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The Lively and Maybe Lost Art of the Literary Reading

By posted at 6:00 am on July 1, 2011 10

1.
Call it a sign of the times.

To compensate for dwindling sales, some bookstores are apparently starting to charge for readings. Though payment may seem antithetical to the open and accessible spirit of an event marking a book’s publication, the news should come as no surprise. Bookstores are in danger of extinction, and it only makes sense that if a writer’s habitat is in danger, readings will also struggle to survive.

Yet the shift goes beyond the economic changes precipitated by e-books and extends to the realm of author branding. Modern writers are advised to blog about their process, tweet the banal details of their lives and self-promote via book trailers. Lacking an online presence is bookselling suicide, but creating an online identity also lets authors broadcast a voice vastly different from the one that resonates on the printed (or e-reader) page. If I can “meet” an author online, why bother to go to a reading in the first place? It’s not like I can get my Kindle signed.

It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall. And if open access to readings diminishes, will readers grow more familiar with an author’s brand than with the real person behind a text? Considering that packaging and promotion are just as much part and parcel with being writer as creating content, why shouldn’t an author’s public appearances be monetized? Writers have increasingly become products in and of themselves while getting paid less and less for their literary artifacts.

The underlying problem with charging for readings isn’t the cost (though even a few bucks will deter the cash-strapped) but that the very notion of payment turns readings into something they are not: artistic commodities. Authors are not performers; their readings are not meant to be entertaining in a splashy musical sort of way. Readings exist to promote and sell books, but they also serve a more important function: they provide space for writers and readers to directly communicate and transmit ideas, taking the solitary slow drip of the reading process and infusing it directly into the bloodstream.

However, an economic transaction implies a different sort of exchange between writer and reader. Will authors feel compelled to offer something tangible in addition to words intoned? Will they pass out cookies and break into song? Charging for readings problematically conflates books with how said books are marketed and presented, meaning that writers will feel pressure to cater to their (paying) audiences. We all want to get what we pay for, right?

2.
Ever since my very first communication from an author — a purple form letter from Judy Blume — I’ve felt the need to connect with them. Exactly why I felt moved to write Blume I’m no longer sure, but I think it had something to do with Sally J. Freedman, Margaret and Blubber. How could a total stranger create characters that seemed to channel my most private feelings? After many years and countless books I no longer feel that authors are writing expressly for my validation, but the yearning to connect with those who intimately understand the landscape of my inner world hasn’t ceased.

A live reading is a crapshoot, but that’s the point. There’s always the possibility that a writer I revere will turn out to be stilted, less interesting in person than on the page, or just a total jerk. But I don’t really care. I want to know how writers who echo my experiences intone each sentence. I want to discover whether or not the cadence of their voices confirms the meaning of the text in my mind. In short, I want to know who they are, and that’s different from knowing their marketing plan.

coverDistinguishing between a writer and her brand becomes a challenge when Internet exposure reduces complex people to rough sketches. I like being intrigued by writers, and I like discovering them rather than being told how to think about their work. Tao Lin is one who knows how to remain elusive even while maintaining a strong online presence. When I went to hear Lin read, he mumbled his way through a short excerpt and made no eye contact. He spoke in a tumbling monotone that fit the terseness of his prose, and offered laconic responses to questions. The reserved demeanor stood in sharp contrast to his strong online presence. At the end, he drew a smiley face with feet in my copy of Richard Yates. I was in love, for a second.

coverI’m especially curious to hear writers with an unconventional prose voice read. When I went to hear Aimee Bender read from The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the story felt like an extension of herself, as though she was recalling something from a psychedelic childhood rather than reading from a book. I spoke with her afterwards, and she mentioned that when her first book came out, someone asked her what her reading persona would be. “I felt nauseous,” she told me. “It feels disingenuous. What works best is what suits you,” she explained, acknowledging the pressure to brand oneself.

