September 25, 2012

We have time for one more question …


I genuinely like author readings. I do, I enjoy nearly every author event I attend. I realize that being able to say that in such stark terms makes me a minority, even among the people next to me at any given reading, fidgeting in their hard plastic chairs, muffling their coughs, looking at their hands. It’s a trope of the book world that readings are boring, and that’s not wrong. But maybe not every part of readings are equally boring.

On the Guardian Books Blog last week, Lindesay Irvine related a story about an audience at a particular Howard Jacobson reading event. Jacobson’s recent work opens with a scene of increasingly absurd questions being asked of an author. The audience questions after Jacobson finished were, as the rules of anecdote demand, themselves obtuse and belligerent and beside the point. Irvine writes:

Since I’ve been attending public readings, there’ve always been a few people in the audiences grinding very strange axes. … Something about the occasion of an author reading seems to set (some) people off. You sort of wonder whether the problem isn’t that we don’t know how to read anymore, but that we’ve never known how to behave at author appearances.

And he is not wrong there. The majority of questions after readings seem to come in two flavors: the shockingly banal, or the long-winded misplaced non-question. If there were any middle ground it might provide some reprieve, but nope — just those two choices. And while every tired question is tired in the same way (“Where do you get your ideas?” the terrible chorus howls) each endless non-question is a special snowflake  (if snowflakes were made of words, over the course of ten minutes, in the mouths of dry-scalped men in corduroy, glasses filmed with finger grease).

While Irvine’s ultimate conclusion is that reading is and should remain a solitary pursuit, I cannot follow him that far. Venues that host book events have a whole list of reasons why there is value to be had in cramming into a room and having a person mumble at you —- access to the author; a sense of community; a book sale or two — but I’d argue that the mumbling itself has real power. It’s rare that we are read to in our lives anymore, and it can be a more moving experience than many are willing to recognize. In fact, I’d argue that more than the discussions, more than the banter, more than the autographs (though not more than supporting your local bookstore), it is the actual reading that carries any worth at author events. There are only so many discussions of craft or, god forbid, how to be published, that audiences can reasonably be subjected to before we all grow a bit ranty and buy some corduroy of our own. But it is precisely the reading portions that are being limited at many author events. Hosts need to make their events unique in order to sell them to a jaded audience, particularly in a town as full of amazing author events as New York. To do that, they set up discussion panels or debates or short-story burlesque or anything to liven things up. Those elements are fun, and I’m not arguing that there’s no place for them. I simply hope they aren’t becoming more common at the expense of what I love: one sad, shy wordsmith standing behind a poorly-adjusted mic, giving me license to imagine.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.