Saturday, April 5, 2008

Readings, Again

I've posted about them before, but I've got literary readings on the brain again. I gave one last week, then went to another last night, and there was one at Rhian's bookstore this afternoon. Last week's reading was a university affair (me and two colleagues) and took place in a lecture hall. Last night's was delivered by four graduate students in a record store. Today's was similar to that one.

I have to confess, I'd gotten sick as hell of the things. Around this time two years ago, I would have been happy never to have to attend one ever again. But I dunno--since then, I've really enjoyed some amazing readings, from both published writers and students. I don't think I've changed all that much--I think it's the readings that have changed. The mood of the people who attend them, and the way people talk to each other afterward.

There are specific reasons for this here in Ithaca. At school, our department received an anonymous grant to raise the profile of our series, and as a result, we've been able to publicize more, and draw more interesting writers. The grad students' series used to take place in Goldwin Smith, the English department building, but they moved it downtown to the record store, and now people get to wander in from the street, instead of having to drive up to campus and park. The town-gown border has been blurred a bit. And this other reading, the one today, was I believe an extension of a new local literary magazine.

So we've had a convergence of good fortune and positive energy here. But I'm wondering perhaps if the literary reading itself, in America anyway, is entering a kind of golden age. In much the way that the self-destruction of the record industry (and the parallel devaluation of recorded music) has rendered the live concert more central to the experience of contemporary music, maybe the ongoing implosion of literary publishing is driving the story to the streets.

Just maybe. If you've read this horrifying post at Literary Rejections On Display, you may, right this moment, be considering just how close to the suicidal edge commercial publishers are presently teetering, and wondering what the new literary order might be.

Perhaps it will involve people coming out of their houses and watching each other make fools, or heroes, out of themselves in front of microphones. Increasingly, I hope so. Everyone seems a little more relaxed to me these days, now that they're no longer expecting six-figure advances. They appear to be actually enjoying their cigarettes and beers as they consume them, and to be listening to others without malice. Again--that's just a snapshot of my hermetic little world. But wouldn't it be nice?


5 Red Pandas said...

Do you think this means that people will return to a truer DIY approach to art in general if there are no longer any possibilities for the advances that are the equivalent to winning the lottery? As far as music goes I think there are fewer affordable venues than there used to be, but at least down here new ones always pop up if you want to keep up with the new bands that are still hungry and play because they couldn't imagine not playing. My band went to see a show at some random loft last night and it was a really fun show that only cost $7. And there were actually 3 bands on the bill that I really wanted to hear: Oxford Collapse, Cause CoMotion and Home Blitz. That's actually pretty rare for me these days. When movies cost $11.50, paying $7 to see 4 good bands is a real steal (and it shouldn't be, but that's the way it is unfortunately).

I don't go to many readings here but I know that there are a ton of them. I took an extemporaneous story telling class a few months ago and that was a really interesting experience. I prefer writing than doing extemporaneous work, but the reason I did the class (besides the fact that it sounded fun) is because I've been so frustrated by my attempts at getting published I've thought of trying to do some readings. The most positive responses I've gotten about my writing have been from the few times that I did readings. I've tried other things and they haven't worked (so far) so I figure doing readings can't hurt. I actually enjoy them, but I can understand why others might not enjoy them.

I'm still arrogant enough to think that people might want to read my work if I could only get published, but I am starting to wonder how long I'll still believe that.

Anonymous said...

A few things I'd like to see happen: the stigma disappearing from self-publishing, the refinement and increased profile of internet-based reviews and criticism, the proliferation and expansion of small presses. And performative writing getting a little more respect (though I'm with you, I'm happiest on the page.)

As for advance-less, direct-download seems to me (and I think Rhian posted something to this effect on LROD) that the only reason ANYONE bothers to get a publisher is because they have the infrasturcture to create and publicize physical books. If they're going virtual, who the hell needs them? We can upload the damned books onto our web sites with a paypal button.

Hey pandas, have you heard the new Malkmus? I really think he's back on the ball. The guitar solos are madness.

rmellis said...

I've liked readings less since having kids, because now I have to pay $10 an hour to go to them -- fine if they're great, but it's a crapshoot -- or else I have a kid running around in the back and I can't relax.

And I get so nervous when I give them, it ruins it -- and I get nervous just listening to them, kind of in sympathy.

I'm going to work on enjoying them more, I *should* enjoy them more.

5 Red Pandas said...

I would also love to see small publishing take off. And it seems to me that the only people who'd agree to the publisher's new advance-less terms are writers financially secure enough to write books without receiving any compensation for their work- or desperate enough to simply be published. If that's the case they can keep their non-advance and I would seriously consider self publishing. What's the point of trying to make nice if they have nothing to offer? If they don't pay any advances are they going to put even more money into advertising? Something tells me that they won't.

JRL: Of course I've heard the new Malkmus! I don't think you realize just how much of a fan I am. Anyway, I saw him play 3 times this week and Janet Weiss on the drums is great. The New York Times review where Raitliff says that Malkmus isn't a great guitarist (but imitates one with seriousness?!?!) is crap because if that's the case, who is a great guitarist today? I'm not just saying that because I'm a fan- I play music with someone I consider a great guitarist, and I've been listening to guitar music since I was 12, so I think I can determine whether a guitarist is good or not, even if I don't have music critic credentials. Anyway, don't get me started.

zoe said...

I'm giving my first reading in June at a literary festival and am quietly petrified at the thought. I can stand up and speak in front of thirty 14 year olds (surely the toughest audience in terms of heckling potential) but adults are quite a different matter. However, having said that, I'm also kind of looking forward to it. I'm really interested to see what people think of my work off the page because I very much enjoy reading aloud. In fact, I think that's mostly why I became an English teacher. Well, that and the opportunity to subvert from within.

I love going to readings because I love to hear the writer reading the way they wrote - if you see what I mean. That said, I've seen a few duffers who had either an excess of confidence or seemed to have been hoodwinked in off the street and impersonate the writer.

The young writers I've seen recently are pretty slick sometimes -- they treat it as a performance/stand up comedy gig which works well sometimes, but not always. I also love reading because they've made me realise that writers are actually human (generally). Except for Margaret Atwood who still didn't seem real to me, even when she hugged me.

Aaaaaahhhh, memories....

Anonymous said...

As someone who received MFA elsewhere and has lived in Ithaca for the past 8-9 years or so, I can definitely say that the state of affairs has decidedly improved in terms of readings at Cornell; not only were the student readings up on campus, but the "visiting writers" read during the workday which—to go back to that Ithaca town/gown conflict—seemed like kind of an icky thing to do, even to those of us stuck somewhere between town and gown. I'll admit I haven't actually *gone* to any of the readings in the series—too many people I've seen read before* or whose work I don't like-that's going to change this week.

*Even as I type this, I think, "Impossible to please much?" Because a few years ago I was scoffing at Cornell writing program for being so completely out of the loop and now I regard it as too "on the circuit." Readings—mine and other people's—were always my favorite part of MFA-land. Couldn't get enough. Maybe I'll try to get back into the habit.

Anonymous said...

I'm an organizer for the MFA reading series at NYU. This year we moved the reading off-campus to the KGB Bar and added headliners like John Edgar Wideman and Ilya Kaminsky. Those changes has really created an excitement. It used to be all MFAer's in the crowd but the move to KGB has brought in a new diverse crowd. I'm on April 18th and am always nervous because I never know what piece to read.