It takes a strong will—or a contrary nature—not to get caught up in the gloom and doom surrounding the written word these days. Libraries are closing, publishers are struggling, and major booksellers are shuttering their stores (though not before some employees get the last laugh). Still, as new forces sweep away the old, there’s one literary tradition that can’t disappear soon enough for me: the author reading.
I know, I know. Author readings are a time-honoured part of the literary scene, a way for the solitary writer to break out of seclusion and rejoin the world. A way to connect, really connect, with her readers. But before you clutch your copy of Mockingjay and keel over, let me explain.
Writers need a lot of skills. They need a firm grasp of storytelling, good grammar, imagination, and an eye for detail and continuity. Not to mention the ability to tell “its” from “It’s” (you’d be surprised how rare that particular party trick’s getting).
A talented writer brings all those goods, and more, to the table, whether he spins popular sci-fi tales or esoteric works nominated for the Man Booker Prize. On paper, writers grab our attention and transport us to other worlds. Unfortunately, It’s a rare author indeed who can bring that skill to a live performance—and that’s exactly what a reading is.
If you think about it, we enjoy dozens of spoken performances every day. Radio DJs, TV shows, comedians: whether they’re giving a speech or a traffic update, good performers engage their audience. They work on things like breath and timing and cadence and pitch. The best ones master their craft the same way the best writers focus on plot and character. They quickly learn not to wear washed-out gray sweaters or shuffle through their notes while the audience fidgets.
But sitting hunched over the keyboard or scribbling away in the back of a coffee shop doesn’t leave much time for learning how to become a performer. It involves a completely different set of skills. Which is why, all too often, author readings turn into the equivalent of the dreaded PowerPoint presentation: dull beyond belief and guaranteed to have even the most ardent fan eyeing the clock and wondering how long before the coffee and cookies are trotted out.
It’s no accident that this Onion article rings so painfully true. “You just have to remind yourself that You’re not going to be able to pack the room with half a dozen fans every time,” notes the ever-hopeful (and entirely fictional) author.
When the magic happens, when that happy confluence of writing and performing occurs, It’s a joy. Witness this sample of Stephen Fry reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the tiny green sample button is below the cover). Douglas Adams wrote the book, but Fry’s a prolific scribbler in his own right, and his delivery here proves It’s possible to do both well.
In general, I think the slow demise of author readings bodes just as well for writers as it does for readers. We don’t expect playwrights to bring their own words to life on stage. They leave the performance of those words to the professionals?the actors. Who knows? Book readings might suddenly take a popular upswing if novelists did the same.
I can just see it now: Joanna Lumley reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Now That’s a performance I’d pay to see.