Why Literacy Wasn’t The Greatest Thing That Ever Happened to Writing

Have you ever read your writing aloud in front of listeners, only to hear the words you’d written sound flat to your own ears?

Have you stumbled over your own writing, not really understanding why it’s so difficult to get out the hidden meaning your words were meant to have, because you’re tongue-tied and twisted over grammatical errors? When strung together like polished jewels, glistening on that necklace of words you constructed before you showed off your creation to your writing group, either make no sense, or just sound wrong?

Recently, while listening to someone read their writing aloud, I noticed the discrepancy between the purpose the writer intended for his words to have, and the actual rhythm and sound of the words, which creates its own effect on the hearer, independent of the words themselves.

When read aloud, one’s words can sound odd and staccato, when in fact, you wrote them to flow. Like heavy winter melt from a mountain waterfall pounding river rocks, though, the sound made by writing meant to be read to one’s self can seem jarring and loud, and this isn’t a comment on the reader’s voice or tone of voice, as much as it is on the bifurcation between the written and spoken word. What are the forces behind this discrepancy, I wondered?

How would you disseminate your ideas if you couldn't write? Would enacting an epic poem in front of your audience do it for you?

How would you disseminate your ideas if you couldn’t write? Would enacting an epic poem in front of your audience do it for you?

Searching for potential answers to this particular problem, I began by re-reading E. M. Forster, who addresses part of this issue in the 1927 collection of lectures he gave at Trinity College, Cambridge, Aspects of the NovelIn the lecture (transformed into an essay) entitled “Pattern and Rhythm,” Forster, in search of that which brings beauty to writing, acknowledges that the novel requires not only form and structure, but is also capable of containing a deeper, possibly more profound shaping force, which is the dimension of rhythm and music.

Although he himself does not claim to make a direct analogy between a piece of music and a novel, let’s say, there are,  nonetheless, bits and pieces of his argument that makes sense, and that help to explain why some pieces of writing sound better than others when read aloud. For one thing, he points to the importance of repetition used for effect.

Promoting literacy over orality means that we’ve forgotten or minimized the importance of some of the elements of orality. Repetition, for example, is a common rhetorical device that is undervalued and is therefore mostly used nowadays either in speeches to impart emotional affect, or when reading aloud to children. For thousands of years, though, repetition was used as a powerful stimulus for memory, and was taken as a given if you were presenting your epic poem and wanted it to be remembered.

The use of repetition reminds us that orality preceded literacy; that as listeners, we hear differently, listening for different cues, than we do when we read. One of those cues, whether we know it or not, is the musicality of words. We compartmentalize that need and turn it into poetry, but I think all writers should be paying more attention to the music, rhythm, and use of transitional phrases, since without a truly sculpted transitional phrase, you’re asking your audience to make connections without you literally being there in the same room to explain yourself to them (which you would be able to do if we were still a primarily oral society).

This is not only a cognitive reality, it is also a psychological and emotional truth that has profound implications for writers who read aloud, for whatever reason, because when someone reads their writing aloud and you, the listener, think to yourself, this is so dull, it doesn’t read well, we’re probably doing the writing (and writer) a disservice, since it’s my belief that most writing isn’t meant to be read aloud. The reason this is so lies with the shift between orality and literacy, and all that schism requires of writers and readers.

When Forster says that Beethoven’s 5th Symphony has not only the obvious rhythm of its opening phrase, “diddidy dum,” but also an interconnectedness due to the “relation between its movements” (164), he is looking for a way to explain why “some people can hear but no one can tap to” the less-obvious rhythm that underlies the symphony itself.

Does this interconnectedness of movement and rhythm translate to the written word, though, I wonder? Forster says that he “cannot quote any parallels” for the 5th Symphony in fiction, but believes there are some novels, otherwise lacking in shape, that nonetheless hang together because they are “stitched internally,” because they contain rhythm.

The core of the problem of reading aloud seems to lie, not with an individual’s ability or inability with speech, but instead with the different requirements of orality and literacy, something those who read books quietly to ourselves don’t often think about.

The irony is that most writing doesn’t sound particularly good when read aloud, nor does it need to, since literacy requires different methods and applications than orality does. Something important to keep in mind any time you read aloud and chastise yourself for the way the writing does not trip lightly off your tongue, is that writing is much more abstract than speaking. Writing relies on elaborate, fixed grammar rules. Literacy begets linearity, rather than emphasizing repetition, sound, and recursivity.

The writer can easily become discouraged and think that it’s the writing that’s at fault, rather than the simple fact that words on a page have a harder time functioning the way prose meant to be spoken aloud does.

