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Ears and eyes: listening isn’t reading

Not long ago, David Baddiel, the actor and comedian, told his Twitter followers he was ‘rereading’ Middlemarch. In a series of tweets on the experience, he claimed that George Eliot’s novel was better than anything by Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Proust. It was, he concluded, ‘the greatest novel ever written in English’. Whether or not one agrees with his valuation, for me the most interesting bit of the thread came at the end, when he explained he’d been listening to the audiobook, ‘unbelievably brought to life by Juliet Stephenson, a fabulous acting performance’. In other words he wasn’t ‘rereading’ it at all. He was listening to someone else reading it. Someone who was acting.

Though I don’t listen to them myself, I don’t hold an animus towards audiobooks. They’re a useful medium for those who don’t have the time to sit and read, for those with a visual impairment or dyslexia, for those who simply don’t like negotiating pages and pages of plain text. Audiobooks can be consumed during other activities: driving, sitting on a train, doing chores. That’s how I use radio programmes and podcasts: as something to listen to while I’m doing other things. Books to me are in a different category. They require my undivided attention. They demand it.

Listening to a book being read and reading it oneself are two different forms of engagement with a text, two different forms of experience. Like many, perhaps most people, I don’t read a book in a wholly linear fashion. I will flick backwards through the pages to remind myself about a character or an incident that has become foregrounded again. I will re-read sentences, paragraphs, and pages I’ve just read if I feel I haven’t fully grasped something or if I’ve grasped it but want to savour it again. I will check how many pages a chapter has left and wonder how it will end. Reading is a richer experience than listening to an audiobook. And once the language and ideas in a book reach a certain level of complexity, it becomes very difficult to process them in audio form, lacking that facility to go back and read again. (I realize you can ‘re-wind’ but the operation is tedious and imprecise).

Baddiel praised Juliet Stephenson’s acting performance. Here’s another difference. Audiobook narrators, most of whom are actors, are performing. They will do the different voices, they will pace their delivery in a certain way, they will add shades of light and dark to their voice. They will do a lot of the work for the listener. But it’s an interpretation as well as a reading. The experience is not wholly passive but it’s much more passive than reading the book yourself. And the printed page holds a heap of information — paragraph breaks, spaces, italics, chapter and section headings — that can be conveyed only in an attenuated form in audio.

One powerful cultural aspect of listening is that it’s historically prior to reading, more primitive if you will (in a non-pejorative sense). People listened to poems, travellers tales, and tribal disputes for thousands of years before they read them. It’s called storytelling not storyreading for a reason. Sometimes the spoken word has a power that the printed word cannot match. The speaking of poetry or the kind of poetic prose used by the great orators can tap into into something more primal, more spiritual, than printed verse, which can seem inert in comparison. Sometimes. It depends on who is doing the speaking.

Most of what I’ve said so far focuses on fiction. In the case of non-fiction, it’s obvious that there will be a lot less acting going on. A business or self-help audiobook is more about information transfer than entertainment. A showbiz autobiography will, I guess, have a large performative component. These kinds of non-fiction may even be even better in the audiobook format. I don’t know if there are such things, but imagine an audiobook of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Those wouldn’t work. They are artefacts designed to be read, closely, not listened to.

Audiobooks have reached a mass market in the last ten years. This is great for authors as well as listeners. It’s another channel for another product. The introduction of home video technology back in the day lead to a regular flow of films that were classed as ‘straight-to-video’, films that didn’t have the big budgets or the mass appeal to get a theatrical release but could recoup their investment in the rental market. The streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix are now making their own ‘straight-to-video’ movies, admittedly in a much grander style. I wonder if something similar might happen in the audiobook market. ’Straight-to-audio’ might be a category of book that nobody would want to sit down and read but that might fill in the time while commuting to work, taking the kids to school, or waiting in the supermarket queue. Whatever happens, audiobook culture is here to stay. I can only hope it doesn’t reduce reading to an activity akin to calligraphy or reed thatching, the pursuit of a few die-hard traditionalists.

[The image of Hieronymus Bosch’s drawing The Trees Have Ears and the Field Has Eyes is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

Ernest Borneman

The cutting room floor and after

We went down downstairs to the little dark-green room with lamps hidden behind green silk and sat down and listened to the band playing blues and watched the hips and breasts of the women dancing and drank and smoked those sweet American cigarettes which taste as if they are drugged.

(The Face on the Cutting Room Floor – Cameron McCabe)

In his history of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, Julian Symons called it ‘the detective story to end detective stories… a dazzling and perhaps fortunately unrepeatable box of tricks’. More recently Jeff Noon, in a Spectator review, described it as ‘a bit like Somerset Maugham meeting James Joyce in a dark alleyway in Soho and one of them ending up dead, and the reader not quite able to work out which one’s the victim, and which the murderer’. I’d read a few references to Cameron McCabe’s novel, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor over the years and had half-remembered it as a possibly interesting read I might get round to reading someday. Though the book was first published in 1937, Cameron McCabe, whoever he had been, was not a name that cropped in the standard discussions of detective fiction’s Golden Age. I guessed the book was a one-off, an oddity whose author had vanished into obscurity.

