Tuesday, October 8, 2013

David Sedaris and the Power of the Spoken Word

Last week, David Sedaris gave a reading in Amsterdam as part of his latest book tour. When the performance was over, it dawned on me that something remarkable had happened. More than a thousand Dutch people had just stared for almost two hours at a soft-spoken and not physically imposing American man who was reading from sheets of paper. What was going on?

In our modern culture we don't seem to be able to get by without visuals. Schoolbooks are littered with photographs, diagrams, and figures. Most professors are incapable of lecturing without PowerPoint. News programs feature a plethora of graphs, pie charts, and animations. Heck, there even is a photograph on the left of this paragraph!

David Sedaris didn’t strut and prance across the stage while gesturing maniacally like a stand-up comedian or an overly excited TED-talker. He didn’t bring any visual props with him and certainly no PowerPoint presentation. Instead he was standing rather motionlessly behind a lectern, reading from a piece of paper in a deadpan manner with a slightly high-pitched voice.

Nevertheless, the audience seemed spellbound and rounds of laughter echoed through the theater. The show was over before I knew it. And I realized that along the way I, and probably the others in the audience as well, had been effectively transported to a taxidermist’s store in North London, a quiet village in Normandy, and an American hotel. And no visual aids were needed to accomplish this. So what was going on?

There are two types of situations that play a role in linguistic communication. One is the situation in which the communication takes place, in this case the Amsterdam theater CarrĂ© with a 1000+ audience; the other is the situation that the communication is about, let’s say the taxidermy store in North London. We can call these the communicative and the referential situation (the situation that we want to understand), respectively. In linguistic communication, these two types of situations have an elastic bond. Sometimes they overlap almost completely and at other times there is hardly any overlap at all.

Let’s first look at an example of where there is almost perfect overlap: a cooking show. Here the speaker talks about the situation he is acting in. The Portobello mushroom that Jamie Oliver is referring to is right there in front of him; it is not some fictional fungus. The actions that he is describing—slicing and seasoning the mushroom—are the actions he is performing at this very moment. The person he is calling “I” is the person who is simultaneously speaking and performing the actions: Jamie Oliver. The role of language is to direct attention across the visual scene. Naming an object prompts the eye to fixate that aspect of the scene and to encode whatever is there. The ingredients for understanding are readily available and language points us to them.

A moderate level of overlap occurs when a past or future state of the environment is projected onto the current environment. A friend who has recently remodeled his house might point to a kitchen island and explain that a wall used to stand there and that where the breakfast nook is right now there used to be the back door. Or the reverse might happen. Our friend might tell us about his remodeling plans. The wall between the kitchen and living room will be torn out to make room for a kitchen island. To understand the past or future situation, the listener can make use of various cues in the communicative situation. Eye movements serve to mark locations where objects or individuals were in the past or are expected to be in the future. All the listener needs to do is to imagine an object, person, or action in that location (presumably after having suppressed the object that’s actually there).

Finally, there are cases where there is practically no overlap between the communicative and referential situation. And this is the case that concerns us here: David Sedaris and the 1000 to 1200 Dutchmen.

There is no information in the communicative environment to focus attention on (no visual information at least), so language has to do the heavy lifting. The referential situation cannot be piggybacked onto the communicative situation (although there is some evidence that even in the absence of relevant cues people make meaningful eye movements). Language cannot be used to point to things that are already there. This probably explains why Sedaris’ prose is a lot more intricate than Jamie Oliver’s. The latter doesn’t have to put much thought into the composition of a sentence; he can make do with a simple I’m putting the garlic into the pan. Sedaris, on the other hand, has to craft a sentence with exquisite precision. He has to create a situation just from words. Of course, this is a problem faced by all novelists and some of them are quite successful at conjuring up fictional worlds.

What, then, is the added value of going to the theater to hear somebody read from his own work? (And why are people paying good money to do so?) In interviews Sedaris explains that when he writes a story, he reads it aloud to himself and makes changes until it reads well. His stories are designed to be read aloud. In the theater it was clear that Sedaris keenly anticipates and monitors the responses from his audience and, like a stand-up comedian, times and intonates his utterances accordingly for maximum effect.

The pacing of the telling of the story facilitates the mental transportation of the audience from the Amsterdam theater over to the North London taxidermy shop. It facilitates the audience’s ability to resonate to the narrator’s combination of fascination and politely suppressed horror when he is successively shown the skeleton of a Pygmy, a severed arm with a tattoo on it, and the head of a 13-year old Peruvian girl. It also facilitates understanding the narrator’s feeling of wonder that the shopkeeper instantly knew him for what he was: the type who’d actually love a Pygmy, and could easily get over the fact that he’d been murdered for sport, thinking, breezily, “Well, it was a long time ago.”

