In this third installment of three articles, draft editor Mark Polanzak talks about why literary readings suck and how to make them better.
The three occurrences that most riveted the crowd at the last three readings I attended:
1) At Q & A time, a man was called on who said: “I’ve never heard of the book, and I missed your reading, but I’ve just looked at the back of your novel here, and, jeez, you must be amazing, man.” To which the reader/author had to sort of respond to the obviously indigent and hammered bookstore patron with an awkward, “Thank you.” Everyone in the crowd whispered and shuffled around.
2) A bookstore patron squeezed by the reader/author at microphone to get to the section of reference books beyond and scanned the shelves (literally bumping into the reader) for his wanted book while the reading puttered ever forward. The crowd focused largely on the plot in the background: would he find the reference book he needed? (He did!)
3) The man right in front of me fell asleep, made known to me and everyone else by the audible snoring. The man in front of the sleeping man turned around, observed the sleeping man and hit him on the shoulder, rousing the snoozing book lover. Everyone felt the tension, the conflict, and resolution. But not in the story being read.
A writer at the MFA program I attended taught me a beautiful game that can be played at readings, a game that has helped me to listen more closely, enjoy more fully, and smile regularly. The game is this: Before each reader, you make a bet on which couple few words will be used during the piece. “The” and “I” and “Masturbate” and other obvious choices are off-limits, obviously. I remember the bets of that first reading with the gambling-writer: he chose “milk” and “honey.” I chose “hand” and “spirit.” There is real joy that accompanies hearing the word you’ve chosen, not to mention monetary gain. When, once, I made a radical bet that “fox” would be uttered and was actually uttered by the fifth (the FIFTH) reader of the night: pure ecstasy and pride. This is all cynical, of course. But it’s the only way I can get through most readings while actually listening closely and enjoying myself.
But I love reading. I love writing. I love this stuff. Still, I find little to no pleasure in a reading. What’s the problem here? There are technical and ideological reasons for this displeasure with something I – at least on paper – should enjoy. There are some good articles about how to create a successful reading through good concrete planning, which you can find on the web. And these should be implemented. However, I am far more concerned with the philosophical and abstract reasons for why readings don’t work. And I have a vision for how readings should be.
Writing and reading are solo activities. We write by ourselves, sneak away, shut the door. It’s necessary. We also read by our lonesome. Although fifty other commuters may be all around us, we are engaged in a supremely isolating activity. Reading requires creativity on the part of the audience, unlike any other form of art of entertainment. We need to hear the voice in our head, conjure the pictures and the rest. The majority of our experiences with live readings of literature occurred in our youth, when our parents read to us. Your mom did the different voices of the animals. Your dad knew when to raise his voice, to lower it creepily when the evil witch entered. All that. All things readers don’t do at readings. They are reading serious hard-to-figure-out shit, written by a mystic. So, doing voices or creating atmosphere is strictly off-limits (though George Saunders does it well, but he’s one in a million). But after the nighttime parent-readings, soon reading becomes a silent and solo activity.
However, now, at readings, we silent solo reader-conjurers and we meticulous solo-writers are thrust into a room together with bright lights and shitty plastic folding chairs. And we expect this to work? My first solution to the big problem of readings is to end all readings. But because some people in every city genuinely do want to see an author, we could have Author Parties instead of readings. At these Author Parties, bookstores would put out a podium with microphone and the piece of shit folding chairs, but the author wouldn’t get behind the podium, and the audience wouldn’t sit. And where there was once a little shitty folding table with a few bottles of water on it for the readers, there would be a much larger shitty folding table with wine and beer on it. Many copies of the book would be available and prominently displayed, of course. But interested readers and fans wouldn’t have to wait until after the reading to line up in the sad-short line to get their copy signed. They could just walk right up to the author and say, “Hi!,” shake hands, drink a beer, and then say, “Would you sign this?” And if enough of the people got drunk enough and enough of the interested readers wanted it enough, they would start a chant: “Rea-DING! Rea-DING! Rea-DING!” The author would hear this starting up, getting louder and louder. The author would feel the love for her work bouncing all over the room. The author would blush. The audience would clap and chant and cheer as the author acquiesces and heads for the podium. The author would take down the last gulp of beer, crack open the novel to the cheers of the crowd, the chant breaking down into shrieks of joy. And the author would read, doing the voices, creating the mood through raising and lowering pitch, while everyone drank and beamed and stood, because fuck those folding chairs. And perhaps someone walking by the window of the bookstore – someone not that into books, because of- well, you know – would peer in, curious about the commotion. This stranger would wander on into the bookstore, drawn to the energy and love, grab a beer, listen to the reading, see all of the excitement on people’s faces, and then pick up the novel he’d never heard of before and buy it. And then that person would read it. And then, with hope, he would like it and shrug. Then we’d have something!
Mark Polanzak has published stories in Third Coast, The Southern Review, and The American Scholar, among others. He teaches writing at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. His first book POP! is out this spring from Stillhouse Press.
This post is part of our ongoing web series MARGINALIA about all things writing, reading, & learning. To submit your own experience, please read our guidelines.