When I moved to New York, my first real surprise was the monotone readings.
Something about the MFA culture in this town has gone and whitewashed every reading series with this sort of monotone half-jaded, half-sarcastic voice. You’ll find this tone shared by nearly all poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction grads.
I won’t name any specific reading series since several friends of mine run several of them in the city, but I will say that it’s something they’ve often discussed with me behind closed doors while we stay behind to pick up the beercans after an event. In my limited estimation, there exist at least three reasons for professional readers to default to a near-monotone snark: no alternatives, bad training, or a full-frontal defense of our current zeitgeist.
Most writers with whom I’ve shaken hands fall into the first category: no alternative. They read in monotone not because they like it but because they’re authors and not performers. These people get up and read with pages shaking vigorously and afterwards whisper into their gin and tonics, “I hate reading. I hate crowds.” For someone like that, it’s a grace for a reader and audience member like me to hear anything at all. Here hide the true introverted class of authors, those who would happily retreat to their hobbit holes and only emerge when they’ve completed and perfected their own Red Book, shipped the manuscript off to their editor, and started immediately on the next. When they emerge between projects, it would ideally only be to grab a gallon of milk and enough sunlight to fend off illness with vitamin D. Then back to their writing hole. The monastic part of me throws all manner of solidarity towards this class of writer, who is in many ways the true blue collar working author, who would rather type and scribble than wash the dishes or engage in conversation. As I said before, if you’ve stumbled across this article and you read in monotone, I’ll just take it as a grace and a privilege that I got to hear your voice at all.
But other classes of monotone exist. Lesser classes.
Worse than no alternative? Bad or insufficient training. They read aloud this way because their MFA professor told them to do so. Or worse, because they see other writers doing it and have encountered no other role model. I remember craving a good reading in my first year here and finding, to my dismay, author after author, poet after poet, talking in some ham-fisted, jaded, English incarnation of Algherian Italian:
A róse by anÿ other náme would sméll ás sweet.
Not even Shatner talks like that, breaking magical meter with monotonous emphasis. I craved an alternative and then I met Richard Prins. Richard closed as the last poet for the evening in some NYU reading series otherwise populated by jaded monotoners (both those who couldn’t help it and those who insisted upon it). This guy’s a literal African American — a white guy born and raised in a Sub-Saharan nation state. Perhaps that had something to do with it? Both his poetry and his baggy African dress reflect his childhood. When he stood up to read, he moved from shouting to whispers, from cocaine-speed down to tortugan pace. And he received the loudest applause. I’ve kept in touch with the guy, but other than the readers with whom I was already connected that night, every other author has faded from memory — even some multi-month New York Times Bestsellers who moved and lived among them. One of them used to show up in my Twitter feed now and again, but I struggle even now to remember his name.
Not Richard. I remember Richard Prins. “Yeah, he definitely has his own thing,” said one of the hosts, a friend of mine, over the din of applause. “It obviously works for him.” I’m also reminded of my young friend Amy Leon who often mixes music with her poetry here in the city at reading venues and music venues like Rockwood alike.
We stopped training authors in diction for whatever reason, perhaps to push back against those who used it as a litmus test for the American class system. As Singing in the Rain showed us, it did serve its purpose, not just through enunciation and pronunciation, but through dynamics like crescendo and decrescendo — the music of the mouth. Most of the authors we think of with distinctive reading voices, authors like Neil Gaiman who does most of his own audiobooks, these people had some sort of speaking or theater or music background — performing arts, in other words. And, to be fair, I come into this particular arena from that same lockerroom: in high school it was directors and orators, not literature professors, who taught me how to read a poem or a fiction. To take a class in oral storytelling or oral performance would help many of these authors. And their teachers, to be frank. We’ve come upon a dark time in American history where even the concussion-riddled NFL lineman is more ready and willing to engage in cross-disciplinary training (in his case, ballet or jujitsu) than the college professor. That should sober many of you.
