Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Have author readings just about run their course as a meaningful exercise?
Don’t know about you, but I stopped going to them some time ago. I started to find them more awkward than rewarding, especially, as an author, having done quite a few of them myself. I didn’t like them at all, nor did they help me move books on any measurable level.
Sure, it’s kind of interesting, from a voyeuristic standpoint, to see the writer standing up there behind the podium, and close too. It’s like spotting Reese Witherspoon at a restaurant. But take the celebrity-gazing factor out of the equation — and most writers are far from celebrities, let’s face it — and you have an uncomfortable introvert being forced to read his own words to a crowd of strangers with faces of rapt anticipation pointing up at him. Thrill me!
I think the first hint I got that I wasn’t enamored of these things anymore was when the excellent novelist, Robert Stone, was a piece of statuary in a plush sweater at his reading. Maybe he wasn’t feeling well that night, but he was all but inanimate, never looking up from his pages. His voice was quiet. He didn’t seem to be into it one bit, and, to be honest, I couldn’t blame him. Generic suburban bookstores ought to be classified a new circle of Hell. Around the same time, I saw T. Coraghessan Boyle read from his cereal book, and while he tried to put some verve into his renditions, it felt a little like amateur performance art.
Then there was the talented young writer I once met at a conference who read at A Clean Well-Lighted Place For Books in San Francisco, who made the mistake of using a female voice for women and a male voice for men. To complicate matters, one of the women was elderly, so he used an elderly female voice. At least for the first couple of minutes. When he realized it wasn’t going over very well, he reverted to his own voice for the rest of the reading. Mightily flushed, too.
I’ve seen a few good ones, of course. W. P. Kinsella was terrific at Cody’s Books in Berkeley, reading from Box Socials. Long time ago, William Least Heat Moon did a nice job at Graham Chapel, Washington University in St. Louis. Bob Shacochis too. I saw Seamus Heaney read in London one time. Elie Wiesel was mesmerizing when I attended his reading at my college. Anne Lamott was funny. I paid to see Tom Robbins in a live interview setting, and that was great, but when I tried to go to one of his readings in a local book store the crowd was too big and I couldn’t get in. A lot of celebrity-gazers that night.
Maybe the problem is that there isn’t much writers can do “live” other than read. But people who go to these things, it seems to me, expect a performance, expect the writer to be at least slightly bigger than life, to be entertaining, dynamic, and probably good-looking too. We all don’t have these things going for us, though, do we. Like I said, introverts a lot of the time. Reticent. Thoughtful. Performance is the last thing we had in mind when we started writing, sequestered in our rooms.
I prefer hearing from an author strictly through her books. That’s where I get her exactly the way she wants to be gotten, not through a filter of stage fright or manic storytelling. Just her words on the page.
J.D. Salinger had it just about right.
What do you think? Do you go to readings? Do they satisfy or disappoint? And do you always buy the author’s book when you go to a reading?
(Image via The Carmichael Library)