It was re-issued as a Picador Classic five years ago, with an introduction by the novelist Jonathan Coe, and that’s the edition I got round to at last. I have to tell you, Reader, I was disappointed. Having said that, the book gets off to a cracking start. 1930s London — its high and low streets, pubs and nightclubs, smart apartments and cheap lodgings, the film studio where most of the main characters work — is evoked in sparing but telling detail. A lot of the speech is peppered with an Americanized slang, which may or may not be how hip Londoners spoke at that time. And not far into it, you realize that Cameron McCabe is not only the name of the author but also the name of the protagonist, the first-person narrator. What’s going on there?

I won’t describe the plot in detail (see the Wikipedia page if you’re interested) but the inciting incident is the apparent murder of a young actress in one of the studio’s cutting rooms, an actress whom McCabe, a film editor, has been asked to excise from a film that’s just been shot. The investigation is led by an Inspector Smith of Scotland Yard, a most peculiar detective who gets more peculiar as the story progresses. Indeed, the whole novel gets more peculiar as it progresses, and not, I think, in a good way. McCabe the author begins to play with his readers, using devices such as the unreliable narrator, a kind of post-modern deconstruction, and what Coe identifies as Brecht’s alienation technique. It all gets very tedious after the opening third.

But I got to the end of it and then read the Afterword, the bulk of which is an interview with the author. It turns out that the real Cameron McCabe was a much more intriguing character than the fictional one. Ernest Borneman, a Jew and a member of the Communist Party, fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and was granted asylum in England. Four years later, when he was just twenty-two, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor was published. He published two more novels (not as Cameron McCabe), worked for the BBC, collaborated with Orson Welles, set up West Germany’s public television service, and wrote extensively on the history and forms of jazz music. Then, in the mid-1960s, after a long interest in psychoanalysis, he embarked on a course of scientific research into sexuality, eventually becoming one of Germany’s leading sexologists. The interview in the Picador edition provides a lot more detail and incident than I can go into here, but as careers go, that’s quite a varied one.

Talking about The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, Borneman says, in a letter also included in the Picador afterword, that it was written when he was nineteen, a refugee newly arrived in London. The novel ‘was meant to be no more than a finger exercise on the keyboard of a new language. It had no message and wasn’t meant as a spoof on the great masters of the crime story. I simply wanted to know if my English was good enough to let me earn money with my pen’. Borneman was puzzled by its cult status. ’I shall never know why The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, which seems mannered and puerile to me now, has been re-issued so often…’

Borneman’s own assessment of his first novel, written at a distance of more than forty years is too harsh but he’s right about it being mannered. Still, it’s an extraordinary piece of work for a very young man still adapting to a language and a culture not his own. I’m glad I read it and I don’t regard that time as wasted. And now I know more about the man behind the pseudonym, I’m intrigued enough to want to read his two other novels, which he rated much higher than that first.

Ernest Borneman and Sigrid Standow

Borneman died in 1995 in Germany. His was a not a peaceful death. After a colleague half his age left him for a younger man, he took his own life. It was a plot twist worthy of a crime novel. Just two months before his suicide, the colleague concerned, Dr Sigrid Standow, had arranged the publication of a festschrift to celebrate Borneman’s 80th birthday. The cover of the book featured a photograph of Standow, naked, in front of a besuited Borneman. What a novel Borneman’s own life would make.

Graham Greene

Time to write

Long ago, when I was young and impressionable, I read a profile of the novelist Graham Greene. His writing routine was mentioned. Greene would write for an hour or so each morning, producing 500 words, and then stop, his day’s work done. He would then head out for an aperitif. Now that, I thought at the time, is the life for me. This was when Greene was widely regarded as the greatest living English novelist, a judgement with which I concurred. That he never won the Nobel Prize for Literature says everything that needs to be said about the value of literary prizes. But I digress. The point is that that piece planted a particular idea of the professional writer in my head.

I can’t remember now where I read the Greene profile. It certainly wasn’t in the New Yorker. But Michael Korda, a writer, editor, and friend of Greene’s, wrote a memoir for the New Yorker in 1996 which confirmed the routine. In 1950, the sixteen-year-old Korda was invited to cruise on his uncle’s yacht on the Côte d’Azur, the uncle being Alexander Korda, the film producer. Greene was a member of the cruise party and young Korda keenly observed the great novelist’s working method:

An early riser, he appeared on deck at first light, found a seat in the shade of an awning, and took from his pocket a small black leather notebook and a black fountain pen, the top of which he unscrewed carefully. Slowly, word by word, without crossing out anything, and in neat, square handwriting, the letters so tiny and cramped that it looked as if he were attempting to write the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin, Graham wrote, over the next hour or so, exactly five hundred words. He counted each word according to some arcane system of his own, and then screwed the cap back onto his pen, stood up and stretched, and, turning to me, said, “That’s it, then. Shall we have breakfast?”.

