Writer Joe Fassler has a piece in The Atlantic on “How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World.” It’s mainly a conversation with author Kevin Barry, and it makes the case that “novelists shouldn’t even try to compete for people’s eyes,” which means competing with screens and everything that’s on them. Rather, "they should go for their ears instead…. Barry argued that the human voice still has the power to mesmerize us the way screens seem to, and that modern fiction should be heard and not seen."
Barry argues that "one thing can still arrest us, slow us down, and stop us in our tracks: the human voice."
I think this explains the explosion in podcasts and radio narratives. The human voice still holds our attention, allowing us to tune in to a narrative in a way we find increasingly difficult on the page.
Readers and listeners increasingly want their stories to come at them directly in the form of a human voice. While everybody says that book sales are dropping, there’s an explosion in literary events, book festivals, spoken word events. People want to listen, and they want to hear stories.
Barry uses Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood to illustrate the kind of approach he’s advocating. I won’t reproduce it all here, or try to summarize it; it’s long, and deserves to read. But I’ll highlight this bit:
I love the refrain, “listen,” which repeats all the way through the work:
Listen. It is night moving in the streets …
Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black …
Time passes. Listen. Time passes.
With this injunction to listen, Thomas is saying stop, stop, stop. He’s slowing us down so that we can enter this world.
This is striking because stopping is exactly what we instinctively do when we’re listening carefully to something. If you watch people talking on their phones while talking, you’ll often see them slow down or pause when they’re paying really close attention to the conversation. I’m one of those people who usually will pace around when talking, but I find when I really have to listen to someone, I stand still.
When we’re out on a walk and we want to listen for something— a bird, or something in the bushes— what do we naturally do? We stop. We still the self-generated noise that usually surrounds us, so we can better hear what’s going on outside ourselves. So this injunction to stop, stop, stop isn’t one that we only treat as a metaphor; in our daily lives, there’s an embodied aspect to concentration and listening as well. Listening requires slowing down, or being still.