I’m going to admit something that’ll probably get me in trouble. What else is new?
Here’s the thing: I’m not fond of public author readings—or, at least, I’m frequently disappointed by them. I’ve been to quite a few over the years, probably more than your average reader/fan because I’ve been involved with college English Departments that have strong reading series.
But I’ve also been to bookstores and coffee houses for readings, especially since I’ve moved down to Atlanta, where one can see a bestselling author in person more than once a decade. One doesn’t generally get to shake hands with Michael Connelly, Michael Chabon and T.C. Boyle, all within a sixth month period, in upstate New York. That’s Atlanta—not the most literary city in the country, but something. This past summer, my public reading attendance reached a fever pitch when I was at the Sewanee Writers Conference squirming in my seat through at least two or three forty-five minute readings a day.
Don’t get me wrong. A few of the readings were great, and the Barry Hannah reading in particular was among the most entertaining and enthralling half hours I’ve ever spent seated in front of an author. But Mr. Hannah, sadly, is the exception to the rule, from what I can see. Part of my disgruntlement is my fault: I have bad posture and can’t manage to be comfortable in a wooden-backed chair without readjusting on the average of twice a minute. More importantly, I have a terrible aural attention span. I can read or watch stuff for hours on end, but my listening skills plummet after five minutes flat. Part of the reason I love music so much is that the listening is generally passive and, since I can’t remember anything I hear, I can listen to the same album a hundred times before I get bored with it.
At readings I’m good with poets or fiction writers who read several short sections of their work because there are stopgaps where I can jump back in. Even better are panel presentations. Last month at the Decatur Book Festival I watched a panel presentation on historical mysteries that included Tasha Alexander and Cara Black, among others. Now, I’ve never seen Tasha read and she’s probably brilliant, but she and the others kept my attention the entire hour merely by explaining their books, their research, their struggles.
Seems to me they pitched their books just as well as if they’d read excerpts—maybe even better. I don’t know why panels work better for me, except that you’ve got several people talking, a vibrant conversation, and you’ve got improvisation. Of course, I suspect that such panel conversation might be far more interesting to fellow writers (published and aspiring) than it would be to people who just want to read and don’t want the behind-the-scenes mumbo-jumbo. Plus, you never know if there’s a sweaty guy in the audience itching to ask a psycho question.
All right, I am to blame as a bad listener and compulsive squirmer, but we must also face the sad fact that many of us authors are not also actors. I’ve seen a lot of unfortunate folks who’ve taken prose that lives on the page and kill it with a monotone reading, who’ve confused the hell out of me because they haven’t modulated their voices to help me distinguish between exposition and dialogue (not to mention delineating the different characters talking).
I feel terrible saying this because, after all the readings I’ve attended, I’ve rarely heard anyone else complain of the same kind of acute boredom I seem to suffer. I don’t know; maybe I have ADD. Maybe I’m a product of the MTV generation. But maybe the culture of “literary readings” still retains the kind of genteelism that would not allow for booing, throwing tomatoes or banging a large gong—so we’ve gotten pretty complacent. I’m just saying, maybe a few of us (myself included) could benefit from a few acting classes, or at least some lessons in voice projection.
I’m not bitching just for the sake of bitching. Author readings can be a powerful way to bring a writer and reader together, and of course they’re a great tool for marketing. They’re also one of the last hip forms of free entertainment, since rarely have I paid money to listen to an author read. I’ve seen astounding readers bring a whole new dimension to their prose via oral recitation, but again, I happen to know that most of the best readers I’ve ever encountered—Clyde Edgerton, Robert Olen Butler, for instance—have some background in acting. They’re also generally comic writers, or at least they choose to read their more comic work. Suspenseful genre writing might work too, but most of my experience is with serious, slice-of-life literary prose. It’s a tough sell.
I’m also musing on this subject partly as a way to psyche myself up for several readings that I’ll be doing next month to promote the release of Pyres. I’m nervous, but not nervous to be performing in front of large groups of people. Despite my significant introversion, years of teaching have dissolved my stage fright altogether. No, it’s more about the possibility that I’ll walk into a bookstore and find that my audience is a couple of Christian ladies who got their days mixed up and meant to see a Rachel Ray cooking demonstration. On occasion I’ve been one of two or three audience members, and I was sick with embarrassment for the poor writer who had to read his book to us. I said to myself, “please, God, never let this happen to me.” Of course, now I totally deserve a few readings with nothing but crickets in the audience, just for saying that.
I’m also nervous about the flip side: reading to a large group of people and boring the shit out of them. Next month, somewhat large audiences will be “prearranged” for a couple of my readings, either because the readings are at colleges where some attendance is mandatory (can you imagine?) or because I’m reading with other folks who draw their own audiences. I feel a tremendous obligation to work up my acting skills and give them a true performance, but this is what makes me the most nervous. I don’t want to be one of those guys who makes people fall asleep. I do that enough in the composition classes I teach.
And, hell, I’ll admit it: I want to put on a good show. What’s entertainment but somebody showing off? I want to get the accents right, find the inflections, speed up and slow down at the right spots for dramatic effect. I want to ooze with the emotion that I intended to inhabit the language because, for whatever reason, oral presentations need that emotion amplified a bit. One can go too far, though, and I don’t want to unleash a torrent of cheeseball kitsch, either.
For a while there I considered just memorizing and reciting the whole shebang, but then I realized that I’d be needing to remember almost ten pages of writing. Even though I wrote those sentences, I’m never going to know them by heart. Still, I feel like I’ve got to practice what I’m reading a hundred times so that I’ll have carefully considered beforehand how to say each line with the right tone. Authors who pick what they are going to read five minutes before the reading baffle me. How do they know all the emotional inflections they’ll be needing?
There are, of course, other residual benefits to giving a good reading beyond merely keeping people awake. I’ve always bought the book after a knockout reading. And I remember amazing readers for years afterward, even if I’d never heard of them before. Certainly, the best author readers do begin to develop a following for their oral performances, and some even get paid more than peanuts for it.
So, more than anything, this is me coaching myself: “Don’t screw this up, Nikitas. This is your one shot.” This is me reminding myself that I’ve got to get up there and keep people entertained, even if there’s only two of them. I’m no actor, and I’ll probably screw it up, but I’m determined to err with overzealousness or bad acting, not with a narcotic drone. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some lines to rehearse.
Author of Pyres
release date: 16 October 2007
St. Martin’s Minotaur
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