Register Saturday | September 30 | 2023

Why Are Literary Readings so Excruciatingly Bad?

"When readings are well-organized and the authors good performers, the result can be memorable. But this happens so rarely that I’m compelled to ask: what’s the point?"

A poet I know likes to talk about his idea for the perfect reading. The room would be reserved, publicity done, books available, refreshments served. Everyone would come and meet and talk…but no one would read. My friend is completely serious about this. He is convinced these occasions serve primarily as social events and, deep down, everyone would rather forego the reading itself. I suspect he’s right.

One of the best depictions of how a literary reading becomes something to be endured instead of enjoyed is to be found in Russell Smith’s comic novel Noise. The protagonist attends a poetry reading in an unventilated room with a strong “odour of feet” and a drunken patron who shouts invective at the small gathering. The distractions mount:

"The dishwashing machine at the bar came to life with a mighty buzz, and Dick’s voice was drowned.  Simultaneously, someone in the front bar put money in the Dukes of Hazzard pinball machine, and it awoke with a synthesized William Tell overture and a fanfare of bells. …Another drunken shout from the bar, and a chorus of shushes from the crowd. “Whatsamatter,’ came the drunken voice, ‘am I in church, or what? Thought it was a bar.’"

Smith’s description is funny because it happens to be entirely accurate. It captures perfectly the stifling atmosphere one often encounters at readings: the tiny, self-conscious audiences; the improperly set up sound systems; the readers who don’t know how to project or crisply enunciate; the forced laughter; the sheer tedium of it all. When readings are well-organized and the authors good performers, the result can be memorable. But this happens so rarely that I’m compelled to ask: what’s the point?

I must confess to a particular perspective on the whole enterprise. Some years back I organized and hosted a reading series, some thirty or more events, which included a wide range of poets and fiction writers. It was an excellent education in many respects, most memorably in regards to how, with few exceptions, most Canadian writers are unhappy and dissatisfied people. But the other things I learned had to do with the work needed to make any event come off smoothly. From orchestrating effective publicity, to making the author’s books available for sale, to transportation and hotel accommodations, to navigating liquor laws so the reader might enjoy a glass of wine (or seven),the organizer’s tasks are varied and often vexing. 

What do we need for a good reading? A suitable venue, for starters. The size of the room or hall should strike a balance between gloomy foreboding and wildly optimistic—in other words, not so tiny as to embarrass the reader, but not so roomy as to make the likely audience feel like lost souls in an airport vestibule. One also hopes for a room with a certain atmosphere, available refreshments, comfortable chairs, helpful staff, etc. As one is invariably working with an extremely limited budget, it is difficult to secure such venues. Bars and cafés become the preferred locations, because the availability of alcohol makes attracting people a bit easier and, generally speaking, writers like to drink. But bars are not always ideal settings either: the music in the adjoining room, the chatter of televisions, the rattle of the cash register. Also, as Smith’s depiction illustrates, the same alcohol which helps to draw more people also loosens the inhibitions of patrons who may not be the least bit sympathetic to literature.

Second, a microphone and loud speakers. Though even the best amplifier can’t drown out all distractions. Last year I attended a reading on a beautiful summer evening in a venue where the stage was located at the front, the windows and the street behind it. Naturally the windows were open, and although the sound system was excellent nothing could be done when, at a crucial moment in the story, one of those monstrous mechanized street cleaner machines crawled past, dwarfing the reader, filling the entire background with its robotic bulk and the bar with its deafening roar.

Third, good lighting and somewhere for the author to rest the book or set down a glass of beer. Last fall I was at a Signal poetry launch where Carmine Starnino had to hold a plate of candles for lighting while the readers clutched both their book and the microphone, which made turning pages a bit tricky.

But putting aside all the necessary practical concerns, the obvious deciding factor is the reading itself. A compelling performance can make up for most distractions. That writers might have only a basic grasp of oratory is understandable; they are writers, not actors or politicians or members of the clergy. But a basic awareness of pacing, breathing, and emphasis can only heighten a reading’s effectiveness. Writers uncertain of such things would benefit from rehearsal and listening carefully to a recording of themselves. More than once following a reading I’ve wanted to say something like, “That was great, but it would have been even better if you had just slowed down a bit and opened your mouth more than half an inch.”

