Recently, we went to see Gatz, a wonderful staging of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The play isn’t based on the novel. It is the novel. All 49,000 words of it, read aloud, over eight hours (including a few intermissions). All they left out were the chapter titles.
Gatz was a profound experience and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I felt as I sat in my narrow theatre seat for the better part of a Friday. The part I’ve been thinking about most wasn’t the length of the experience. Yeah, it was long but I’ve spent more time binge-watching shows on Netflix. The thing that stayed with me was the personal experience of voice and what that means to the way I make things.
Let me explain.
Gatz is basically the story of a guy in a generic office reading a copy of the novel aloud as he waits for his computer to warm up. As he reads, he gets deeper into the experience and slowly it comes alive around him as his coworkers recite the words of the characters and act out scenes. He becomes Nick Carraway, just as I did when I first read the book in 10th grade.
Here I was, sitting in a darkened theatre with hundreds of other people but having an utterly familar, solitary experience: listening to a voice read aloud a story to me. Usually that experience takes place entirely inside my head as I hold the book in my own hands. In this case, it was happening across a large room. Every word of Fitzgeralds’s that Scott Shepherd read aloud went across space and played out in my head. Sure, much of the action was being acted out on stage by other actors but that was still through a veil. The real action was taking place inside my head. The actors playing office workers playing Gatsby’s characters were all overshadowed by the voice in my head that was staging a parallel production inside me, bringing alive my own version of the story.
That’s what it’s like when I read a book. Slightly less so when I watch a movie because there’s less room for my imagination, but the me watching the movie is still a participant. How I feel about the characters, the setting, the violence, the romance, they’re all informed by my personal experiences, my history, the attitudes I brought to the cinema with me. It’s certainly true when I go to a museum; who I am and how I see the world plays a big factor in how I react to the work I see on exhibit. Same when I listen to a new song or shop for clothes or look at a menu.
“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”― F. Scott Fitzgerald
There are some things that are almost universally appealing, that appeal to the mean and the most common of experiences. Pop songs, blockbuster movies, best-selling novels. But the more popular a work of art is, generally the less powerfully it effects any one person in the audience. The things that truly resonate with me tend to be things that recognized or at least made room for the particularities of my personal POV. For that to happen, the artist needed to be in touch with something very particular and true about themselves. They didn’t set out to appeal to me or to everyone who reads books or to everyone who can afford a ticket. They started with a particular feeling or experience or idea that seemed true and that they want to explore for some deeply personal reason.
There’s a risk involved in this sort of exploration of course because chances are good it won’t resonate with most people. The Great Gatsby may be one of the most popular novels of all time but not that many people want to spend the better part of a day sitting in a theatre having it read to them (in fact, the majority of the seats were emptied by the end of the show as even committed theatregoers dropped out of the marathon and went home to bed).
And it’s not just an issue of quality. Certainly there are novelists whose dialogue is so wooden, whose characters are so stock, whose plots are so predictable or far-fetched that any discerning reader will decided not to read to the last page. But I have come upon lots of books that have won major awards or been heartily recommended by people I respect but who I just can’t get through. There’s something in the voice of the author that I just can’t track with, my eyes slip back and forth on their Teflon coated pages looking for purchase in vain. People are surprised I can’t get through Wolf Hall or The Goldfinch or anything by Jonathan Franzen. I have no doubt they are good writers but I can’t stand having their voices in my head; it’s like being stuck next to a bore at a dinner party.
All of this musing about de gustibus non disputanduming is just a reminder to me when I am making stuff of my own. There’re no absolutes when it comes to making art, no clear cut lines that determine if what I am doing will be good or bad. Every seat in the theatre has a different view. Every reader hears a different voice narrating in their head. Every set of eyes looking at a painting is connected to a brain full of differently wired neural networks.
All I can do is listen to my own inner voice, follow my own tastes and predilections, make stuff that resonates with me and all of my weirdnesses and specific experiences and subjective judgement. There’s absolutely no point in fretting about other opinions — I can’t possibly satisfy all or even most of them. It’s just too complicated and impossible. Instead I must write and draw and speak and think for myself, as truly and bravely and interestingly as I can. Maybe you’ll get something out of it too. But only if my voice speaks clearly and honestly and bravely into my own ears first.