LIDIA YUKNAVITCH STOOD in a kids’ swimming pool, in a swimsuit, and read aloud while friends poured water over her head. Steve Almond played a slideshow that spun images of people with bad haircuts. Chuck Palahniuk regularly launches prizes into the audience. What kind of crazy spectacles are these? Comedy routines? Performance art? Carnival hawking? No. Each is a respected literary author doing what used to be called a reading of their work.
No doubt literary readings have mutated over the years. I remember one from 2000 on campus at the University of San Francisco. It was a faculty event, and each of the six or so instructors read for a few minutes. I’ll never forget Lewis Buzbee reading his short story “Hairpin,” transfixing me with the tale of a man who’d lost his wife and child in a car wreck that was his own fault. Also at U.S.F., Aimee Bender read from her newly released The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, wowing us with her Marquez-ian take on modern American life. I also remember the son of a soda pop magnate reading from his memoir with impeccable delivery and pacing, taking us through his unique childhood with the mastery of a stage actor.
Still, most of the readings I’ve attended over the years have been low-key, sparsely attended and—let’s face it—boring. I remember one author at U.S.F. stammering for twenty minutes through what I guess was his comic novel. I felt bad for him until the Q & A started, when he answered questions without a hint of self-consciousness, apparently oblivious to how poorly his performance had gone. I also remember six too-cool-for-school authors reading at a bookstore in Ashland, Oregon. They arrived twenty minutes late, rushed through their words, and after the last one finished, the first one said “bye” in a way that strongly hinted there will be no questions. Another time, a reader took several minutes to explain the concept behind her essay, only to reveal that it was nothing more than a rote recounting of a walk through a park. At less-than-stellar readings, I veg in my chair and count the minutes until I can browse the stacks and socialize afterwards, or get out of there. Kind of like church.
If my back were against the wall I’d say I like readings. I like seeing if a writer can deliver their words in a way that makes me glad I came. (One key is to slow down. No one can understand what you’re saying if you read like you’re trying to catch a train.) I’ve self-published two novels, with all the requisite promotion, and I take some pride in making my readings entertaining. I’ve had ones go well, like the one in 2003 at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, Arizona, where forty or fifty people showed up. A toddler wandered up to me as I was being introduced, and the kid and I had a funny exchange that seemed set the tone for the rest of the event. I read from my debut novel, got a few laughs and managed to bring my excerpt across enough to make someone say afterwards, “I’m usually bored at these, but I liked yours.”
I’ve had them go wrong too. My first professional reading ever, at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, had exactly zero people in attendance. I stood at the podium and my wife took pictures while I pretended to take questions from a non-existent crowd. At another ghost town reading, this one at a bookstore on the Oregon coast, I browsed the shelves as I waited for fifteen minutes after the scheduled time so I could leave. The bookstore manager, apparently feeling guilty for the poor showing, rounded up three people from town to sit and listen, so I had to go through with it anyway. None of these tops the Laurie Notaro reading I heard about where two older women sat in the audience. As Notaro started her piece, one woman yelled, “Get to the sex part.” Notaro responded, “Um, that’s in next week’s reading,” so the pair got up and left. Bad author events have to be fought through. It’s necessary to smile, keep from rushing, and be eternally grateful for anything that’s not a slap in the face.
What I’ve surmised from my decade of public reading is that your reading is not the show. Yes, you still have to read, but in a world with infants, cell phones, loud customers and city vehicles that go beep-beep-beep when backing up, you’re probably never going to have the perfect environment to deliver a stellar reading. Your best bet is to roll with whatever happens, ignore the disturbances with good humor or—better yet—incorporate them into your schtick. See any incongruity as a chance to charm, and you just might.
I’ve always believed literary readings could offer more than a rote pass at Chapter One. In 2005 I got to work on a performance that incorporated an excerpt from my first novel, as well as triggering sound effects and songs played by me on solo acoustic. The resulting “musical rendering” was a blast, and I would’ve booked a nationwide tour if it’d made any sense.
This experience taught me that I should incorporate music into my readings whenever possible. When it comes down to it, most people—even book people—prefer a musical performance to a reading. It also makes scheduling a reading easier. If you’ve ever doubted this, call a bookstore and tell them you’d like to do a reading with some music thrown in. Then call a music venue and tell them the same. Your local bookstore might give you the time of day. Your local music venue will never take your call again.
So I’m hardly against authors incorporating things besides reading into their events. Still, I wonder where the line is. I’ve been to readings where the difference between what goes on behind the podium and a bad comedy sketch is perilously thin. A writer’s focus is always (or should be) on their writing, and attempts to entertain can come across as awkward or slapdash. After such a performance, I tend to have strong feelings about the author, but I often have no idea what I think about their book.
All this reminds me of a story once told to me by a musician friend. This friend–call him Ray–was raised in an Evangelical household, and as a young singer-songwriter he became a successful Christian artist, selling tens of thousands of records. After his first CD, his label found his music too provocative, and Ray opted to sever ties with the Christian music world. He mentioned hitting the road with Christian artists back in the day.
“What was that like?” I asked.
“Going on tour with Christian bands.”
I pictured prayer circles before gigs, crucifixes on bus dashboards, Bible readings on days off.
“These tours were easily the most debaucherous I’ve ever been on.”
He went on to tell me about a Christian band’s drummer who received oral sex from the wife of the lead singer of another Christian band; a suitcase on a tour bus that held crystal meth and other drugs; and the night Ray’s girlfriend (they broke up the next day) went down on the married lead singer of another Christian band. “I must’ve had the gift for walking into rooms where Christian musicians were getting blow jobs from their fans,” Ray said. “Apparently the thinking was that getting a blow job from a fan was not the same as cheating on your spouse.”
I sense a similar disconnect at some author events. It’s like the authors could be promoting anything, as if their books were interchangeable with any product, like they just stumbled upon writing on a long, winding path toward self-glorification. It doesn’t seem to be about the book at all, but where the book gets them.
In the end, the proof is in the pudding. If you’re an author who can pull off a comedy routine like Sarah Silverman and kick ass on the page like Zadie Smith, more power to you. Just remember, amongst the hijinks, to tell me something about your book. I can go anywhere in the world and find some new, clever version of The Gong Show. Only through your writing can I achieve absolution.