John Phipps

The Literary Disco podcast made me want to throw my laptop at the wall

Plus: if you want to hear some great short stories, well told, head to the New Yorker and René Auberjonois reading Stefan Zweig

George Eliot, author of Middlemarch, one of the 'most effective instruments ever devised for the destruction of human vanity'. Image: Culture Club / Getty Images

One of the stranger things that happened in the period just before lockdown was the sudden disappearance of audiences from TV and radio shows. Late-night hosts told jokes to silent rooms in front of a white background, dutifully pausing for a laugh that never came; panel shows were broadcast without so much as the sound of tumbleweed. Punchlines flopped, charisma evaporated. It was as if Earth’s comedians had been banished to some purgatorial realm, where they would be forced to tell jokes to no one as a form of penance.

Comedy needs an audience. It’s not clear that the same is true of short stories. In Selected Shorts, well-known actors read short stories to a room full of people. The actors in question include LeVar Burton and David Schwimmer, while the stories come from storied writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ursula K. Le Guin. In America, the show runs as an extremely successful live radio show, touring the country and attracting more than 300,000 listeners.

Short stories ought to be perfect for podcasts. You take a great bit of writing, get an actor with a nice voice to read it and pour the result directly into your listener’s ear. But Selected Shorts suffers from its audience. The tendency that most actors have, even when miked up, to project to the back of the room and over-egg the text ends up stifling the silence and sense of intimacy that a narrative needs to make its mark.

‘This is what 900 pages of turgid prose sounds like,’ says one of the hosts, letting Middlemarch drop to his desk

Perhaps it feels different if you’re there in the room. But of the episodes I listened to, René Auberjonois was the only actor who performed the magic trick that makes a disparate group of people into a single entity, united in thought and feeling: an audience.

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