Friday, June 22, 2007

What Makes A Good Reading?

I was supposed to post yesterday, but I never got around to it, as I was at the Colgate Writers' Conference, giving a reading. If you dig the conference circuit, this one seems like a good one--I met a lot of nice people and had a fine time.

I have to admit, though, I don't like attending literary readings. More often than not, a good story seems to lose something rather than gain it, when it's read aloud. I often find myself falling asleep, even when the story is excellent. I think I'm programmed to receive narrative on the page--the ability to vary the pace of my reading, to glance back at what I've read, is part of the process, and I think most fiction, anyway, is written to be consumed this way.

Sometimes a reading's great, though. George Saunders is a wonderful reader--I could listen to him anytime. I still put on my old Robert Frost tapes sometimes, but never my recordings of Wallace Stevens, whose poetry I otherwise prefer. Last night I heard a novel excerpt from Hannah Tinti, with whom I shared the stage--she was wry and assured, and I enjoyed it a lot.

I think the reason these people succeed in their readings is that they have found the correct balance, or at least a correct balance, between fealty to the text and actual performance. Not too hammy, not too dry. A good reading can bring out more of the writer's personality than you found on the page; a bad one can make you think that story you liked wasn't so hot after all.

Rhian had encouraged me to read a recent piece, "Zombie Dan," which is a black comedy full of swearing, sex, experimental medicine, and mind reading. I went for it, and perhaps overhammed, but it was great fun to "do" the story in person. Ironically I love to read to an audience--alone in my office, writing, I am so totally not the center of attention, however desperately I like to imagine I am. So yes, I swore and did funny voices and made the most of my moment in the spotlight. It rained, then stopped, and then we all drank about eighteen beers. There are worse ways to spend an evening.


Stephanie said...

I have a Frost tape too! I made it from an old record in my high school library.

Also, a great reader: Sherman Alexie. He doesn't read so much as perform. It's amazing.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, I agree! I posted about his reading style a while back...a terrific performer to be sure. When I saw him, he read a page or two from the book, then closed it, and adlibbed the rest of the way...

Anonymous said...

Where might one find "Zombie Dan"? It sounds great.