As children, we learned the pleasure of hearing stories read aloud in cozy bed-time settings. As adults, the pleasure continues at public readings—intensified because we’re hearing the stories directly from the people who wrote them. Traditionally, public readings were somewhat cozy, too-intimate gatherings, comprising only the lectern, the author, the book. More recently, the trend is toward a more vigorous entertainment format: a Q&A with another writer or “personality,” or a one-woman/one-man show.
In the latter category, far ahead of her time, was the quintessential author-performer Maya Angelou (1928-2014). As reported in People magazine (March 8, 1982): “She sings, reads verse, thunders oratorically, even dances. Standing a majestic six feet tall and gifted with a resonant voice and oaklike dignity, she is poet, preacher, performer extraordinaire…” Despite the comparison to a tree, Angelou, most would agree, was larger than life. And no wonder. One of her mantras was “People live in direct relation to the heroes and she-roes they have.”
One of this page’s earliest editorials tackled the subject of authors reading aloud. Upon re-reading this piece recently, I recognized the ring of an advice column. Be not afraid. In the seven years since, at the Malaprop’s Bookstore events celebrating this publication, I’ve called to the lectern nearly a hundred writers to read their work out loud. Even though some readers told me about their read-aloud fears, I failed to see even one case of the nerves. Instead, I saw people who were able to enter the lives of their characters (or in the case of nonfiction, their subjects) so completely that they stopped being the writer/reader and became the “heroes and she-roes” of their creation. Recent case in point: Stan Dankoski (see photos above) living the moment with two cemetery workers: “a spitfire mixed with down-home country charm,” and a dreamer “stepping over heathens in a glorious grave.”
We writers are fortunate to be able, at our best moments, to become who we are not. In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner encourages us to keep at it, a heartening challenge in these times of moral injury. “Writers should see into other people’s minds,” he says, “even people the writer dislikes, giving each character his moment of dignity [preferably not oak-like] and thus helping us to understand intellectually and intuitively both others and ourselves.” He decries the presence in much contemporary fiction of “some fierce ethic that turns out to be…habitual prejudices elevated to the status of ethical imperatives, axioms for which bigotry or hate, not love, is the premise.” This is not, Gardner says, “true morality, which requires sympathy and responsible judgment.”
This issue’s guest editor, Grey Jones, begins his Editor’s Choice essay like this: “I sat down with the submissions I received, fully expecting to write an essay based entirely on craft. Instead I found myself inspired by conceptual content. Emanating from those pages was compassion and empathy, and I was reminded of the privilege of the writer to change perceptions with the power of words.” As guest editor, Grey had two jobs: to pick two pieces, one prose and one poetry, that especially impressed him; then to write a piece explaining why. His two choices grew from his initial response to what “emanated” from the many pages of submissions. Both exemplified for him writing that creates “compassion and understanding” by allowing the most direct possible access to the hearts and minds of others. (To see Grey’s choices for this issue, please go to “Writing with Empathy: Understanding the Mind of a Stranger”)
The achievement of this writing takes a further step when it’s read aloud. The sympathy—or better, the empathy—confers Gardner’s brand of morality upon the whole listening space.