May 7, 2015

Ban questions from literary readings


Put those hands down.

Put those hands down. Let the author sign copies and get a quick drink with her publicist.

Josephine Livingstone had a hit piece on Gawker yesterday titled “Ban Men From Literary Readings.” She argues that a “Q&A session after a reading isn’t a contest,” and that comments from men who are eager to share related thoughts on the subject are tolerated in this professional environment, when these same lines would never fly in a classroom:

“Now, I haven’t read your book, but I very much look forward to doing so. Your conversation prompted me to recall…”

“What you seem to say in your book—I haven’t read it yet, but based on this evening’s talk—egregiously overlooks the contribution of…”

“This isn’t so much a question as a comment. The way you describe your process reminds me of the book I myself wrote in the early 1980s…”

I look at the friend beside me, then the one on the other side of me. My arm is getting tired. Neither of them meet my aghast eye; they do not bother to be surprised. I keep the arm up. Don’t you see me? I want to yell. Don’t you know a woman my age would never ask a question without having read the fucking book? But no, the moderator doesn’t seem to know! My face goes all hot.

Her bottom line is that the fault lies with the moderators, who should be encouraging a more constructive discussion. “This isn’t a question so much as a comment” is a line that’s all too familiar to most of us.

Some bookstore event managers are able to out-maneuver the commenters who want to share their theses, recent radio shows they heard on the subject, or how the protagonist’s experience relates to their grandmothers’ childhoods. But I’d argue we can prevent this by taking Livingstone’s point one step further.

Ban questions after readings. Many of these events take place on publication day, when the majority of the audience (assuming the whole place isn’t chock full of immediate family, the staff of the literary agency that represents the author, or every assistant in the publishing house) will not have read the book before attending.

That means readers who are eager to engage may lean back on sharing what the prose, timely news story, or what the trip to the bookstore made them think about. Furthermore, many literary reading attendees are encouraged to go there because their MFA professors recommended this writer, or they have interest in writing their own books in the future.

These are generally very good people to have at your reading! They have read other books that are similar to this one. They subscribe to newspapers and magazines. But they are here to learn about the process of writing or publishing, rather than gleaning answers to the questions you raise in your latest work. Which is stacked in front of you, ready to be signed.

The questions that they ask sound like:

What they mean is:

Chances are these are questions the author in the front of the room can’t provide. Authors may have a little coaching from a good publicist, but for the most part, they’re performing this reading to sell copies of their books. They’re not reading to encourage the audience to follow their career trajectory. They already made it over the hushed silence that settles over the audience when the Q&A begins. They’re thinking about a glass of wine after the event, or how to get back to whatever modestly-priced hotel they’re staying in tonight.

Not to mention that the bookstore needs to sell a good stack of books to earn out keeping the lights on an extra couple of hours, and keeping at least two staff members there late. Those staff members are ready to start lining audience members up so they can close at a reasonable hour.

Sarah Manguso read at BookCourt a few weeks ago and, though this is very roughly paraphrased, responded to a layered question with, “That’s a very smart question. I’m going to need to take some time, probably weeks, to think about the second part of it. What I think you’re trying to ask with the first part is….” A nimble public speaker can find a way to expand upon the themes of her book, or questions she’s been asking herself over the course of writing, without making the person who asks the question feel embarrassed. A great reader can give an engaging answer to an uninteresting question.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s appropriate to give an audience member a hard time! Margaret Atwood comes to mind as the kind of no-nonsense author who has a winning way of teasing audience members who are trying a little too hard to show her, if not the rest of the room, that they’ve read her book.

Livingstone suggests hiring a moderator who isn’t intended to draw a crowd:

Resist the institutional inertia that heaves you in this direction! Instead, ask somebody who has managed a group of people directly within recent memory. Hire a teaching assistant, a kindergarten teacher, an aerobics instructor, a bus driver.

Not every writer can be expected to be quick on her feet. Let’s start a movement to end question-and-answer sessions all together. Or at least find a moderator who will keep the Q&A short. Three questions is really a nice number, so we can all get a signed copy and head next door for a glass of wine.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.