The Voice vs. The Pen

I have no idea, really, why I started watching The Voice. Generally speaking, I have very little interest in “reality” television or in singing contests. So, what’s to account for my unaccountable affection for this singing contest? This is actually something that gave me a bit of pause, but in the end it seemed to remind me of some of the best qualities of writing workshops, especially those intensive writers conferences, like Bread Loaf. When the coaches get down to coaching, to criticising and complimenting their contestants—and despite all the “I love yous”—you get the impression that they tend to treat these mostly young, sometimes very young, people as peers, with real affection for their talent.

The show has even gotten better this year with the addition of Shakira and Usher. The latter, in particular, adds a kind of adds a kind of wacky athleticism to the program.

It’s clear, from the outset, that the contestants are talented, even if much of the music I don’t care much for, and some of them are extraordinarly talented, and so there’s none of that sort of drive-by gawking at people making fools of themselves that I once saw on American Idol. All of the coaches are clearly committed to craft, and so when they’re working through technical aspects of performances, or criticizing them, you can see that they know what they’re talking about. Wouldn’t it be cool to have that kind of show (what’s the tier below basic cable?) and coaching for writers?

In my more fatuous moments, I imagine a program called The Pen. The panel would be eclectic. I imagine Stephen King or even George Pelecanos as the Blake Shelton character. In the Usher role, I’m thinking maybe Walter Mosley or, maybe even better, Colson Whitehead. That could be interesting. My first choice for the lady judge would be, of course, Joyce Carol Oates, but you could really spice things up, I think, by adding Marie Arana or Isabel Allende. Or maybe Jennifer Egan. In the Adam Levine chair would have to be Michael Chabon. That would be kind of nonnegotiable. You could maybe add one more chair for Jonathan Franzen, who in my imagining would fret endlessly.

Now we have our panel, what about our host? For the most part, Carson Daly, as affable a personality as he is, often seems underemployed. “Blake, what is your decision?” Or “Who is the winner of this battle round?” I’m thinking a most excellent host would be Ron Charles, the book critic for The Washington Post. He’s certainly got the chops for it(you need to watch that video at the link).

I’m thinking the show would work pretty much like the show on NBC. Except, of course, it would be far less glitzy and far more tweedy. So the set would be sort of like a library, but  no shushing. The chairs wouldn’t turn around automatically at the push of a button because there wouldn’t be the budget for it. I suppose you could have interns that would turn the chairs around, scraping and scratching. They’d maybe come from a pool of also-rans from the talent search. The coaches would have paddles, like the ones they use in the movies at auction houses, but instead of some anonymous number, they would say “I want to.” They’d just raise them up and maybe crane their heads around.

The contestants would be fiction writers, poets, memoirists. I realize that the panel is very strong on fiction, but maybe there can be more than one show. The Pen—Poetry Slam, maybe.

In any case, as on The Voice, contestants on The Pen would stride purposely onto the stage carrying a manuscript instead of a microphone, step up to a lectern, and have 90 seconds to read and capture the attention of one of the coaches. The lighting would be bad, a sickly and endlessly green hue of fluorescent tubes. Of course 90 seconds isn’t very much time, so maybe three minutes, but no more, because that’s what things are like these days.

When the coaches have their contestants, the coaching would be the cool part. I’m not sure whose team I’d pick if I were a contestant, but no matter. It would be cool to see Stephen King or Colson Whitehead or Isabel Allende hunkered down over manuscript with a slightly dusty looking hopeful young writer. And then giving tips on reading. Slow down. Make eye contact with your audience. Stop mumbling.

I’m not sure how you could do battle rounds, but it might be interesting to do some sort of improv, say, write, collaboratively, a sestina, say, or wait – a haiku battle round. Even if they’re fiction writers, this is still a good exercise.

I’m sure the audience would number in the tens of tens. It’d be awesome!

But seriously, why do we value singing so much? At it’s best, I guess, it can encapsulate the kind of feeling and depth it takes me 300 pages to get close to.

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About Steve, i.e., him

Stephen Stark is an award-winning novelist and bestselling ghostwriter. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, Poets & Writers and in many other journals. He has been a fellow and taught at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and won an NEA Literature Fellowship in fiction. His novel, Second Son, was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 1992, and a New and Noteworthy Paperback of 1994.

5 thoughts on “The Voice vs. The Pen

  1. I think you are not only a great artist & an extremely witty person (nope—it’s not your mom writing!), but a very gracious and generous teacher as well. Or so says a voice from your past who finally understands what you were trying to explain lo those many years ago (when you taught at Inprint and tutored on the side).
    Brenda Liebling-Goldberg (via my furry little friend)

  2. How great to hear from you!! As for my writing, I’ve had about 14 short stories published in assorted literary journals e.g. “Letters to Annie Ernaux” in Pilgrimage. Also won first prize for humor (who knew I was funny?!) in a contest sponsored by American Pen Women. So I’ve clearly improved since you were so generous with your time and expertise!! Currently I’ve just finished my first novel & am about to look for an agent. (I just read your latest novel and, wow—it is REALLY powerful! I may never go swimming again!! Hope you are doing well (and your daughter, too)—Best, Brenda

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