Paroles ailées. Lectures en public d‘œuvres littéraires (XVIe-XXIe siècles) | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Paroles ailées. Lectures en public d‘œuvres littéraires (XVIe-XXIe siècles)

Paroles ailées. Lectures en public d‘œuvres littéraires (XVIe-XXIe siècles)
Françoise Waquet, ed.

Paris : SUP/Sorbonne Université Presses, 2023, 
268 pp., Illus. b/w, € 23.00
ISBN : 9791023107708 (paperback)

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
April 2024

Winged Words. Public Readings of Literary Works (16th-21st Centuries) is a timely publication. Hinting at the Latin proverb “verba volant, scripta manent” (Spoken words fly away, written words remain), it usefully reopens the question of the medium of literature in a period that is no longer afraid of looking back, while moving away from the exclusive focus on the shift from analog to digital. The days when various stakeholders (publishers, readers, critics, librarians, authors) were either fearing or welcoming the supersession of print culture by screen culture already look a long way off. The world of reading and writing has undeniably changed dramatically over the last decades, but the changes have proved less global and certainly less systematic than what had been prophesized (in a similar way, who still remembers the utopia, now seen as a nightmare, of the “paperless office”?). Our culture has become highly digital, but digitization has not swallowed or wiped-out print, even if print is no longer thinkable without a complex chain of digital techniques and processes. Its survival is not only a matter of vintage or nostalgia culture, if not pure antiquarianism, but the sign of a relevant link between text or image and host medium, whose strength has remained intact. Creative literature is a such a point of case, yet the renewed commitment to print in this field is not only a phenomenon that challenges the conflict between the digital and the analog. It also makes room for new readings of print itself, which can no longer be seen as a purely visual medium. Sound is part of literature as well, not only in so-called oral literature, but in literature tout court.

The collection by Françoise Waquet, a cultural historian well known for her studies on the importance of orality in the transmission of scientific debates, is a more than welcome synthesis of ongoing research in the field. The result of a pluriannual international seminar on the theme of the public lecture –a theme strongly put on the agenda by the work of Vincent Laisney, among others, and the general concern for issues such as the book “off the page”, literary sociability, or the more encompassing interest in new forms of cultural policy stressing literature as material cultural heritage–, this book foregrounds what some have reasonably called a paradigm shift, namely an increasing awareness of the central position of sound in literary reading and writing, both from an internal and from an external point of view. Words and letters cannot be separated from sound (even texts that seem to be “unreadable” or “purely visual”, using for instance only punctation signs, do evoke or virtually materialize sound systems). In a similar but external vein, the progressive emergence of new recording and reproduction technologies of sound, music, noise and the like, has changed our ways of reading and writing as much as the invention of photography did for painting.

The major difference between sound and vision in the field of writing cannot be denied: print technology has rapidly and very radically changed the way in which we think of literature, while the revolutions in sound technology have not produced the same effects. Since more or less two centuries, literature has mainly be seen as a visual medium, and the increasing presence of illustrations definitely contributed to this perception. Orality, instead, was until recently considered a relevant and important but nevertheless secondary aspect, typical of “marginal” genres such as poetry. One easily notices however that the success of audiobooks is revolutionizing our idea of literature and that these new forms of reading aloud are doing it in ways that go far beyond the perhaps smaller changes brought about by screen culture. What has changed in literary screen culture has more to do with the status and position of authorship that with the form and format of a text, which has remained until now relatively stable: materially speaking, what we see and touch and buy in a bookshop is not very different today from what it was twenty or thirty years ago (one might add, this is true as well, that there are almost no bookshops left and that the whole business has gone online, but online bookshops continue to sell many more books in print than e-books).

As a matter of fact, orality is now everywhere: public reading cycles, special radio programs, audiobooks, slam and spoken word poetry, scenic multimedia performances, biopics foregrounding the reading aloud of texts, the massive dissemination of oralized literature on YouTube, and last not but least the renewed but still modest didactic and scholarly interest in the sound of written and nonwritten literary productions. In short, we are experiencing an “oral turn”, that seems to be there to stay for a long time.

The collection edited by Françoise Wauquet is not the first that tackles the topic of oralization, but contrary to similar publications, for instance on the curation of literature in a museal context or the hype of spoken word and slam poetry, its scope is much broader, both linguistically and historically. This book is not only about new tendencies in contemporary Francophone literatures, it is, first, about the way in which orality has been key to writing even in periods when authors and readers paid perhaps less attention to it and, second, about the differences between national and regional traditions of oralizing literature in various European countries (next to France, mainly Italy and Germany). In spite of this great diversity of themes, methods, and contributors, the volume has achieved an exemplary coherence, largely due to its in-depth introduction and conclusion, respectively written by Françoise Wauquet and Michel Murat (a specialist of lyric poetry, but also the founder of an important research center and archive on sound and poetry in Paris, LARCA: Archives sonores de la poésie - LARCA (, a center with excellent relationships with its American counterpart, PennSound at the University of Pennsylvania). Both texts combine a powerful historical sensibility with a clear view of what a future research program in literature and sound may look like.

Next to these two essays, the book contains twelve chapters, all written by specialists in their fields but all also perfectly readable by a lay audience. These essays can be divided into three groups:  1) historical studies of the manifold practices of reading aloud, from the Renaissance till today, and the listening techniques and strategies that accompanied these readings; 2) sociological and anthropological studies of the either very informal or completely institutionalized practices of oral literature, with fascinating methodological reflections on the challenges of rebuilding a context that is no longer there (even in contemporary practices, recordings are rare and not always very reliable, since not all of them emphasize the properly oral dimension of the performance); 3) literary studies that bring to the fore the growing multimediatization of the literary work, as an object as well as a literary practice; some of these essays, the most provocative perhaps, also ask questions on the feedback loop between oral and written production, which is far from being as simple as it looks (granted, written texts are now much closer to the way one speaks, but in quite some cases even the most dedicated defenders of institutionalized orality continue to stick to ways of writing that remain strongly visual).

What becomes clear in all these contributions, is the impossibility to frame the paradigm change represented by the reborn orality of writing in terms of “either/or”. The now generally accepted belief that orality is a key feature of any form of literature whatsoever does not involve at all the disappearance of print culture and visually oriented forms of writing. There is no linear remediation, “this” (sound) taking the place of “that” (print). Interactions take place in all directions, and the result can only be a growing consciousness that all media are multimedia.