A FEW MONTHS back, The Observer was at a reading on the Lower East Side that would not end. The reader, a prominent magazine editor, had been staring at a stack of computer paper and talking softly for 30 minutes. He was the last reader. The night had begun at 8:00 and it was already well past 10:00. The room was crowded and hot. The bar was unreachable. The audience, following protocol and remaining silent, exchanged restive looks that suggested mutiny, checking the time every minute in disbelief. Forty-five minutes passed. The reading continued.
Is it a coincidence that this is how parents get their children to go to sleep? It is a dark fate, indeed, the reading that drags on and on, where the only person who has lost interest more than the audience is the author, the room lost in a purgatory of pauses for laughter, met by awkward silences.
“What really drives me crazy is that kind of readers’ cadence that everyone adapts,” said Andy Hunter, one of the editors of Electric Literature, which throws some of New York’s better literary events. “It’s like two beats down and then one beat up. It’s like some kind of profound way that—I’m gonna try to do it,” and here the inflection in his voice began to change: “People think this will make people understand that they mean this so much. Writers aren’t performers. Most writers are introverted people who didn’t have friends in high school and ended up writing books.” While these turgid, awkward, too-often sexless events are an evil necessity, not enough people enjoy them to justify their existence.
Authors attend readings in the hope that people will in turn show up for theirs. Bookstores organize them so that potential customers might linger and, you know, buy books. This isn’t always what happens, though. Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Books on Prince Street, recalled the time the store held a Harry Potter event and no one was buying books. They’d already purchased them on Amazon.
“But now they were in our store having fun,” she said. “I thought, ‘I must be doing something wrong.’ We haven’t been able to monetize events by book sales. I mean, we get listings, we get exposure for the store, but that’s a very, very inexact science.”
Recently, the store has decided it will start charging in the future for “top notch” events. But even Ms. McNally, whose store has a packed schedule of programming each month, isn’t too keen on readings.
“We’re increasingly moving away from the reading model,” she said. “We have authors in conversation, Q&A sessions. I’ve been saying this since I opened the store: the traditional reading format is broken. There’s no reason to pay for it. I think you have to have a great events programming and charge later. I don’t think it’s there yet, but it’s getting there.”
The greatest fear for any writer is that no one will show up. To lure an audience, Jon-Jon Goulian, author of the cross-dressing memoir The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, advertised that the first five men to show up in skirts would get a free copy of the book. Surprisingly, Raleigh, N.C., had the best man-in-skirt ratio; most other cities didn’t even try.
“In Asheville,” he said, “There was this guy who just happened to put on a skirt that day and happened to be in the bookstore. He was just browsing! He clearly didn’t know me. And I said to this guy, who looked a little stoned, ‘Hey man, I’m giving a reading and if you sit down and listen to me you’ll get a free copy of my book.’ He seemed genuinely excited by this, and said he would definitely stick around and listen. Five minutes later, when I started reading, he walked out of the store and never came back.”
A good reader is either a natural performer, or knows how to throw a party. At the release for The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt at powerHouse Arena, the bar was better stocked than most weddings (as with anything, booze helps). Zadie Smith does voices. Sara Marcus, who likes readings, sings the lyrics to the Riot Grrrl songs included in her book Girls to the Front. Colm Tóibin studied for a time with Donal McCann, the actor who played Gabriel in John Huston’s The Dead.
“I worked with him in Belfast for three days,” Mr. Tóibin said. “I studied everything he did with his voice and everything he did with a microphone. Breathing, stopping, lingering on a certain phrase, giving a certain sentence enough breath. If you can do it properly the audience will listen to you. Read the work properly and introduce it properly, and I suppose the result of that is that someone might read your book.”
For most publishing houses, though, selling books at a reading is nothing but a pipe dream. Mark Krotov, an assistant editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux who co-organizes the publisher’s reading series at Russian Samovar with fellow editor Chantal Clarke, says they stopped bringing the readers’ books to the event because no one was buying them. But, he said, “most authors enjoy the ability to interact with people who hopefully might be reading their book.” In a time when thoughtful book reviews are becoming something of an endangered species, readings are an easy way of promoting a title. “There’s a lot of books out there,” Mr. Krotov said, “There’s less of an opportunity to get great coverage of them.”
But really, who wants to hear someone mumble from the pages of a book for 30 minutes? James Ellroy outlined his rules for readings in his Paris Review interview. Let this set a standard (MFA students take heed):
“I semimemorize the passage so that I can stand at the podium and share eye contact with the audience. I read shorter sections with as few differentiations in dialogue as possible. Never go long. Never try the audience’s patience. Never put in something too plot-deep. Never hem, haw, pause or do anything that isn’t dramatically effective. How many times have you seen people go for 40 minutes, lose it routinely, wet the page, cough, fart, belch into the microphone, say ‘um’ and do everything short of take a shit on stage? It’s deadening.”
Charles Dickens was the first author to give elaborate readings. He often read in public squares in front of thousands. People would actually scalp tickets on the street. Dickens’s tour of America earned him close to $40,000 (a modest advance today, but a fortune in the 19th century). This kind of extravagance is hardly typical these days. Every writer has horror stories from book tours: only two people show up (both distant relatives), an author arrives to an entirely unexpecting staff at an out-of-town bookstore or—perhaps worst of all—the audience simply doesn’t want to be there.
Last year, Sam Lipsyte read with Adam Haslett at the Free Library in Philadelphia under the dreaded circumstances that could stop any reading before it even begins: a cold winter’s night. The Free Library happens to be a place where many itinerant people take shelter from the frigid air. Half of the attendees were there to see the authors read, while everyone else was wrapped tightly in blankets, sitting in the audience napping. During the Q&A session, a woman awoke abruptly from a deep slumber.
“She said, ‘Yeah I have a question,’” Mr. Lipsyte recalled. “‘Who the hell are you guys?’” Mr. Lipsyte conceded to the woman that she had a “very good point.”
In most cases, poetry is an exception. As a form it was initially meant to be read out loud, unlike novels. The nuances of rhythm, accent and internal rhyme crystallize when spoken. Paul Muldoon, The New Yorker’s poetry editor, is one of the great readers alive today. His voice alters with every change in tone and he’ll often pace around a room, his whole body responding to his intricate rhythms. He’s a performer, but as a testing ground, he doesn’t see a reading’s usefulness.
“The idea that one might ‘try out’ a poem in front of an audience is a bit like inviting 500 people to dinner and ‘trying out’ a new recipe one’s cooked for the first time,” Mr. Muldoon said. “Of course, sometimes there are revelations when one reads a piece aloud. An infelicitous phrase, an awkward rhythm. Unless infelicity and awkwardness are what the poem has in mind. The business of reading aloud is a performative one. As such, it’s completely manipulative. One’s usually not learning a lot from the experience.”
And even the best poetry readings are prey to the format’s long-winded flaws.
“My worst reading memory was with two Irish poets at the 92nd Street Y,” he continued. “The entire thing should have taken an hour. The first poet read for 45 minutes. Not to be outdone, the second read for 45 minutes. Then it was my turn.”
It turns out, many of the best readings have very little to do with reading. In Boston, Rick Moody and Wesley Stace performed together, singing songs and sharing stories. According to Mr. Stace, the event was a rousing success. Both “readers” had forgotten their books in the hotel room.