Literary Performance

“Written performance” may be the clearest description of what I do, but literary performance is the correct term. When most people hear the phrase “literary performance” they think of public reading of literature, perhaps dramatized. That is not actually what it is, though there can be no objection to the casual use of that phrase in that way.

Literary performance per se does not require reading literature aloud, which is merely a test for its essential quality. Instead, it refers to two things:

  1. Literature that has the character of speech – in other words, the writing style is that of the spoken word, specifically.
  2. The act of creation or publication of precisely this type of literature, since to create something with the character of a performance is essentially to ‘perform’ it.

Take for example this reference, which argues that language which is meant only to be read silently and does not have the character of speech is not actually literature at all. Referring to literature itself as an act / action, it offers:

The antithesis of the literary performance is not soundless reading in quiet seclusion; it is language that cannot be read aloud without becoming heavy tongued, tiresome, and incapable of being formed and grasped by the abstractive functions of the brain. The true contrast with the literary performance lies not between oral interpretation and silent reading but between literature whose public reading supplies the breath of life, and language whose utterance is a slow funereal knell. The technical jargon found in scientific and parascientific writing is a prime case of unperformable language. It is engineered writing by cliché and formula that is actually a substitute for literacy. Here is language meant only to be read and never to be spoken. (One thinks also of scholarly papers read at professional meetings!) There is but a short distance from here to computer printouts and the full computerization of language. I do not entirely disparage these developments, for they have their own special advantages, but I think it essential that we not confuse the language of technology and the technologizing of language with the act of literature. A literary performance, then, whether spoken or read silently, always has the character of speech, never of written language, and this is one of the consequences of recognizing that unperformable language is not literature. While the spoken word is not, ipso facto, literature, in the last analysis, reading aloud becomes a real and important test of literature. — Arnold Berleant – The Verbal Presence: An Aesthetics of Literary Performance. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 31 (3) Spring, 1973, 339-346. (emphasis mine)

Observations: “Asher, you write like you talk, and talk like you write.” This is something the two people who both know me personally and who made it a point to read everything I’ve written (yep, just 2), have both said in response. It’s no accident that I refer to the writing in performance terms, using the meme of “Nightly Chops” from Jazz, tying it to both performance in time and a stage, and the concept of a performance portfolio (see the Stories page). I do write expressly as an act of speaking or, as it says on the home page, Asher writes in order to “read to you”. And of course, the vocal readings, mostly of other people’s work, are titled “Read to Me”. Besides the ironic reason to deny being a writer, already expressed in the Maxims (“writers mainly talk about writing rather than actually do it”) and the added irony of how talk is juxtaposed with literature in that observation, this emphasis on literature as performance is yet one more reason to evade that label; I much prefer the term storyteller (again an implicitly vocal term, suggesting the character of a performance), even if the written word is the primary medium for telling the story.

Asher’s 343rd Maxim: Write like you talk, and talk like you write. Literature is an act of speaking and, writing that way is, effectively, an express act of performance.

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