Monotone authors, as I alluded above, often emphasize a monotone reading style because they’ve bought into our culture’s zeitgeist as sure as pot-committed poker players who have been on tilt for days. Monotonous reading with weird emphasis does allow you to focus on the actual words in a way, but at what cost? It makes sense only if the work is sarcastic and filled with bitterness. In other words, it helps promote a jaded laughter. Scoffing, often scoffing at one’s self. And I think, as a whole, even our humorists suffer for it. I remember one reading in particular performed by easily the funniest author I’ve read in recent years. In this particular reading, all the jokes fell flat not due to poor prose or bad timing or even a stuffy narrative, but simply because monotone did not suit his style as a humorist. Monotone — even an allegedly self-aware monotone — does not suit most styles except for the factory form MFA style that seems to come out of every program I’ve had any contact with. That and maybe Vonnegut, but certainly not all of Vonnegut. Two points of illustration. For one, can you imagine Louis C.K. or Aziz Ansari or Amy Poehler or Stephen Colbert (currently some of our culture’s favorite comedians) performing their routines in monotone? In fact, other than Stephen Wright — whose humor is profoundly literary-snobbish in nature — what other American humorist did great work through monotone? And if you can name another, can you honestly argue for their influence as first respected and then implemented by the majority, preferable to any other influence, true, and, most importantly, beautiful?
Further, do you really believe all of these MFA students employ profoundly literary-snobbish humor at every turn?
Or, if you prefer, consider other cultures. China has some of the greatest humor in the world but sarcasm is entirely lost on them. My good friend Micah stands well over six feet tall. He sat down in a Chinese airplane once, middle seat, next to no leg room — tucked his knees up on the tray table’s latch. He turned to his tiny Chinese neighbor and said, “Wow, these seats are huge.”
“No they’re not,” the man said. No smirk, no laughter.
Had Micah’s airline neighbor been the next great Chinese humorist and had he come to America to study fiction, his resulting monotone readings would have nipped his career in the bud.
Lewis once said, “It’s easy to make fun of virtue, but the most difficult form of humor makes one laugh while elevating virtue.” This is really what I’m driving at: ours is an overly sarcastic culture that sees through everything. But we forget the point of our jaded monotonous sarcasm: it’s a window. And the point of any window is to see solid landscape beyond it — to see the mountains, the trees, the forests and fields, the brooks and their Brooklyn beyond. But if you saw through Brooklyn beyond your window — if when I looked out my fourth-floor office window I saw not the hills of Greenwood Cemetery but beyond them to the North Atlantic and then saw through the North Atlantic to the stratosphere on the other side of Earth, saw through that stratosphere to the North Star, saw through the North Star itself… well to my eyes that only make windows of worlds, all worlds become invisible. To see through everything, as Lewis said elsewhere, is the same as not to see.
And that includes your own prose. The main reason they teach you to read through your writing in monotone is to give you a self-deprecating humor about it. The best of these professors want to keep you humble. A noble goal, surely. But as it plays out to its logical conclusion, succumbing to our sarcastic zeitgeist ends not in humility, but in humiliation like the Met Ball attendee who awakes in his own vomit. Surely temperance would have served such an attendee better than having her stomach pumped. Arrogance need not accompany any attempt to stand as tall as you can stand and no taller. Sure, I live on a finite blue dot out in the expanse of space. I am tiny — an ant on our cosmic ant hill — but I am still a man. And I must stand as tall as a man can stand and no taller, otherwise we will make molehills out of mountains and puddles out of seas. Otherwise the pettiness of self-hatred, rather than the robust nobility of other-love, becomes my standard to bear. And what a tattered standard pettiness makes, as tattered as the frozen underwear campers will raise on flagpoles all over American this summer, as tattered as the most minor and meddling province to be found in Westeros or Middle Earth. No thanks, I don’t want to be petty. Given the choice, I choose to speak as well as I can of my work and speak it in tones we can all understand.
Do you think blue collar workers in any breakroom in this country speak in monotone? They are the equivalent of the chess players in Union Square who regularly best ranked chess grandmasters that happen to visit New York. If you cannot perform orally, if you have no alternative, then thank you simply for emerging from your hobbit hole for long enough to let me hear you speak. I mean that in all sincerity: it’s malicious to insult a crippled man for his inability to stand. Shy authors are not the authors at whom I am taking aim.
That said, many of you read in monotone because that’s how you learned to read. If you don’t know how to perform your work at all, please seek out an oral performance coach and let your work stand as tall as it can stand. That or abstain until you have the time to practice. Many authors abstain from readings, both in the past and present.
But if you’re teaching the way of the bland and boring because you think it’s better to cut the legs out from under your students before they even start, you’re helping no one and your monotonous sarcasm, like Shelob, will one day consume itself — a droll whisper that finally buckles under the burden of silence.
Given that dichotomy, I choose the silence long before buckling. As Wittgenstein said, “We speak about those things we can speak about and the rest we pass over in silence.” I will speak where I can speak — loudly, boldly, with an oral performativity that mirrors the strange and bold lives of my characters.
Short of that, you’ll find me out in the audience listening and no more. God help me hear something fun.
cover photo by chorus