January 20, 2006

"Kind of a nasty problem for an audiobook: where do the footnotes go?"

Says David Foster Wallace at the beginning of his reading of "Consider the Lobster" (which I've been listening to). The NYT has an article today about the footnotes-and-audiobooks problem. In "Lobster," the problem is solved by putting a filter on Wallace's voice when he's reading the footnote. I think it would be saner to just have him say "footnote" and then "back to the text." Or better yet, skip the footnotes if you're writing the sort of thing they make audiobooks out of.
At his public readings, Mr. Wallace either skips footnotes, reads them as if they were in the main text or - the "worst option," he said in a telephone interview- brackets them by saying "begin footnote" and "end footnote."

"I spend a very long time trying to get the writing to hang together grammatically on the page more than for a sweating, breathing person to read to an audience," Mr. Wallace said from his home in Claremont, Calif., his voice sounding oddly footnote-ish. "Most poetry is written to ride on the breath, and getting to hear the poet read it is kind of a revelation and makes the poetry more alive. But with certain literary narrative writers like me, we want the writing to sound like a brain voice, like the sound of the voice inside of the head, and the brain voice is faster, is absent any breath, and it holds together grammatically rather than sonically."

So single-minded is Mr. Wallace, who is 43, about how his work looks over how it sounds that at his first public reading in the late 1980's, "I inserted the punctuation," he recalled, adding: "I would read a clause and say 'comma' or 'semicolon.' Or I'd say, 'new paragraph' and 'indent.' Now looking back at it I can see what a silent deal this is for me." At one point in "Consider the Lobster," Mr. Wallace encounters an ellipsis and reads "dot, dot, dot," which producers say is verboten. "Part of it is I'm not an actor and I don't know how to trail off, and I become somewhat autistic about it," he said.
A brain voice? Do you have a brain voice? That should be an easy question to answer, but I can't answer it. I think I only have a sense of a "brain voice" when I'm thinking about speaking, which is the opposite of what Wallace is talking about.

"I become somewhat autistic about it" -- I'm not too sure what that means either! You mean he's not consciously being sort of funny when he says "dot, dot, dot"? He's just bizarrely overfocused on his own text?

Anyway, despite the seeming lack of similarity by between my mind and Wallace's, I'm greatly enjoying "Lobster," which I've got in my iPod.

Speaking of autism, the article also discusses the audio book of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," a novel with an autistic boy as the first-person narrator. I've listened to this one too. This one isn't read by the author -- Mark Haddon -- but by an excellent reader named Jeff Woodman. Here, the book has all sorts of drawings and diagrams, and the text has had to be reconfigured a bit so you can understand it without the graphics. This makes me likely to buy the book too.

I must add that even when the book lacks any distinctive visual elements, the experience of seeing the text is different enough that I find that when I like an audio book, I want to see the text too.


Moanique said...

The problem is even worse with Wallace's "Infinite Jest" in which about 10% of the nearly 1000 pages are footnotes...densely informative footnotes at that. I've always wondered what an audiobook of that would sound like.

Jen Bradford said...

I don't think Infinite Jest would be half as much fun read aloud, somehow. Apart from the insane number of hours that would entail, I liked having my own method for dealing with the footnotes, and the fact that it was a kind of project to wade through it.

My take on the autism line was that a non-autistic person would be able to handle the punctuation in an expressive way [trailing off] rather than a computer-ish, descriptive [dot dot dot] way. There's a great part in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, (great audiobook fare, btw) where he talks about filming an autistic man's eyes while he watches "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", and comparing his focus to that of an average viewer. During a love scene, everyone watches the couple's lips and eyes, while his land on a lightswitch behind them.

David Sedaris' "Me Talk Pretty One Day" is perfect for audio because it has him singing ads in his Billy Holliday voice, which just doesn't get any better, for my money.

Adam said...

It's not nearly as good as A Supposedly Fun Thing . . . though I did enjoy his trip to the AVN Awards. Overall, just wasn't as sharp, though everyone should read the unabridged Up Simba at least once.

Balfegor said...