Greene’s self-discipline was such that, no matter what, he always stopped at five hundred words, even if it left him in the middle of a sentence. It was as if he brought to writing the precision of a watchmaker, or perhaps it was that in a life full of moral uncertainties and confusion he simply needed one area in which the rules, even if self-imposed, were absolute. Whatever else was going on, his daily writing, like a religious devotion, was sacred and complete. Once the daily penance of five hundred words was achieved, he put the notebook away and didn’t think about it again until the next morning. It seemed to me then the ideal way to live—far better than the routine followed by my father, who worked from dawn until late at night at a studio in London and then brought his work home with him.

What a seductive picture of the writer’s life that is, even now, when I am older, have published some books of my own, and know how much time it really takes. Korda doesn’t say whether he adopted Greene’s working method but it’s a reasonable bet he didn’t. Greene, I think, was exceptionally gifted and his unconscious mind must have been quite the machine, beavering away to such effect that by the time he actually picked up the pen each day it might have been like taking dictation.

My writing routine is nothing like that, even leaving aside the fact that I have a day job. Since I started writing seriously a few years ago, I’ve learnt that the only way for me is to spend time, by which I mean hours, in the chair, eyes on screen, fingers on keyboard. Of course, as someone once said, writing is not typing, but the notion that I could have produced what I have so far by using Greene’s approach is laughable. There are too many false starts, too many wrong directions, too many bum notes.

Of course, when Korda met him, Greene was a writer at the absolute top of his game. Perhaps the years of practice had brought him to the point, where writing, in terms of knowing what he wanted to put into words and how he wanted to express it, really was as effortless as that account makes it seem. I can only dream. It’s the difference between being a concert pianist and a street busker, or an opera star and a karaoke singer.

That said, the further I get into this writing business, the less I resent the hours it takes. It’s about learning a craft, not climbing a mountain or running a race. There is no peak to reach, no tape to break. It’s more like life. You have good days and bad days but you have to keep going. And you have to remember the two things Toby Litt, the writer and teacher, always tells his students:

There are no short cuts.
There are no wasted hours.

Famous Five

Bashing Enid Blyton

English Heritage caused a kerfuffle recently when it updated its website entry about Enid Blyton. EH’s interest in Blyton relates to its responsibility for London’s blue plaque scheme, which marks buildings where notable people of the past lived or worked. Blyton has her own blue plaque in Chessington, where she once worked as a governess and where, according to EH, she ‘started to develop her storytelling skills’.

The kerfuffle kicked off when several newspapers latched onto one particular sentence on the updated web page. The offending item stated that ‘Blyton’s work has been criticised during her lifetime and after for its racism, xenophobia and lack of literary merit’. Now I loathe the Woke Twitter mob as much as anyone (well, almost) but this seemed like a reasonable statement of fact to me, despite the rent-a-gobs like Piers Morgan bleating about Blyton being ‘cancelled’. Blyton wasn’t being cancelled, she was, in the language used by English Heritage themselves, being ‘contextualised’.

Still, it seems that the anti-backlash backlash had an effect. The text on the EH website now reads:

Both during her lifetime and after, Blyton’s work has been criticised for various aspects of its content. Its formulaic plots and deliberate use of simple language irked some educators. Others took exception to what they perceived as social snobbery, racism and sexism embedded in Blyton’s storylines.

Again, those seem like fair observations, and the entry goes on to acknowledge that ‘while criticisms of Blyton cannot be entirely dismissed, her work has encouraged generations of children to read’.

In reality, Blyton’s books have been under fire for decades. The Enid Blyton backlash started in the 1950s and has rumbled on ever since. Her style was viewed as dull, her vocabulary limited, and her social attitudes reactionary, even at the height of her success. In 1973, Margery Fisher, the doyenne of children’s literature studies, described Blyton’s books as ‘slow poison’. Children all over the world, including me, continued to read them, regardless. I loved the Famous Five and the Secret Seven stories. And yet I didn’t buy any of Blyton’s books for my own daughter when she was young. Even twenty-five years ago, they seemed like period pieces, bloodless and anodyne when compared to the likes of Roald Dahl and Jacqueline Wilson.

If I have a misgiving about English Heritage’s approach, it is that there can be almost no-one with a blue plaque who will meet the exacting standards of the current progressive orthodoxy. Blyton’s racism was limited to a few stories but was still egregious. But what about, for example, Donald McGill, the illustrator of saucy seaside postcards, who has a plaque in Blackheath? If they paid it any attention, the opinion influencers would surely regard his work as sexist and, horror of horrors, rife with gender stereotypes. McGill’s page on the EH website has yet to be contextualised but its time will surely come. But really, the EH website is a side-show. The real conflict, still quite muted, relates to new plaques and who gets them. Despite the laughs he gave to millions, a character like McGill wouldn’t stand a chance today.