Charles McNair on the impact of live readings...if only someone would show up

In Paste Magazine today, Charles McNair wonders: Does public reading sometimes seem anachronistic?
We see crowds for writers like Billy Collins and Anne Lamott, among others of the most gifted among us. But these throngs have much to do with celebrity, it seems to me, and less to do with a love of hearing good work read aloud in an author’s voice. You don’t get standing-room only very often at the local writers open mic night.

I was freshly reminded this past week of the impact a good reader has on an audience and how a good reader can “sell,” or illuminate, the written work itself...
He goes on to wax poetic about a recent Justin Taylor event and readings in general, and I agree with all that. But how do we get people to come out?

One answer is the sort of lit/music smashup Harlan Coben and Missy Higgins got together last year when he was touring his latest novel. Colleen and I went to see them at the Firehouse Saloon in downtown Houston. The place was packed with mystery fans, music lovers, and lesbians. (Best. Audience. Ever.)


I agree with the idea of combining music and literature, or other arts. I think, for instance, it would be cool for the local Indie bookstore (if there are any left) to have a reading night where visual artists can show their work as well.

It also seems that University-sponsored events are pretty well attended. If you can get the support/advertisement of a local college, that can go a long way. The poetry night here at UHCL is ALWAYS standing room only, and is a lot of fun. But that's partly because people are coming together to support and listen to each other, and not just hear one person read. That's the biggest problem with single-author readings, I think--that if it's just one author, it's hard to create a buzz.

It's probably terrible, but in the back of my mind, I'm already planning my launch. Don't know where I'll have it, but I do know WHAT I'll have. And it will be book-related music. ;) My problem with most readings is that they are boring--and the author reads for far too long. To make that work, the author not only needs a bit of performance savvy, but needs to choose a segment of the work that works aloud AND is brief enough for the audience to digest and to seduce them into wanting to hear more.

Then whip out the book and sell it, baby. :)
Anonymous said…
I would have to agree with Ms. Paterson. Combining the arts for greater audience participation is essential. However, I do not agree that reading aloud should be done away with. If we don't give other people, especially our children, the chance to engage in and enjoy hearing the writing of others spoken aloud we miss a vital opportunity to give them a unique experience. Some of my best memories as a young person just learning to write was hearing other writers read their prose and poetry aloud in a small coffee bar in Louisiana. It has helped me to develop my own performance style for the works I read now that I am older. I think the problem is we don't perform in the right places. We don't go to career days at schools, give readings where the people have begun to congregate because we, like the rest of humanity, want to sell our work rather than have it enjoyed by the largest number of people--whether they are interested in buying it ot not. I am grateful I grew up in a time when people were not so concerned about the ownership of words--as if you can really own them. Instead, things were written and shared just for the knowledge or enjoyment imparted. I think the best way to get people to readings is to have short readings at popular events rather than readings simply for their own sake. If writing is a business, then we need to start thinking like businessmen and women and placing our words and works where they will get the most exposure--which may mean going to the audience rather than waiting for them to come to us. When I get to planning the launch for my book--I want to share small snippets of it in unexpected places, so as to whet the imagination of my hearers and make them, as Kathryn Paterson says, to seduce them into wanting to read more and more...
"I think the problem is we don't perform in the right places." You hit the nail on the head, Anonymous (and who are you, by the way, because that was a danged good comment). I've been thinking about that a lot too. And with the advent of YouTube, why CAN'T we read snippets of our work that way? I know the publishers might worry about copyright infringement, but wouldn't it be great to have that as an option?

We can turn this around; I know we can.

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