One of my all-time favorite readings was at Chicago’s Book Cellar, where five writers and critics paid homage to David Foster Wallace and The Pale King by reading their favorite selections from the late author’s body of work. A palpable intensity filled the room as the readers summoned Wallace’s voice through his text. I felt most connected to Wallace through Adam Levin, who seemed like he might be fun to grab a beer with, if I actually drank beer.

Yet I knew part of what made it special was that Wallace wasn’t there. Think Salinger, think Bolaño: their absence — online and in the flesh— makes them all the more captivating. It’s precisely the lack of accessibility that makes readers hunger for their work — and their presence.

I’m not quite sure what happens to writers — and readings — when social media self-promotion becomes not just a distraction, but part of the job description. What I do know is that being perpetually plugged in runs counter to the very nature of writing. I admire those who can disconnect and burrow inside long enough to untangle a thread of human experience with which to spin a story. It’s hard but satisfying, and that’s why I get annoyed with myself when I opt for the instant gratification of Facebook (or sometimes the refrigerator) over a sustained writing session.

I worry that having to pay for readings will make writers’ online personas more valuable than the content of their work. I don’t know if I’d trust an author who was packaged with the glossy cellophane usually reserved for pop stars. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy readings, and still believe in their importance: I want to see writers without a filter and know they are flawed and imperfect, and that they struggle to get words out too — yet still carry on. Perhaps in an age of e-readers, we’ve forgotten that tired cliché about not judging a book by its cover.

(Image: Podium in the screening room from spine’s photostream)





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10 Responses to “The Lively and Maybe Lost Art of the Literary Reading”

  1. gabrielle
    at 10:26 am on July 1, 2011

    Great response to this. I particularly loved: “It’s ironic, of course, that as writers become more available online, face-to-face interactions may be put behind a paywall.”

    I feel for independent bookstores and would be willing, as I’ve said elsewhere, to pay a small fee that would go onto a reusable gift card. Undoubtedly, I’m going to buy books from the store, just maybe not that night.

    That being said, your piece made me think about writers as “artistic commodities”–which you say they are not and with which I agree. What a sad time we’re facing.

    Oh, and, Aimee Bender in person is freakin incredible.

  2. Karen S. Elliott
    at 12:00 pm on July 1, 2011

    The ONLY writer I would ever pay to see – Stephen King. I’ve been reading him since h.s. (long time). If I went to a reading and the store asked me for even a couple bucks, I’d turn and walk away. And I’ve got plenty of cash. It’s the principal of the thing. If we all don’t stand up and say, NO! then it will continue. I have been to a couple/few readings, mostly by accident, and it was fun. But I don’t like being pressured to buy the book or pay admission. I would go to see any writer/any genre in any venue just for the enjoyment of it.

  3. Joe Sulock
    at 12:09 pm on July 1, 2011

    I think that you miss the mark. Very few people, as a percentage of the number of people who used to buy books, actually get to hear an author read. Personally, I’ve only once heard an author give a reading of his/her book. It’s a small part of the total experience of selling a book. Many authors never give readings and still other authors that I would like to have seen only give readings in the geographical area that they live. The web postings of an author may be less “real” but its more than most people would ever have in their normal exposure to an author.

  4. Amy
    at 11:39 pm on July 2, 2011

    I have to agree with Joe above…I know very few people who attend readings, and those that do are often ones that are affiliated somehow because of their job-a bookseller, publisher, etc. As an avid reader, I’ve only seen an author once and it really did nothing for me for or against their work…I’d really hate to lose the connection of a beloved author if, in person, they were an idiot.

    I like the whole mystique of authors who keep private. At times on FB I see an author make comments that make me wonder why they feel the need to share (or overshare). I’d rather know too little than too much. Political rants, favorite Farmville activity, etc do nothing for the readers….

    Whether or not bookstores charge for readings doesn’t matter to me as much as selection does. Bookstores need to find a niche that makes us want to shop there, rather than simply contain all the latest mass-market titles. Atmosphere helps, but to fight the big A-monster they have to be personable. I went into one brick & mortar store recently and not only did they not have the title I wanted, but they were too busy watching the C.Anthony trial to look it up. Sad…

  5. Emily M. Keeler
    at 12:20 pm on July 4, 2011

    I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who prefers intimacy, even in a mediated way, with the work rather than the writer.