I used to read for Reading for the Blind, and there, when we encountered footnotes, we just noted them in the text, and returned to them after we finished the paragraph. Of course, mostly I was reading textbooks for high school or introductory college courses, so the footnotes tended to come at the ends of sentences and didn't interfere much with the nonexistant rhetorical flow of the work. It's different, I suppose, for a work with a strong authorial voice in which the footnotes are both essential and intrusive -- Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example.

Jen Bradford said...

Adam, I'm not remembering what Up Simba is. When he was traveling with McCain? Where would I find it?

Adam said...

Jen, that's what it is, and it's contained in Consider the Lobster, the title article of which is online for free. Sssh!

Janet Rae Montgomery said...

Curious Incident is a fascinating book and a quick read. I recommend it.

Jen Bradford said...

Thanks Adam! I'll check it out. (But speaking of footnotes, they get pretty teeny on the pdf. I might have to bite the bullet.)

I liked Curious Incident as well, Janet. I'm also a big Oliver Sacks fan, and all of his essays about autism (and neurology generally) are just fascinating to me. He'd be fun to listen to. I'd also get a kick out of George Saunders reading his stuff.

Does it seem crazy-wrong to anyone else that "This American Life" isn't available as a free podcast?

Simon said...

I use footnotes for two closely related purposes: either to give citations, or to offer discussion which is pertinent, to important to leave out, but which would distract from the flow of the main article. Neither of those goals are served by any of the methods suggested for an audio book, and are in many ways entirely defeated. It's a pickle of a problem, but I would have to suggest that the best way to deal with it would have to be to leave them out entirely.

Jen Bradford said...

I'm slogging through Tony Judt's Postwar, at the moment. Within a footnote in the preface, one reads the following:

"To avoid adding to what is already a very long book addressed to a general readership, a full apparatus of references is not provided here. Instead, the sources for Postwar, together with a full bibliography, will in due course be available for consultation on the Remarque Institute website..."

Not sure what I think of this solution, but it could work for audiobooks, I suppose.

Joan said...

I find it fascinating that Ann doesn't understand "brain voice", because my children are at an age when they have just developed/are developing their "inner speech," as some psychologists call it. Before 5 or 6, kids don't have a head voice -- that's why they can't read silently.

My nearly-5-year-old wanted to play a game with me the other day, and I was right in the middle of a rather lengthy article. I told him I would play with him when I finished my reading. After a few minutes, he got very angry with me: I don't hear any reading, Mom!

I had to explain to him that I could read the words and hear them inside my head. He thought that was weird.

Anyways, I'm sure this is what Wallce was talking about. As an aside, when I read different blogs, I hear them in different voices. Perhaps this explains my aversion to listening to podcasts: I don't want to adjust my voice-profiles for Ann, for example, or Lileks.

Ann Althouse said...

Joan: I would think that would slow reading down quite a bit. I think the secret to reading quickly is to see whole phrases at once, but speech has to be done one syllable at a time. I'm capable of imagining speech, but if I'm just reading or thinking normally, I don't "hear" individual words. To do that would be to slow down.

Ken Mitchell said...

They've obviously never heard of Victor Borge's "Verbal Punctuation". :-)

Slac said...

Joan, I think your nearly-5-year-old's reaction isn't dependent on developmental psychology. Consider that his knowledge of the concept of "reading" has probably been limited to a social activity in his life so far. He has either been read aloud to or has been required to read aloud to another.

And hearing words inside your head is weird, if you think about it! It's just one step away from psychosis - that step being a conviction that experience is originating from somewhere outside your head.

Hmm, on second thought, that's kind of how people describe spiritual revelation and psychic phenomena. Are those things weird too? Maybe, kinda, suppose it depends. :)

Hamsun56 said...

I liked the comment about the brain voice. It sort of made sense to me. I read fairly quickly - much quicker than I can speak or comprehend the spoken word. But there is usually some sonic stimulus in my brain when I read silently. I think there's some compression and editing going on - perhaps just "hearing" the key semantic elements and skipping over the non-essential bits.

