Paul Alan Ruben

Paul Alan Ruben

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Simplicity Complicated: The Non-Fiction Irony

Perhaps prophetically, definitely pathetically, I recently received an updated demo from Aunt Mary – her thirty-fifth she informed me, tersely. AM’s accompanying email indicated that while she wasn’t giving up on fiction (“No way, Mr. P”) she was lowering the bar. AM was prepared to accept a non-fiction gig. “Take a listen. I dare you not to hire me!”
After thirteen seconds of Aunt Mary’s first selection - from a self-published e-book titled: Jellybean Recipes By Aficionados Who Stick To Their Gums - I clicked off her sputter-speed, troglodyte-like rendition. Preparing to delete her email I noticed the rhetorical P.S. below her name: “Am I making this author sparkle, or what!”
Aunt Mary’s self-congratulatory whimsy caused me to consider non-fiction’s ironic performance challenges.
From my producer/director portal, narrating non-fiction should be, if not a snap, less problematic than fiction. Though it possesses fewer moving parts than fiction, many narrators nevertheless have difficulty accessing non-fiction’s relatively uncomplicated performance demands. Ironically, the challenges that bedevil these narrators are largely self-induced.
I don’t know why narrating non-fiction vexes talent. My suspicion is that this genre may not be considered by narrators from a perspective that prioritizes their responsibility to the author and the needs of the listener.
Said differently, when an actor employs vocal technique as if it were the key to narrating non-fiction he finds himself speaking for the author rather than serving the narrative as if he were the author. His cure (vocal technique) kills the patient (the author).
While actors regard unpacking fiction’s narrative (including all the characters) as the key to an outstanding performance, when prepping non-fiction, they often bypass this genre’s heart and soul: the author’s point-of view. It’s as if there is none. Instead, they may incorrectly presume their vocal technique will 'tell' the author’s story.
There are, I think, at least two fundamental issues that may suggest how easy it is for narrators to complicate non-fiction with unproductive choices that serve neither the author nor the listener:
Fundamental Issue One: Non-fiction’s singular performance demand.
Fundamental Issue Two: Self-inflicted technique that at best wounds the narrative by diminishing its singularity, traumatizing its vitality, and reducing its syntax to a kind of mealy blandness. At worst, self-inflicted technique renders the author’s words emotionally pointless, as though the only reason the author slaved over this story was to have it disseminated by a disinterested reporter.
Additionally, once these issues are identified and addressed, a pathway towards more authentic storytelling evinces itself (And this is the case for all non-fiction - from how-to-be-happy to physics-for-physicists. It’s important to stress that from a performance perspective all non-fiction possesses identical DNA).
Finally, there are a couple of non-fiction-only points that are worth mentioning.
When I direct a narrator who may not be hearing non-fiction's so-called singular performance demand, I ask rhetorically: Do you think this narrative is the author’s baby? Of course you do. So, beneath every word, oscillating inside the white space separating sentences, if you listen, you can hear the author prompting enthusiastically: Everyone, wait till you hear this. Isn’t my story exciting! Can you believe I’m going to tell you about x, y and then, check this about z!
The non-fiction narrator’s job-one is: speak as if you are the author, as if you worked years so the world can go gaga over all that you proffer. Let the syntax speak for it itself; let the author’s enthusiasm for that syntax speak from within you.
Does anyone think, rhetorically speaking, there is a non-fiction author on the planet who is less excited about his baby than his fiction counterpart? No. So, why would a narrator not want to immerse herself into that author’s soul and tell it like the author would, only better, because the narrator is a professional storyteller!
Is there a preferred vocal technique that particularly suits non-fiction? My short answer is no. Longer answer: vocal technique is the wrong priority.
If a narrator considers non-fiction by first looking at what the text is giving her, she will surmise how the author feels about his subject. The author may ooze attitude or point-of-view; or he may beg for a more thoughtful approach. He will always be thrilled to tell his story.
Once the narrator determines the author’s emotional state her job is to replicate that state throughout then narrative.
Believing always that the narrator’s responsibility is connecting emotionally with the listener, imposition of vocal technique (from modulation to emphasizing words and phrases rather than the author’s feeling about those words and phrases) remakes the writer’s pride and joy into a sort of dispassionate lecture, symposium, or endless commercial devoid of heart, vitality and, most importantly, the author’s voice.
I would argue that the benefits of highlighting various words and phrases in a given non-fiction book are not meaningful unless the narrator speaks as if he were the author underlining those words and phrases.
Employing vocal technique to speak for the author is, to steal from golf’s detractors, a long talk spoiled.
There are a couple of related non-fiction issues worth mentioning: how to play various characters; and just how emotionally involved should the narrator become with the author’s point-of-view?
My short answer to these questions is: non-fiction is not the venue to demonstrate character voice acuity. Non-fiction means: No accent necessary - even when the author writes, “he said in Brooklynese.” And if “I said angrily” appears? Less is more. The narrator may effectively suggest the author’s feeling but not act it as if she was portraying a character.
I’d argue that listeners will not willingly suspend their disbelief when a non-fiction performance imitates fiction. The listener’s disconnect may have to do with her expectation: She is prepped for a story, not a performance. Additionally, non-fiction isn’t about character. Quoting French President Sarkozy in an accent (even if it is magnifique) suddenly turns our attention to Sarkozy-the-dramatized-character, and away from the story about Sarkozy that the author wants to tell us.
If narrating non-fiction is ultimately about sharing the author’s enthusiasm for his baby, then the performance fuss should properly be over encouraging the listener to say: Does this guy love his baby or what? 
So, how do you represent the author with something as mundane as: Fundamental Issue One? The answer: How would the author say it?


  1. Aunt Mary's foibles aside: Without her we wouldn't get these pearls of wisdom and clarity. I'm passing the hat for a bouquet.

    Thanks Paul,


  2. Upon reading and re-reading these missives of majesty, I grow more certain that the very act of telling your story mirrors the penetrating and essential process of storytelling itself: how to affect the effect ~ the effect on the mind and psyche, the heart and the part we each play in making a world and its people come alive and tell us a tale.

    Poor, disaffected Aunt Mary...she's only skimming your pages...

  3. So nice to know the story! Love to read more from you.

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