Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The work of reading – Lily Hyde

Recently I’ve been attending play readings for a small theatre company, where actors together with the director and producer read through plays to judge if they might be suitable for production.

Since most of the actors are coming to the plays ‘blind’, feeling their way into the roles as they go along without any idea how their character or the story will turn out, they are a bit like novel readers turning the pages to see what happens next. It’s really interesting – and awe-inspiring – to see how they manage to inhabit their parts with no preparation whatsoever.

What really strikes me, though, is the attitude of actor, director and producer alike to the text. It is one of appropriation. They are all thinking: what can I do with this? How can I bring it to life? Can I make it rewarding for me to engage with, and for an audience to watch?

The script is treated as a dynamic thing, a map from which the theatre company will create their own journey. The director tells me her first action when she’s interested in a play is to cross out all the stage directions. She and the actors look at the words of the script, of course, but just as much they look at the gaps between the words, and explore how they can fill them.

Can and should readers apply the same process to novels? These days everything is supposed to be participatory, and so novels come with author interviews, notes for book groups and lesson plans. Readers engage with the text through personal contact with the writer, through reviewing, writing fanfiction, dressing up as the characters…

Ever since Roland Barthes, we have known that the author is dead, and that every written story is created anew in the mind of every reader. But I sometimes feel that while we as writers are supposed to be engaging with our readers more than ever, opportunities for those readers to really interact with a text are often being limited.

How many of you writers out there have been told to remove words that readers might not know, spell out every step of the plot, simplify your sentences, explain in exhaustive detail your characters’ motives and internal thoughts? I know that the editorial or publishing motive behind this is to make books accessible to a wide audience, and reading in general terms more participatory. That’s an important motive. But I feel that by not demanding real input from our readers, we also deny them any power, and half the enjoyment.

I love books that make me do the work of an actor or a director. It’s a question of trust. Every playwright must start from a position of trust, that actors and directors are able and willing to take the words and make them into something – running the risk of course that the ensuing production will be awful, but isn’t risk inherent in any meaningful relationship? As a reader I want to be trusted to fill in gaps between the words, take the implications and run with them, guess, infer, appropriate: bring the story to life. As a novelist I want to trust my readers the same way.

The word ‘work’ makes this sound pretty unappealing (see Nicola Morgan’s recent post on ‘readaxation’ for contrast). But everyone really has a lot of fun at those play readings. Even the simplest, least demanding book requires work from the reader, to transform black-and-white symbols on a page into places, situations, people and ideas in the imagination.
That work of transformation is the magic of reading. It’s how a book becomes a part of you.

It’s a truism that the more you put into something, the more you get out. From a reader’s point of view, I think its a truism worth repeating. What do you think, writers and readers?  


Lynne Garner said...

Although I have a background in theatre (used to work as a wardrobe mistress) I've never really thought about this in the way you have here. Thanks for making me think.

Lily said...

thanks Lynne - I was approaching the readings very much as a prose writer, rather than from a theatre background, and I found the different approaches really interesting.