“Readings can be tricky affairs,” Irish author Aidan Higgins wrote. “There’s nothing more calculated to cause a gritting of the teeth, a shudder of the spirit or even a rising of the gorge than to be voluntarily confined in a Function Room to endure an hour-long ranting by the author in person, of predigested matter now regurgitated, delivered in a monotonous drone. It is enough to make a cat laugh or a dog throw up.”
So begins a piece by Douglas Bell in Saturday’s Globe, in which he goes on to wonder why readers “…who experience the writer’s work as an entirely private matter turn out in such numbers to experience it again as a public performance?”
Good question, though I’m glad they do. While it’s true that a bad reading can make you look around for something tall to jump off, a well executed one can be great fun, enhancing the private read and giving another dimension to the work. Also, not everyone at a reading has read the book; for many it’s their introduction. This is a good thing, no? People who haven’t read it are likelier to buy it. Which is why I can’t understand authors who don’t make the most of these events by making it an event rather than a dry reading. How hard is it to offer up a little background to the story, for instance? A bit of chat. A merry anecdote or two about the research or the way such and such a character wouldn’t take no for an answer. Anything.
Granted, public speaking and/or reading is an art and some people are just easier with it than others (recently heard Claudia Dey ‘do’ How to Become a Bush Pilot—now there’s an event; and the first time I heard Ann-Marie MacDonald, well, you forget she’s reading, you think you’ve bought tickets to a one woman play) still… readers seem to fall into three categories.
1/ Naturally brilliant (usually meaning they’ve taken the time to prepare and treat the whole business in a professional manner even if they appear ultra casual).
2/ Naturally enervating (often due to an over-infatuation with one’s own voice).
3/ Naturally somewhere between brilliant and enervating (a tolerable scenario, but why not, with just a soupcon of effort, be so much more… I mean we can all read the stuff ourselves… what the audience wants is not to hear the words but to experience the book through the experience of the author).
I say all this as if I know what I’m talking about. As if I spend my days poncing about entertaining the masses. Pay no attention. Just random thoughts on how maybe to enhance a fairly essential aspect of the The Process, for both reader and listener.
Additions to the list would be welcome!
— use a mic if you’re a soft speaker or if the room warrants it; it’s a rotten business to have to strain to hear
— unless you’re reading a whole short story (in which case, dear god, please make it short) let the audience know a bit about the overall premise of the piece/book
— best not to read the dullest bit even if it has the cleverest words; action is good, humour is best
— mark up places to pause, and then pause there (you will not come off looking like a dork, honest)
— slow down; however slowly you think you’re reading… slow down
— preface and/or break up the reading with those afore-mentioned bon mots and asides to the audience
— leave time for questions, and have a few favourites from past readings that you can share to get things started
Finally, as an audience member, pack a few general questions— even if we haven’t read the book we can ask about the subject matter, or what inspired the writer to begin the project. It’s always so painful when no one raises their hand for the first five minutes. Heart-breaking if it goes on any longer.
Happy reading, happy listening.
Let’s see… I think I’ll start with the bruschetta…