Written Words, Aloud

Of public readings.


May 19, 2014

Well, teaching. Grading. Theses. Office hours. Helping run a program. Conflict resolution. Visiting writers. National conference. University lit mag. Graduation. Publishing project soon to be announced. Kids.

Yes, but what else have I been up to? Did a mini-tour for the new book around our spring break, reading and signing in the Florida Panhandle, New Orleans, Lake Charles, Houston, and Austin. I enjoy reading, though there’s always a wisp of stress, the slight uncertainty of whether the audience will start looking at their phones, or drag me from behind the podium and run me out of town on a rail. Some of our MFA candidates dread their graduate readings unto death itself, and while we’re a mostly friendly mob, I get it.

(Most tips online about how to read one’s work don’t apply to literary writers: Keep readings to “2-4 minutes” and “say the words as what they are. ‘Cold’ should be spoken as if your breath was made of ice….” But it’s good advice not to be afraid, even of oozing: “Just write your heart out. I promise you that's what matters. I would much, much rather find a great, unusual, distinctive book by a phobic writer covered in oozing sores who lives in a closet than a decent but not amazingly original book….”)

Everyone I’ve met on the road couldn’t be nicer, more supportive or generous. My family went with me; we walked the white beaches of the Emerald Coast and sat at a sidewalk café in the Garden District, eating artisanal pizza and drinking New Orleans tap water from stoppered cobalt bottles. One might even say I started feeling human again.

Yet the reason for being (there) reminded me constantly of how odd the activity of public reading is. That is: Why read published work aloud? Isn’t the technology of ink on paper meant to capture what’s needed? Isn’t it even partly the measure of a writer that his pages convey intention? We say we like to hear the author read it as intended, but that’s also probably not as important for prose as it is for poetry.

I used to go to many readings when I lived in Chicago. Gwendolyn Brooks, who I had the honor of hosting as an undergrad, was a wonderful reader, and it was instructive to hear the rhythms she intended, lots of enjambment I hadn’t seen. But then there was the National Book Award-winning novelist without personality, and the Pulitzer winner who (badly) acted his short stories out as he read them (histrionically). Now I host three readings and attend six each year as part of my job, and all our guests, including Richard Bausch, Pam Houston, BH Fairchild, and Duff Brenna, have been excellent.

In the end people do or don’t enjoy hearing texts read aloud, I suppose, the way they either like illustrations in their books or don’t want to be distracted from what they’d imagined. I drift pleasurably at readings, plays, concerts, and lectures, and often feel myself coming to, wondering what happened in the time I was gone. Where was I in those lost moments?, I chide myself. (Lithuania, it turns out.)

When I was young, readings were celebrity sightings exactly analogous to seeing the actor who wasn't Mr. Whipple sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Santa Monica, and when my date pressed him to say why she knew him, he replied, "I've been in many, many things." Readings served my curiosity about the physical being whose work appeared on my bookshelf with the whisper of wings. I can attest, as a fan, that it’s a kick to walk up to TC Boyle and tell him how much you like that one story of his. (He looks puzzled over which one in a long career you mean. The one with the two guys who go to that thing, you say. He has no idea. You begin to doubt yourself. He looks at you intently, waiting.) Or to have gotten a first edition of Infinite Jest signed by David Foster Wallace to give to a friend. (You didn’t buy one for yourself. You didn’t care for the reading, you see. DFW. You didn’t care for his selection that day. The friend who has the book is selling it to fund his new business.)

There’s a standard format for literary readings that most everyone I’ve known follows: Brief intro, couple of shorter pieces or one long, topic- or craft-talk between, 30-40 minutes in a university setting (more like 20-30 in a bookstore), with Q & A after that. Oddly, many bookstores promote these readings as “talks.” What they probably have in mind is either certain kinds of nonfiction—self-help, political, motivational, near-death—or else those rare writers who are also performers, such as environmental/labor activist Jeff Biggers, or novelist and memoirist Scott McClanahan.

I know I’ll never be those guys, and so here’s Ben Myers in The Guardian: “The question is: do readers expect their writers to be performers too?” “We're living in era where a writer can't just write. They have to be out there. I understand that. Some would argue that readings are part of a writer's job…. I know I'm not shy, but reading something so personal as my own work? No. I would genuinely rather jiggle my bare genitals at an audience than do that. In fact, I'm available for bookings. Maybe not children's parties though.”

Then there’s Cheever: “We all have a power of control, it’s part of our lives: we have it in love, in work that we love doing. It’s a sense of ecstasy, as simple as that. The sense is that ‘this is my usefulness, and I can do it all the way through.’ It always leaves you feeling great. In short, you’ve made sense of your life.” One might apply this to doing readings as a desirable adjunct to writing the work. All it really takes is balls.


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