The inspiration for this post came to me when convincing an actor friend to record an excerpt of my novel Spellwright. We did everything we could to make sure the result was lovingly, if not professionally, produced. It might not win any awards, but it’s still free and (hopefully) fun. If curious, have at the embedded vid below.
I relish nothing so much as listening to a good book. So when working on this sample, I got to thinking about the unsung history and importance of spoken stories.
The first stories were told and heard, not written and read. All that stuff with letters, punctuation, and (finally) spaces between the words? New fangled gizmos compared to the ancient technology of the story—which was invented God knows when, by God know whom, but probably beginning with well-fanged megafauna, frantic running, passionate screaming, and ending with an excited Homo sapiens retelling the now lost tale, “Hunting Saber-toothed tigers with unsharpened sticks and why we are TOTALLY FRACKIN’ DONE WITH THAT SHIT!” One would think that, given this esteemed origin, the spoken story would hold a venerated position in humanity’s hearts and minds. At least in my modern American world, it is shockingly not so. Around here, human hearts and minds (and possibly other major organs) venerate the written story above the spoken. Oh, hey, now that I’ve served you a steaming (crack)pot full of theory, would you like a side order of fanciful anecdotal evidence? Thought so. Here goes: yesterday I was walking in a lush, green North California field and I came across this scarecrow. We struck up a conversation. Really. No drugs or anything. Like, for serious.
SCARECROW: (scratching chin) Hey, Blake, how many books did you read last year?
BLAKE: Like maybe, twenty.
SCARECROW: Holy more books than I read last year, Batman! When do you find the time?
BLAKE: I listen to audiobooks while jogging or folding laundry or lying in green fields and wondering why this time of year all the clouds take the shapes of uncompleted tax forms.
SCARECROW: (nodding) Ohhhhhh, I see. You didn’t read any of them; you listened to them.
BLAKE: Yeah, great stuff out there nowadays. Actors, directors, and producers all specializing in audiobooks. Styles developing. Affordable to download. It’s a golden age.
SCARECROW: But I didn’t ask you how many books you listened to last year. No one asks how many books you’ve listened to. Everyone asks you how many books you’ve read.
BLAKE: That’s only because audiobooks used to be prohibitively expensive and clunky in cassette tapes. Society just needs time to catch on that excellent audio content—books, short stories, podcasts—has never been so widely available and portable as it is now.
SCARECROW: But authors don’t write novels with the intention to be heard, they write them to be read.
BLAKE: You met any authors that don’t ‘intend’ for their novels to do so well that they become audiobooks?
SCARECROW: Low blow, man. Low blow. You know I’m stuck on this post; I can’t meet anybody.
BLAKE: The authors I know are thrilled when their work is performed. I’d be thrilled if Spellwright were performed. It’s a different world out there, new technology and new content, iPods, brilliant podcasts, it’s—
SCARECROW: Don’t get me started about technology. That crap is ruining literature. The igeneration doesn’t have time to take fiction seriously. Everyone’s on the go and doesn’t care enough to stop and read. So they listen while commuting or doing chores. Modern technology is destroying the literate public.
BLAKE: But…like…homie, the written word is also a technology, made up a long time ago to record the best stories, refine them, and disseminate them. Until around AD 1000 all reading was done aloud because the technology of adding spaces between words hadn’t been invented.
SCARECROW: You should say something like “technique” rather than technology becau—
BLAKE: With spaces between words, we could read silently. That meant that stories were even more accessible. You could read whatever you want without everyone around you going apeshit because you do the female characters in falsetto.
SCARECROW: Man, I hate that. Or when women go all groaning-baritone to do men. Give me a break, sister!
BLAKE: Thing of the past, homestraw. Narrators are subtle these days. And consider that when the codex replaced the scroll, it made stories even more portable and reproducible. And then there was the printing press and paper and paperbacks and on and on. Technology has always made stories more portable, more accessible. Don’t you see? The written word and the spoken word are not competitors; they’re allies. Written stories and spoken stories are different but equally valid. Portable audio technology isn’t undoing prophecy; it’s like completing it, man.
SCARECROW: WTF, I have a North Californian Fantasy author talking in metaphors. If you’re wearing Birkenstocks, I’m frackin’ out of here.
BLAKE: Hey, how’s that post feel?
SCARECROW: Oh, you’re so damn cute with your witty reply.
BLAKE: You might even call it my ‘witty repost.’
SCARECROW: After you discovered puns, how often did your mother try to drown you?
