On White Space

Last week on February 19th, author Kevin Brockmeier gave a reading at Hendrix College hosted by the Murphy Foundation. He has published a number of books (two short story collections, three novels, one memoir, and two books for younger readers) and I was pleasantly surprised that he happened to choose to read a story from the one book of his that I’ve actually read. (To be fair, “actually read” is a bit inaccurate since I have yet to finish the book because I lent it to a friend two years ago and still haven’t gotten it back, but I digress.) The story was “Andrea Is Changing Her Name” from the collection The View from the Seventh Layer. The story, rooted in nonfiction and real life events and people from Brockmeier’s high school adolescence, is an unusual one for him whose stories usually contain aspects of sci-fi and fantasy. However, I’m not here to talk about the story itself (it’s lovely and worth reading) but how it was read aloud.

The first time Kevin Brockmeier said the words “white space,” I’m sure it caught many people off guard. What does that mean? Was that a part of the story? Where did that come from? When he said it again later on, and then again after that, and then several times after that as well, the audience began to understand. When he said “white space” he wasn’t reading any written words but was letting us know that there on the page in front of him was a divide in the paragraphs—an actual white space. To part of me (and I’m sure to others) it felt awkward. When reading a story to yourself, the white space of a paragraph divide calls no attention to itself. It subtly and seamlessly lets the reader know that there will be a change in scene, setting, time, or even point-of-view in the next section of the story. In this sense, there’s a practicality and utility to this writing convention.

This semester, I have the privilege of taking Kevin Brockmeier’s creative writing special topics class on sci-fi and fantasy writing and he has offered our class another function of white space that I hadn’t thought of before: White space on a page gives emphasis to what comes directly before it. It creates a visible pause—visual silence—that makes the reader linger and ruminate on the last paragraph or sentence of that section of prose, giving that final moment an importance and weight it might not have otherwise. Considering this, it made sense to me why he decided to give us a verbal cue to when those white spaces occurred. How could we have known otherwise without looking at the page?

Of course reading a book silently to yourself and hearing a book read aloud to you are inherently different experiences, but what do you do when aspects of the former aren’t directly translatable to the latter? There are obvious examples of this, such as e.e. cummings’ poem “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r” (an extreme example) and other poetry and prose that experiment with formatting and the way words and letters are arranged on the page. But the white space of a paragraph divide—so commonplace, so ordinary a typographical feature to prose—doesn’t immediately stand out as one we give much thought to when it comes to oral recitations. But should we give it much thought? Clearly Kevin Brockmeier does and he has made a choice to represent it in his readings. Whether it’s the right choice or the best choice is up for debate. Perhaps a slightly extended pause would be more effective, creating physical silence to represent the visual silence. Perhaps for some stories or poems, it doesn’t matter as much and the gap between reading and hearing literature isn’t one that always needs to be bridged.

Depending on your experiences with literary readings, you might have strong opinions about this or you might not care at all. It’s a minor issue, a slight nuance, that hardly effects the quality of writing being read. However, it also speaks plenty about our interactions with words and literature and the limits of such interactions and because of this, I think that it’s worth the time to consider.

(White space.)

—Carl Napolitano, 2014-15 Aonian Editor-in-chief

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