Walter J. Ong expanded on an otherwise controversial theory propounded by Eric Havelock in the 1940s and ’50s—that the ‘great literacy shift’ occurring during Plato’s lifetime was responsible for changing not only which sense is privileged (eyes over ears) but also, most controversially, that this shift was responsible for changing the way philosophers not only conveyed their wisdom, but also how they thought.

In other words, the mode used to convey thought and meaning changes what and how we know, as well as how and what we learn. If you study predominantly oral cultures, by the way, you find that Havelock’s epistemological theory isn’t so far-fetched, especially when oral-societies’ cultural values are transmitted to predominantly literate societies. Literate people tend to look down on orally-transmitted beliefs and wisdom.

The idea is that when the ancient expectation that a predominantly oral society would hand down information via oral transmission gave way to a literacy-based society, the mode used to convey language became less transparent, more representational, less ‘real,’ if you will. If you take literacy for granted, be sure the Greeks did not, and much of Plato’s response to words, written or spoken, stems from a prejudice common amongst Greek society at the time, that the transition to literacy might include dangers unforeseen (and so it does; Plato was right to be worried that the author of a work loses control over his creation, and can’t defend himself against incorrect and uneducated opinions of those who read what he’s said).

It’s important to acknowledge that literacy wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms. As with any major shift in human society, it inspired a lot of ambivalence, due to the necessary changes it brought with it. At first, not everyone could see the need for, or advantages of, becoming a literate society.

Ong explained that “[w]ritten discourse develops more elaborate and fixed grammar than oral discourse … because to provide meaning, it is more dependent simply upon linguistic structure, since it lacks the normal full existential contexts which surround oral discourse and help determine meaning in oral discourse somewhat independently of grammar” (Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 1982).

If we have to think about the future of the written word, it might also be informative to know what it was like prior to the written word.

If we have to think about the future of the written word, it might also be informative to know what it was like prior to the written word.

Prior to the supremacy of the printed word, and, most importantly, prior to widespread literacy, words were dramatized, enacted, embodied, illuminated by physical action. Words function very differently when they are designed to be spoken aloud. For one thing, the writer tends to focus on the sound of words. When Forster writes about the inherent musicality of words, and argues that words should be used deliberately, for their ability to evoke a sound in our minds as we read, what came to mind immediately was that a predominantly oral society would not differentiate or compartmentalize that ability into the one place where music, pageantry, and color “belongs,” which is poetry (and, of course, modern theatre).

Because literacy is inherently abstract, therefore, those who would read aloud are automatically at a disadvantage. One of the most important, and yet devastating things that happens when we write is that we begin to distance ourselves—not merely psychologically, but also emotionally—from meaning. In the significant interstice of that distance, the place where we begin to edit, form sentences, write with lines, spaces, and squares of the printed page in mind—lies everything we use instead to make meaning: structure, brevity, grammatical rules, and so on.

In the raw utterance of a sound lies the greatest chance we have to convey what we really mean, and so when we write, what we’re really doing is creating abstractions of meaning (this is why we so often rely on metaphor to help us convey meaning, since words are abstractions, with no inherent meaning of their own). So the danger that occurs for the writer when we read aloud words that have been distanced by virtue of putting them on the page is that the various twists and turns we’ve gone through inside our heads to give our words life on the page mean the words have lost the immediacy, the raw emotive power, we expect our words to have when we utter them aloud.

The point is, we shouldn’t expect these words that have been processed through the intellectual meat grinder of literacy and all its rules to have that particular kind of power, not unless we’re specifically writing to be read aloud, which most people are not. You know how everyone mentions finding your unique “voice”? In the face of the rules of literacy, it’s no wonder that’s such a challenge, when we have essentially, to all intents and purposes, excised our voice when we made the transition, during Plato’s time, from an oral to a literate society. The challenge is getting that voice back, when we can’t realistically expect the written sentence to sound like a work that’s been memorized, remembered, and reconstructed using mnemonic devices.

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2 thoughts on “Why Literacy Wasn’t The Greatest Thing That Ever Happened to Writing

  1. Lots of good food for thought in this. Being a fan of reading aloud many different literary genres (short stories, essays, non-fiction, novels, etc.), I’ve often thought that the rules / structure used to convey information or propel a story forward of most literary forms does not lend itself well to the spoken word. Poetry seems best suited for that and most good poetry seems to embrace that aspect of the form, certainly far better than prose writing. Occasionally, one comes across prose that actually reads aloud poetically and that is a wonderful thing.

    • Thank you for wading through this piece, Brett, honestly; I have been ruminating on how disjointed it seems. I have to remember to put in titles between each section on these long pieces. This is one of those subjects that, once I get started thinking and then writing about, morphs into a huge disquisition on the entire subject of literature, writing, and then moves on to what’s wrong with the way we think; from there, it becomes a diatribe about what’s wrong with Western Society. 😉 I think therefore I am confused. LOL.

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