A related question is whether or not we think in language. I'm a native English speaker living in a foreign country. I'm often asked which language I think in. It's sort of a baffling question because I'm not sure to what extent I actually think in words. Most of my thinking is at a more abstract level and then a part of my brain, at some point, converts that to language.

XWL said...

As to 'hearing' words while reading, that's optional, but as to 'hearing' words while writing, that's paramount.

Much bad prose could be tightened if the composer thought of the musicality, rhythm and cadence suggested by the word choice.

I think all writing should take into account (see I originally had consideration, but it was dissonant there) what it sounds like read aloud.

If an author has trouble reciting his/her own words, then the trouble, most likely, lies with the words not the recitation.

The world would be a far better place if tech writers (and I include law writing, medical writing, etc. as tech writing) would keep this rule in mind.

Ann Althouse said...

XWL: Even though writers should have an "ear" for what they are writing, I think this comes from engaging with the part of your brain that produces speech. When you speak out loud, you're not also producing an internal voice in your head. I think when writing you have the feeling of producing speech. It ultimately "sounds" right to readers, because it's like speech. The reader, then, is like a listener. And a listener doesn't generate a second voice in his head. He hears sound from the outside. This could all be tested in the laboratory, of course. What parts of the brain are involved in reading, listening, writing, and speaking? If reading is like listening and writing is like speaking, then no "brain voice" ever needs to occur.

How about when you are just thinking? I find this very hard to observe. As soon as I start to try to "hear" if my thoughts have a voice, I'm not thinking in the same way anymore and I may be trying to generate something voicelike. But I certainly don't feel as though I've got someone yammering in my head all the time.

There's a decent chance that this changes with age. When I was younger, I could get a song stuck in my head or a conversation might seem to replay, but this does not happen anymore.

This is similar to the question of whether we see pictures in our heads when we think. Clearly, we can picture things. But thinking or reading, I don't see much of anything, though I may have an idea that is like an image, it's really almost nothing (unless I'm dreaming).

Balfegor said...

I would think that would slow reading down quite a bit.

That's one reason I do it at least -- helps me make sure I'm not skipping over something important.

chuck b. said...

The only evidence I have of my own "brain voice" is the recollection that I have of thinking in French and Spanish back in high school when I studied those languages, especially toward the end, when I was a few years into it. I remember a friend telling me she did the same thing. It faded away after school as I lost my facility for speaking French and Spanish when I stopped studying them.

When I'm deep in thought (a very, very rare thing), I often talk to myself in a quiet voice to work out whatever it is I'm thinking about.

Joan said...

I read very fast, but my experience of reading, and writing, is very verbal -- my sense of reading is that I "hear" the words in my head. It doesn't slow me down at all. One reason I can read quickly is because I do recognize entire words, phrases, and patterns -- but I still "hear" those discreet words.

Slac, a quick googling turned up this paper which discusses how children gradually progress from talking to themselves to "inner speech", that is: thinking instead of speaking, and this study which demonstrated that younger children aren't aware of inner speech. My son has watched his brother and sister (2 and 4 years older than him) read silently on numerous occasions, so he is familiar with the process -- he was just frustrated with me that I wasn't playing with him, and he does think it's weird (and also, again, frustrating) that we can do something he can't, and so he voiced his frustration.

I don't understand how anyone can read without some perception of "voice". Obviously my ears aren't involved, and so I'm not "hearing" it, but that's the best way for me to describe it, because it comes closest to how I perceive it. I think Foster's description of the characteristics of "brain voice" is, for me, anyway, quite accurate.

Ann Althouse said...

We may just be disagreeing about the scope of the meaning of the word "voice," with me insisting on separating out a usage I think is only metaphorical. Personally, I experience my own mind as amazingly quiet and empty. I'm often surprised that I can ever think of or remember anything. It used to worry me when I walked into a class not to have a feeling that all the things I needed to know are visible on the surface of my mind or playing in a mentally audible tape loop. But now that I think of it, I can remember worrying so much about remembering things I needed to know for law school exams that I would study my outline until I developed a mental picture of the whole thing. I considered myself to have a slow-developing photographic memory. But that's way to much trouble for ordinary life.

Slac said...