BLAKE: There was just that one incident on the Golden Gate, but it turns out harbor seals are very friendly creatures. Anyway, back to the point: Admit it, man, fiction is all about story, character, and language: you’ve got all of those in audio performance. Shakespeare wrote for the stage more than the page.
SCARECROW: It’s funny…as you say that, I have this sense of my hitherto unconscious prejudice against audio fiction: as a wee scarecrow people read to me; now I read to myself. Venerating spoken stories wouldn’t allow an unconscious part of me to feel superior to children and those people not privileged enough to learn to read.
BLAKE: Huh, because I’ve always suspected that some people who look down on audio fiction harbor those same unconscious prejudices.
SCARECROW: Yeah, and when I say that, the post in my back kinda itches. I’m…like…very aware of the post all of a sudden. And…and…I feel compelled to point out that big shot professors of literature venerate written rather than spoken literature. I must quote Yale professor and Minor Deity of Academia, Harold Bloom: “Deep reading really demands the inner ear as well as the outer ear. You need the whole cognitive process, that part of you which is open to wisdom. You need the text in front of you.”
BLAKE: Who says Harold Bloom doesn’t suck at listening? It sounds astonishingly pretentious to assume that his brain is wired the same as everyone else’s.
SCARECROW: (feels face with hands, bits of straw fall out) As you say these things…it’s strange… I’m becoming more and more aware of this post in my back. And yet…it’s odd, I start to wonder who I am. Because…I feel as if I must keep making these arguments about the superiority of written stories which you then knock flat.
BLAKE: Well, your stance really isn’t that tenable. I mean, Neil Gaiman agrees with me.
SCARECROW: Fuck! I oppose the powers that Gaiman?
SCARECROW: (looks at hands) Wait…wait…that gives me an idea…maybe I do know who I am.
BLAKE: You do? Oh, hey look, I have to go. There’s this…thing.
SCARECROW: And you’re a novelist.
BLAKE: Well, I will be on Tuesday. Spellwright’s pub date, and all that.
SCARECROW: But you don’t have an audiobook?
BLAKE: Well, no. And it’s odd you should ask, because just last week I coordinated with my old high school best friend who’s now a professional stage actor, and we produced a amateur but still really enjoyable first hour of my novel that I’ve published on my own blog in today’s post.
BLAKE: Well…yeah, but it’s a different kinda post…I mean like…homonyms, man.
SCARECROW: But I’m on this post spouting off arguments you can easily take apart, and I’m a bloody scarecrow! (Shakes hand at BLAKE and bits of straw fall out.)
SCARECROW: I’m your fucking straw man post!
BLAKE: Well… you’re just saying that’s just you posturing—
SCARECROW: DON’T YOU EVEN TRY TO FINISH THAT PUN ON POST-URE!
SCARECROW: Like hell you are. God, I’m so pathetic. Literally, all I do in this written post is pose lame straw man arguments so that you can knock them down while I’m stuck on a wooden post. I don’t know what’s worse, your shoddy rhetoric or your STUPID BLOODY PUNS.
BLAKE: I think the phrase ‘double entendre’ does a better—
SCARECROW: Bitch, please. Like French is going to save you. I got an entendre for your meta fiction right here. If you add one more meta element to this post, I’m going to explode.
BLAKE: You know, that’s interesting because the French word ‘entendre‘ used to mean ‘to understand,’ but in modern French it means ‘to hear.’ It’s like there’s a historical conflation of meaning and hearing that supports the idea that listening—
(Long pause. Wind blows. A rabbit hops by. Birds tweet.)
BLAKE: (looks up at the sky) You know, that one looks just like the 1040EZ form I should be filling out now.
So there you have it: untrue, anecdotal, unsubstantiated proof of the veneration of written stories over spoken stories. If you’d like to make your inner weirdness more egalitarian, consider venerating both about the same. You might even celebrate the present Golden Age of Audio Content, vibrant with audiobooks and podcasts.
At this part of the program, in addition to admitting to using straw man rhetoric, I should disclose that as a dyslexic person I have a special attachment to audio content. Like many people with learning disabilities or visual impairment, recorded books played a vital role in my education. Perhaps this prejudiced my opinion of spoken stories. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Unclear. Regardless, I owe a debt of gratitude to the non-profit Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. If you’d like to make a difference in the life someone facing a difficult educational situation, consider getting involved. You can learn more at rfbd.org.
Also, feel free to read this post again, out loud.
Blake Charlton’s debut novel, Spellwright, comes out from Tor Books tomorrow, March 2nd. In the copious amounts of free time afforded to medical students at Stanford University, he is working on a sequel.
Scarecrow is a man out standing in his field.