Sound Writing and Literary Affordances

This post was originally published on  by pedagogyandamericanliterarystudies.

Sonic Pasts and Literary Affordances

via JenniferEgan.com

When I teach Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), I am visited by the resounding goons of our literary past. Aside from being a satire that explores the shift from digital to analog music in the late-twentieth century, Egan’s polyphonic novel considers the sonic agencies of literature and the ways in which the novel as a form not only assembles the sound of voices, as Mikhail Bakhtin famously noted, but also the voices of sound which have long been celebrated in literary works by writers like Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison, to name a few. Egan investigates if the literary brings about new forms of sonic literacy and renews T.S. Eliot’s “auditory imagination,” while looking back to a literary past of sound/voice crossovers. The novel foregrounds the ways in which a history of literary sound has formed a reciprocal relationship to a history of new recording and music technologies.

Egan focuses on the traumatic sounds of memory and music in the novel, and I focus my class on recognizing how Egan manipulates sound/voice sequences to create a palimpsestic narrative that reinforces why audio stories captivate us. Egan’s novel is not just an effective text to bring to my literature classes, but it has also been an effective text to use in my composition classes. Goon Squad allows me to bridge the gap between literature and composition; Egan offers a range of sonic reading experiences which reinforce the ways in which different sounds offer different communicative outlets. The novel stresses how sound may be one of the most pervasive influences on our lives today. The overlapping story-cycle of Goon Squad illustrates linear and acoustic remediation within a textual reading experience, graphically depicted through a chapter written in PowerPoint. And, we use Egan’s novel in class to discuss Peter H. Khost’s notion of literary affordances, or  the ways in which readers may use literature in their own writing or lives. In essence, we ask how we can make rhetorical use of Egan’s novel. 

Sound Writing and Writing Sound

Along with its interpretive value, Goon Squad makes us reflect upon the sounds of memory and the secondary sounds we absorb through our daily lives. Like Egan’s character Alex, we take in the sonic variance of our soundscapes: 

Alex closed his eyes and listened: a storefront gate sliding down. A dog barking hoarsely. The lowing of trucks over bridges. The velvety night in his ears. And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing. (340) 

Alex’s reflection on the sounds of memory compresses many moments into one moment, and we view narrated video-walks like the Alter Bahnhof Video Walk by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, to discuss how memory, like sound, overlaps in a fugue-like state, as also shown by Henri Bergson’s early-twentieth-century theories. Memories are created by muddling sensory elements, and so we arrive at an interpretation of the present through the sensory effects and affects of the past, much in the same way that Egan does in her novel. 

Bearing this in mind, we move outside of our textual analysis and into our rhetorical world. Thinking through and in terms of Egan’s formal and thematic structure, students in my Freshman Composition class create sound/voice compositions. The practical objectives of the assignment emphasize thinking about sound rhetoric as a composition technique. 

Because the course is grounded in teaching research inquiry and rhetoric, this assignment allows my students to think about how multimodal reading and writing are a key aspect of contemporary research. In fact, students end the course by creating both a podcast and a blog post to show how the formal research they have conducted can be transferred to a public audience in different mediums. So by the end of the semester, they have presented their formal research in a number of modes, allowing them to move beyond their argumentative papers. The essential goal of the project is to attempt to write in sound while thinking about sound writing to show how sound intersects with the pedagogies and practices of writing and rhetoric, to use the words by Soundwriting Pedagogies. My students become more aware of the rhetorical implications of sound in our heightened moment of media convergence. And they begin to navigate written texts by better understanding the agencies of sonic rhetorical strategies, a topic that many educators and critics are currently in tune with as indicated by this wiki filled with resources. 

So what do they do?

Students and I begin by discussing the literary agencies of sound as performed by works of literature before thinking about sound writing in terms of composition. We analyze texts to discuss how sound, silence, and music have often mediated print to show a correlation between the sonic and the social, focusing on poems such as “The Sound of One Fork” by Minnie Bruce Pay and “Home Burial” by Robert Frost; we also listen to parts of a Goon Squad soundtrack with help from The New Yorker. These analyses are also foregrounded by our discussion of Egan’s novel.

After this, students choose a periodical or print article that covers one event or issue related to their research topic—a topic they have chosen and followed throughout the semester as part of their larger research inquiry in Freshman Composition. Then, they must manipulate the article and create an audio file of it by remediating it with forms of sound–including voice, tone, echo, noise, etc. The intent is that they remediate the article sonically, adding sounds within and through print, while also evaluating its rhetoric. Students are not so much just voicing the article into an audio file, but they are explicitly judging its argument and its rhetorical situation, thinking about the ways in which the text, audience, writer, and medium overlap. When recreating the article in their own voices, they must recreate a scene or restage an event for a deliberate purpose. They build an audio file to reinforce a material encounter with sound, and its rhetorical resonances. Before recording, they must first write out their scripts, conveying the noises, silences, voices, sound interactions, sound effects, and musical cues they wish to include to narrate the article. 

via Radio-Sound-Art

In this assignment, students also record a personal response to the print article, combining their personal assertions with their extended research from the semester. Because they are using the entire semester to research one issue, the reflection becomes an important way for them to not only think about multiple stages of research, but also how they must change the way they read and write in certain situations. Kathleen Blake Yancey’s work on reflection in the writing classroom has been really helpful to me when thinking about the uses of reflection in the classroom. Through both description and sonic rhetorical strategies, students narrate the scene first captured and argued through print. 

By immersing themselves in a moment narrated first through print and then through sound, this assignment changes the ways in which students react to and write about their own research. They begin to register the social and political implications of sound, and the assignment becomes one step to understanding how to convey research within multimodal writing. In this way, students vocalize a personal account that becomes informed by the inner and outer voices of their surround; they can make clear assertions between their own writing and Egan’s writing. I’ve also found that because I plan the class with some literary selections, students feel engaged emotionally in a different way. They enjoy reading a novel in a writing class, and the supplemental reading and writing we are doing helps to bolster the agency of their research.  

What’s more important is that students make choices about how to set-up and narrate in an audio form. They make writerly choices about what to include and why, and how to evaluate another writer’s writing. In this way, they are making decisions about their own writing while assessing someone else’s writing, which was one part of John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write (2018), which specifically resonated with me. Students must confront the real-life choices that professional writers navigate daily, and this assignment makes them aware of their own personal voices within a public milieu. The assignment helps them to recognize how sound makes meaning, for we always hear the words we read in our heads anyways. As Sasha from Goon Squad reminds us, we hear the voices and sounds around us at the same time that we use our voices, and perhaps we become more aware of how we listen while we speak. Opening up our own aural awareness like Sasha, we attempt to hear the “faint hum that was always there” when we listen (18).  

Works Cited

Egan, Jennifer. A Visit From the Goon Squad. First Anchor, 2011. 
Warner, John. Why They Can’t Write. John Hopkins UP, 2018. 
Yancey, Kathleen Blake, ed. A Rhetoric of Reflection. Utah State UP, 2016.


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