Joan, thank you for those links. I meant that it is not surprising considering that literally everything we adults take for granted in self-existence is new (and therefore different) to a young person. Many different things can seem weird or strange to people of any age.

Consider that it's not necessarily that they are neurologically unequipped. It's a strange thought, I admit. Probably about as strange as "inner speech" might seem to your son. Maybe just as difficult, for the reason that it is outside of current neurological thinking making it unfamiliar. I don't have an axe to grind with developmental psychology, though. :)

I remember my brother-in-law's nephew when he was talking to himself through the baby monitor. He was repeating words his parents had told him. "Ryan, put that down... Ryan, be quiet... Ryan, don't swear." He was really amassing quite a colorful vocabulary. It was fun for him! The plain experience of using one's mouth to pronounce words accurately, imitating the people around you, trying to be a part of them... all of it new and interesting.

miklos rosza said...

Joan puts it well.

As to David Foster Wallace, I in this case agree that his nonfiction is much better than his fiction, the latter falling too often into a kind of faux-Thomas Pynchon mode that calls to mind a brilliant thirteen year old who has never grown up.

And the footnote affectation was done better by Nicholson Baker in his first book "Mezzanine." (Since then Baker's gone downhill, and downhill further, again and again. Another bright child who has never matured. He's much less interesting than DFW.)

Audiobooks, meanwhile, are not really aimed at me. I don't usually much like being read to. Although sure, there may be exceptions.

But too often, lifeless material can be "performed" fairly well. I've witnessed such disparate writers as Norman Mailer, Ann Beattie, William Burroughs, Chuck Palahniuk and T.C, Boyle read some of their dullest, worst material very convincingly. Enchantingly. The music of the human voice can seduce and divert.

By contrast James Joyce was lousy reading aloud, as was T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, as is neo-noir crime novelist James Ellroy (though he performs so well otherwise, with prepared answers to questions and general comedic banter that the audience forgets and forgives). Ursula LeGuin on the other hand goes "into character" to do the voices of robots and so on and the effect is embarrassing.

Someone who's surprisingly fascinating to hear (via tape) is Sylvia Plath. One can't necessarily follow all the words -- she goes too quickly -- but the impression of a dark, complicated intelligence is profound.

Michael McClure's poetry only comes entirely alive when he performs it; many might say the same was true of the work of fellow-Beat Jack Kerouac.

The poetry-slam phenomenon has been built on performance rather than content. Comedians and rappers dominate though almost nothing of what they emote works on the page.

What I'm saying is that the ear and the eye are very different, and though the ear may seem to hold great promise or offer a shortcut I think this is deceptive. There's no substitute -- even just as regards the most basic pleasure of words -- for opening one's imagination by allowing the schematic of a text to enter and unfold and flower... as can only happen when one actually reads with one's eyes the actual text.

Even such long-dead and "irrelevant" creatures as Montaigne or (sure) Marcel Proust may speak to you and individuate themselves and come alive and stay with you forever as part of the repertoire of your imagination -- precisely because, as reader, you yourself do the work.

Maurice Blanchot said that the author is the first reader. Likewise, as we all know, there are good readers and bad. We bring to the experience who we are and what we know and what kind of shape our attention may be in that particular day. Books change and metamorphose when we reread them later on, because we are no longer the same reader as we were when exposing ourselves with virginal eyes...

As reader, we are the one who performs. That is either a pressure or an opportunity.

Bill Lattanzi said...

four years later... I think "brain voice" is the voice in your head, the pratttling never ending nattering voice of your thoughts. So DFW is striving, to make an analog of that on the page -- using the craft of the "writing on the page" to recreate it... so it's natural to say "dot dot dot" when he's speaking, cuz when he's speaking, he's is trying not to create a third thing, an aural version of the book; but rather an oral reading/recreation of the written word - that is, I'll read this in a way that will create in your head the experience of reading the book on the page, as opposed to hearing it in your ear...

something about DFW make you (me) write/think in the style that he writes/thinks... which is just more of his genius.... when other people do it(like me) it's pretentious and imitation.. when he does it it's generally brilliant. (but involves a lot of energy!) thanks for the great quote from him!