    I wonder what newer writers, who have no option but to jump through the various publicity hoops of maintaining an ‘online presence,’ will be like as they mature. The internet has a notoriously short memory, so I guess they’ll just have to keep producing content for their various profiles, even as ever younger writers jump into the fray.

    It seems very much like a flawed model. But what to do, what to do?

    Maybe it’s time for publishers (and, yeah, regular people too!) to move the party offline and back into physical space.

  6. yedelstein
    at 12:25 pm on July 8, 2011

    It is not enough now a days to just write an article in the paper or advertise at the local bookstore. With all the new technology, if you want to be successful you have to use the technology to get yourself out there and interest the people. Maybe eReaders are more convenient for some people or less costly but I think nothing can compare to reading a paperback book. Writing is a skill that most do not have; it’s an amazing talent and a gift. Just because an individual can write a book does not mean he has to know how to promote the book on the right websites? Write a blog or tweet his progress to succeed. Should we just go along with the flow of society or make a point and try and promote books the right way?

  7. johnston
    at 11:04 pm on July 9, 2011

    I think there’s something not said here. Plenty of readers out there are tremendous performers. — Donald Antrim comes to mind as someone with a theater background, and he often turns the adjustment of his microphone stand’s height into a mesmerizing event. He is a commanding presence as a reader.

    And Charles Bock, when he toured for his novel Beautiful Children, threw guitar picks into the crowd and gave away posters for his book to those who correctly answered literary trivia. He did what he could to turn his readings into concerts, and I once heard him give a reading that was riveting and funny and emotional as hell, and which blew away one of his much-more beloved contemporaries.

    When Eggers first started reading, McSweeny’s events could include people dressed up as gorillas, and had a Flaming Lips feel to them. One of his readers, a guy who wrote a very good short story collection, Darin something, would play acoustic guitar while he read and at the end of his story, smashed the guitar.

    Sam Lispyte is by all accounts a great reader. Shtyngart. Jennifer Egan. Fiona Maazel. Lorrie Moore could turn a short story into an act of communion with her audience. There’s no small list. And no shortage of bookstores out there trying to put on special events.

    Which is to say there is something to the idea of readers working very hard for their audience, trying to create a connection with those who come to hear them, a link between the work, the person who created it, each person who comes to hear it, and the entire whole linked group. Apparently all that might not matter any more, certainly not if a public is too busy judging someone by a facebook or twitter comment to be curious. Or is too jaded and entitled to sit quietly through a reading without texting. Or or simply has no interest in seeing a reader and having that kind of communal experience — not for free, let alone, godforbid, for the cost of a coffee.

  8. Fiction Writers Review » Blog Archive » Readings as patronage events?
    at 9:01 am on July 27, 2011

    [...] more people would be willing to pay if authors took this Millions essay about the (lost) art of the literary reading to [...]

  9. Dan Holloway
    at 4:21 pm on August 14, 2011

    I have to say I found this a rather confusing piece and wasn’t quite sure what it was arguing. Was it a critique of charging for readings? In which case I don’t quite get it – we pay for music, we pay for film, we pay for theatre, why would we not pay to hear storytellers tell stories? I don’t get why writing is different – or maybe I do, because people still have this weird thing in their head about writers writing books rather than telling stories.

    “I don’t know if I’d trust an author who was packaged with the glossy cellophane usually reserved for pop stars”
    that would be perfectly suitable for the literary equivalent of pop. The examples given by commenters like Johnston seem much more like raw and unpackaged club rock. And that’s the real problem with this article – it generalises and homogenises to the extent where it fails to be able to say anything particularly astute.

  10. The Voice of the Author Attends Every Reading - CultureRamp
    at 12:59 pm on June 27, 2012

    [...] at The Millions, Alizah Salario speculates that the new trend in bookstores charging for author appearances might [...]

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