The audience signals its understanding (and appreciation) of the story by emitting gales of laughter. These, in turn, determine the speaker’s highly skilled timing and intonation of upcoming phrases. This heightens the audience’s involvement in the story world. This way, an effective feedback loop is created. It is a subtle form of alignment between speaker and listeners.

The lack of visual props probably heightens this effect. There is nothing in the communicative situation to exert what Andy Clark calls a “gravitational pull” on the audience—pulling it back into the communicative situation—so that all attention can be devoted to the story as it unfolds at the pace determined by the speaker, expertly tailored to the audience’s immediate responses.

At least, that’s what I think was going on that night in Amsterdam. 


  1. Rolf - interesting post! I saw Sedaris reading some of the same stories in London. It was being recorded for a BBC broadcast. I was fascinated by the number of times he stopped himself stopped himself and re-read a sentence with slightly different stress patterns (the first version would be edited out later). What was remarkable was how similar the two readings were superficially, but how much more effective one version was for the listener in evoking an image. Often the second version would get the laugh - surprising as obviously we knew what he was going to say. Anyway it was a glimpse into how carefully and effectively these utterances were being planned and delivered.
    And if you have not heard it before, I thought you might like this bit of Sederis on language, laws, and Dutch Christmas traditions...

  2. Thanks, Daniel! Thanks for this interesting converging evidence.;) During his reading in Amsterdam, I noticed that he somethings took notes (presumably about audience responses. (In fact, I used to do the same when I started lecturing.) Ah, yes, of course I know and love the 6 to 8 Black Men (there's even an oblique reference to it in my post)! The one on the French Easter tradition is also great.

  3. interesting! But maybe you are too hard to Jamie Oliver, and too easy on David Sedaris. Jamie is actually quite good in communicating aspects that are essential to his topic, but not communicated by the visuals and sounds: taste and smell. And Sedaris has at least two overlaps of communicative environment and referential situation helping him: himself (listeners just have to cut out his image, and paste it into their simulation of the the events he speaks about, and where he is present), and the moments where he "repeats" what he said in the actual situation. In that instance, him saying that sentence is almost a complete overlap of communicative and referential situation. (At least that is what I believe about the situation you transported us to :) )

    1. Thanks! I didn't intend it as a criticism of Jamie Oliver. I just figured he's the most famous TV chef and so would be known to most readers of the blog. Well, there's also Gordon Ramsay of course but then I would have had to talk about "slicing the fucking garlic and putting it in the fucking pan" and this is a PG13 blog.

      There are indeed elements in the situation that could have been used. From where I was sitting (which was a pretty good spot), you could hardly see him (he wasn't much taller than the lectern;)).You're right about him conveying dialogue, though. I though about that but didn't elaborate on it in the post. It's a rather direct way of conveying the referential situation.

  4. I saw Sedaris do a reading many years ago now, but now I feel like I have a whole new perspective on it. It also made me think think of the difference between sports announcers who broadcast on the radio vs. television. It lacks the direct feedback aspect you wrote about, but to me the difference is amazing.

    As a child growing up in Canada, I'd often listen to hockey games on the radio, either because they weren't on TV or because they were on past my bedtime and I was being sneaky. The announcers did an incredible job bringing the game to life in my mind, clearly describing the action, but also conveying through their tone the excitement in the game. TV obviously allows me to see for myself what's going on, but the announcers are a poor substitute. They do no work to bring the game to life for me -- often it feels like they're just there because nobody wants to listen to the game in silence. If you look away from the screen and try to grasp what's going on just by listening it's virtually impossible 90% of the time.

    I suppose it would be a little strange for a TV announcer to tell me what I'm looking at sometimes, since I can see it for myself, but I've definitely noticed that announcers who have radio experience do a much better job on TV.

    1. Interesting comparison. I have exactly the same experience but then with soccer. Radio announcers need to bring the game to life while TV announcers often provide useless background information (e.g., mentioning previous clubs that a player played for; especially American soccer announcers are experts at this). The good ones are anticipating actions (e.g., passes). So they are not commenting on what we see but on what might happen next or why something that seems obvious does not happen (e.g., "X not passing to Y, even though he is wide open, because he is offside"). It would be interesting to compare transcripts from radio vs. TV announcers. I wonder if someone has already done so.