Monday, July 30, 2007

Why I Will Never Do Another Reading

Yesterday I forgot to post because I spent the day whipping Casa W6 into shape before a post-reading dinner party we held for our friend Jeffrey Frank, whose Trudy Hopedale was published this month. It was a great, fun reading, but it reminded me of my vow to never read out loud to people on folding chairs ever again. (Jeff said he had made the same vow, but broke it. Not me!)

Mostly it's because I get really, really nervous, and the anxious fallout from such an event more than cancels out whatever pleasure I might get from it. Forget it! But it's also because I don't really like most readings. I love going to friends' readings because I love my friends, and it's incredibly fun to see how the friend I know shows up in the work when they read it out loud. (Not so for spouse readings, which are generally too close for comfort.)

But I still subscribe to the idea that literature is a private pleasure. I know, I know -- I'm supposed to appreciate the storyteller-around-the-campfire thing, and I do. (Looking forward to the annual Jersey Shore trip with JRL's anecdote-laden family.) That's something different, though. A novel or a short story written by a person alone in a small room is meant to be read by a person alone, possibly in a small room, or else in a library carrel or in a park or on the bus. But definitely alone. A book is written from one mouth to one ear. That's an illusion, because there are thousands (or millions) of copies of each book printed. But when you read it, it's you and the writer, alone in a perfect intimate space. No laughing at the wrong places, no espresso machine cranking up, no surprising accent or mannerisms. Just the work.

12 comments:

Trevor said...

What I think many writers forget, or don't know, about readings is that what works on the page may not work in a public setting. You've got to be a good performer and choose the right work for the audience and the setting.

Done right, it can be powerful stuff. I know someone who got a book deal partially on the strength of a reading. Part of that wowed editor's decision was that the house could feel confident sending the writer on the road, knowing his delivery of the material could sell books.

A good reading should be a performance. It's, as you pointed out, a separate pleasure for the audience from reading. Related, but separate.

gnomeloaf said...

While I agree that I prefer solitary reading to group storytelling most of the time, I really like readings. So much of what writers and readers do is in relative isolation, and I find it reassuring when two or more people gather, I guess.

I also have to admit there's a fangirl element. Baseball fans can go to the stadium and watch their heroes in action -- readings are about as good as it gets for someone like me.

jrlennon said...

I am the opposite of Rhian in this respect--I love giving readings. It is because I am a shameless ham and love to be the center of attention. But I agree with her that it's a rare one I really enjoy--one can sometimes be disappointed to see one's favorite writers in the flesh.

No reading has ever ruined a writer for me, though!

And regardless of what she thinks, Rhian is a superb reader...

aos said...

I have heard writers who should have gotten someone else to read. One author in particular, whom I had already read a few novels by, had a delivery that made his very good stories seem utterly boring. Thankfully such experiences are rare. Most readings make it more likely that I will read the book. Some readers are even better than their material.

One of the best readers who could easily have shared the stage with the best stand up comedians was Terry Pratchett. He was one of those that you had no need to read to appreciate the performance (and left you with the motivation to read him; in my case, again, since I had read his first two books many years ago).

However one of the most moving readings I ever attended was Richard Ford reading one of his short stories to a packed room. What struck me was that here were all these people listening to someone read one short story from beginning to end, their reverence for the moment and the timelessness of it all, that this same event could have taken place unchanged hundreds of years ago.

jrlennon said...

I liked hearing Richard Ford too--I was doing his sound though and he was sort of inaudible. So I had to go up there and kinda stick the mic in his face.

rmellis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rmellis said...

At the worst reading I ever went to (by a poet who shall remain anonymous) the guy insisted that the house lights remain on (so that we felt like we were at a lecture), read every poem twice so we wouldn't miss anything, and played the bouzouki between poems. I wanted to scratch my eyes out.

aos said...

A friend of mine who owns a bookstore had perhaps the most annoying reading of all. When she had only one or two people show up (not often thankfully) she would suggest going for beer or a glass of wine at a nearby establishment. (This move could turn a depressing hour into a lively few hours of conversation.) This one time she had a reading featuring three local poets and no one showed up. She joked that they could read to each other, and to her dismay, they thought it was a brilliant idea. Hours later, over many a glass, she swore, never again. She still hosts readings but is very careful with poets.

jrlennon said...

For a reader, especially one on a book tour, there's nothing worse than showing up at the bookstore, and nobody's there, and nobody's there, and nobody's there, and the events coordinator feels really bad so he/she says let's just wait ten more minutes, and then after nine minutes ONE PERSON SHOWS UP. And you have to read to that person. THAT is the worst.

Nobody showing up is OK because you can go back to your hotel and drink.

5 Red Pandas said...

What if you don't drink!? That does sound depressing...

I have to credit my friend for inviting me to be an emergency reader for a series she was hosting back when we were both teaching fellows, and she was still living in New York. Around the same time another friend requested that I write something for her zine, so I used both pressures to spur me along and wrote an essay about my mother's relationship with sex. It got a good response, and that excitement, plus my hatred of my job, always another good motivator, eventually led to my renewed determination to finish a writing project I'd started but abandoned because I felt stuck or unprepared to write it.

My sister and I always half jokingly talk about doing stand up comedy, so maybe if I published a book and no one showed up I would bring along some "stand up" material and find some crappy open mike and try it out.

I love an essay by Nicholson Baker where he talks about doing a reading, and becoming alarmed because he's getting choked up by reading his own words. I think that would be my worst nightmare too because I'd feel like a real asshole.

It was always unbearably uncomfortable when someone read a very obviously personal piece and was near tears by the end of it. Even if it was terribly written you had to clap and tell them it was good because they were being so brave and you didn't want to be the cause of their suicide because you were too honest with them. Or was that just my experience with writing workshops?

rmellis said...

I always clap heartily, either because of genuine appreciation or in joy that it's over.

Writer, Rejected said...

Like any performance, there are so many variables contributing to the success or failure of a given public reading. I've been up at the podium where all I can think to myself in an obsessive chanting intonation is "Sit down. Sit down. Sit down." Awful. Other times it's a total pleasure.

If I attended a reading where someone read his poems twice, I *would* scratch my eyes out, then his.