Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Author readings: do we have to?


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)


6 comments on “Author readings: do we have to?

  1. Mack
    June 11, 2013

    From a personal perspective of writing, at the best of times I actually enjoy it for the chance of observation and interaction. At the worst of times I deal with it because there is always a good conversation afterwards. It may not be with many, often in such circumstances it is with but one or two. But conversation is always worthwhile. It means connecting, it means getting and exchanging ideas.

    Most importantly, author readings are a mean and equally subtle opportunity for audience and author to try on each others shoes. That is something fundamentally human, something we all too often do not even try to do. For a writer, it is something that must be done (this is but one way of many in the arsenal, so to speak) because at the end of the day a writer creates for his audience.

    Whenever I attend one, I absolutely agree that very often they can get awkward. Which is a shame, but in such cases I always notice that there is an atmosphere of passive exposure, an absence of interaction on a human level. Maybe that is a case of how we approach such an event, perhaps it is also a case of organisation.

    I’ve attended such events of authors who have done them by the thousands, and only a very few did not suffer from a sort of attrition. I;ve also attended them where the publishers effectively were the organisation, very often turning it into a strictly passively commercial event by some wierd archaic expectations of how audiences must enjoy and be grateful by definition. Fortunately, I’ve also attended plenty where author and audience found each other.

    I guess it really comes down to how people approach whatever they set out to do or attend. Conditions have to be present to enjoy an atmosphere definately, but it also asks a bit of us all in terms of approach and willingness to share. It never really is a one way road. Or at least it should not be.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 12, 2013

      Thanks, Mack, for this very thoughtful comment. I do agree with many of your points. These things might well be a necessary evil for some authors, or truly rewarding experiences for some readers. But if performance is required of us as writers, a new layer of skill is demanded of us, a new way for traditional publishers to keep the gates, and yet another way for us to fall short.

      Writing a good book is already pretty hard!

      • Mack
        June 12, 2013

        I agree, it certainly takes extra skill. Something which may not even be that directly compatible with the writing itself. At least at first glance.

        Think about it, our writing aims at engaging people. Presentation of that should do the same, and is not necessarily harder, only different.

        I wouldn’t call that a performance though. There is a bit of that, after all we do get on a stage. Then again, we already are on that stage, just not as close to the audience. We don’t have to put on a performance. Simple honesty works best. A writer’s writing attracts an audience that fit each other’s minds and hearts.

        I’ve seen readings that were absolutely utterly boring, scrounging details back and forth. But it did hit home with the author, and with her audience – because it was exactly in line with the tale and its writing. Needless to say, that one wasn’t for me 😛 I’ve also seen others which were a blaze of interaction.

        Traditional publishes are keen to present these kinds of interactions as channels and instruments of sales. Something they are more suited to organise and structure than the actual writers or their audiences.
        Ofcourse sales is a part of it. To be utterly blunt though, what it really comes down to is building of a brand. That brand is the mind of that writer, and its reception by his or her audience. A two way street.

        Most writers I meet tend to shun it, think of it as something to do with writing for the daily bread, or something suitable for lean marketeers or men of showbusiness. It is however what we make of it.
        As I said, honesty always goes furthest. There is no need to treat it as just sales, or an obligatory show.
        Just be there, present the mind, ask for people’s reception. Before you know it, all are engaged in what they love.

  2. 1WriteWay
    June 11, 2013

    I’m on the fence about author readings. I’ve been to a few, but most of those were underwhelming. Usually the author wasn’t a very good reader (and why should he or she be) and/or there was little Q&A. I know it’s a presumed way for authors to market their books, but I don’t know how effective it is. I love to hear authors talk about their writing, especially in interviews like on West Coast Live, but then they can also be more of themselves and less a performance artist. I know that if I ever finally publish a book and I’m told that the only way to drum up sales is to give readings, I’m doomed.

    • Kevin Brennan
      June 12, 2013

      Yep. And then there’s the matter of an unknown author trying to attract an audience to a reading. I found, with many of my own, that the bookstore did no advance promotion, so it was up to me to recruit friends and acquaintances to come and fill the chairs. A friendly crowd, but it kind of defeats the purpose.

      • 1WriteWay
        June 12, 2013

        Yeah, I’ve heard that even with traditional publishing, there’s limits to the support you would get from your publisher/agent for the book reading circuit. Seems counterproductive, but then I don’t have any real experience with this. I’ve participated in and attended readings when I was in college, but then nobody was trying to sell anything (yet). It was just an opportunity to share your writing and you wouldn’t be the only reader. Most times it was great fun, probably because most times they were held in bars 😉

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