would respond to the same work on the page. The humour in Celona’s story is undoubtedly there in the writing, but I suspect that, read at home, alone, rather than listened to amongst a wine-fed audience, the humour would come across as darker, and would therefore contribute more to the tensions that rise and fall in the story, and to the sadness that ultimately seeps in to take its place.

Jonathan Tel’s story, ‘The Shoe King of Shanghai’, was read by Lesley Manville. I am a Manville fan, but she stumbled over words just slightly too often, so that I (and I sensed others) became distracted by the reading. Even if she had read it perfectly, Tel’s is exactly the kind of story that should be read on the page, because so many lines demand an immediate re-read, to check that you’ve not misunderstood. He takes the reader through a landscape that shifts as in a dream, with elements sometimes nonsensically combined – something I enjoy as long as it is towards some end – such that the only clear conclusion one can make is that you have to reach your own conclusion about what has happened. This, then, is the kind of story that is meant to read, as opposed to heard.

The last story of the evening was Adam Johnson’s ‘Nirvana’.  This was performed by two actors, Tom McKay doing most of the work as the male protagonist/narrator, and Amy Hamilton providing the voice (in direct speech only) of his partner, a woman recently paralysed and bedridden. Johnson has done something brilliant in this story, combining humour, sci-fi, and guaranteed heart-string action such that the audience is whipped along, skipping from tragedy to speculative humour and back again without pause for breath. In the brief discussion afterwards, Johnson described short stories as ‘meaning-making machines’. 

I was certainly moved by this story, but I worried about the interference of the reading. MacKay and Hamilton were both so engaged, they practically acted it for us, to the extent that, when the male narrator wept, Mackay did too, and cracks and the timbre of distress were added to voices when the written text did not describe the same. I do think I would find the story just as powerful on the page, but again, the bringing to life of characters by the actors was done so well that I genuinely cannot judge, and it will be a long time before I can forget that particular delivery, for good reasons. 

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar on the short story in the 21st century, in which Jonathan Taylor (lecturer at Leicester University and editor of the anthology Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud) argued that the reading aloud, or performance, of short stories at proliferating live events is changing the way writers write them. Stories are becoming shorter, more linear or plot driven, converging towards the guidelines for a 15 minute slot on Radio 4. It’s true that on the occasions when writers write for a listening audience, they may bear this in mind, but I don’t think Taylor’s claim generalises to contemporary short stories beyond that. Certainly last night’s readings showed how three different and polished styles take to performance with differing degrees of success.

There is a difference between telling a tale and reading a short story aloud – storytelling as an art form is something distinctive, epitomised by the likes of Hugh Lupton and taught on courses that are all about performance without reliance on a script. Tales are short stories of a kind, but not all short stories, especially contemporary ones, are tales as such. They can be beautifully written pieces in which not a lot happens. The beauty of the form is that it does not have to linear, or plot driven; it is flexible and can be challenging. Listening to a short story read aloud can require concentration but is a deep pleasure, whether the story was designed with this in mind or not, but we should be wary of judging stories on how well they work aloud.

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