Not surprisingly, some of the best readers happen to have experience in acting and theater. One example is short story writer K.D. Miller, author of A Litany in Time of Plague and Give Me Your Answer, who studied drama for years before beginning her writing career. Miller—another story writer whose work should have been included in Urquhart’s recent Penguin anthology—specializes in mesmerizing first-person narratives which she makes into riveting performances thanks to her confident control of tone and timing. She is a woman of small stature who stands very still when she reads, so her compelling dramatic presentation is made all the more striking because it emanates from such a modest physical presence. Watching her on stage, I always had the feeling the entire room was under her complete control.

Equally absorbing are the performances of Leon Rooke. Like Miller, Rooke studied drama in his younger years and acted in a number of plays. Unlike Miller, Rooke’s reading style is marked by its kinetic energy. His tall, lanky body grooves and gyrates and his arms and hands gesticulate and he has been known to on occasion climb up on tables or chairs during the course of a performance. Rooke’s readings invariably feature some measure of improvisation so one never knows for certain what to expect. I worked for The Porcupine’s Quill when it released his short story “Muffins,” a wonderfully demented tale of domestic angst, both in book form and, somehow fittingly, on an enclosed vinyl 45. During the course of helping to promote this project I must have seen “Muffins” read by Rooke on at least half a dozen occasions, but I never tired of it because each time the performance would be its own fresh creation.

Miller and Rooke are not typical readers and I am not endorsing the idea that writers should emulate them. Many writers are not natural performers. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that authors be prepared to read with a certain command of their material and with expression and clarity. If listeners must strain to comprehend what is being read the whole purpose of the event is defeated. It is also defeated if things drag on for too long. “Leave them wanting more,” is a maxim unfamiliar to many readers.

Ideally, the possibility should exist for an active listener to be captivated, maybe even transported. It happens. I’m thinking at the moment of listening to Clark Blaise read some years back in Toronto. There was nothing flashy about his performance, but his diction was superb and I was transfixed by the intensity of his delivery. Unfortunately, we more often settle for writers who deliver their lines like a burned-out high-school secretary delivering the morning announcements. 

However, in the writer’s defense, it doesn’t require much imagination to see how an inspired performance is difficult to muster when the host forgets to pick you up at the bus station and your name is misspelled on the poster. And judging from how often I’ve heard about them from writers, such screw-ups happen all too frequently. Of course many reading events are handled extremely well, but too often the planning is careless, slapdash, last-second. If organizers and hosts are not going to honour writers and give them the respect they are due, how can we expect anyone else to?

The whole enterprise of readings speaks to the crucial problem in contemporary literature. Namely, that it is an increasingly marginal activity. Writers accept the invitation to read because, in addition to maybe receiving some much-needed extra cash, it helps bolster the necessary illusion: an audience exists. The invitation itself counts for something, even if one ends up addressing a throng of thirteen. Similarly, the people who attend readings are on some level also aware that the occasion and the writer both need “support,” that by being present they are involved in an altruistic act. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the people who go to readings, at least some of them, are essentially doing the writer a favour, performing an act of piety. It’s no accident that Smith’s drunken patron keeps asking the assembled listeners whether he’s in a bar or a church.

The only way to experience the kind of readings many of us are eager to attend is for everyone to demand more of themselves. This necessitates a certain amount of preparation for all parties involved. Listeners should take the time to become familiar with the author’s work. Writers need to give more thought to how they will recite their writing. Organizers need to do everything they can to ensure a truly professional event. Then, if we’re lucky, we might get a decent turn-out of say thirty or more and the reading can become what I think it is supposed to function as: a celebration. It’s not what they often are, but when done right—done with passion, energy and professionalism—readings are an occasion where those of us who still believe in the importance of the whole enterprise come together and celebrate the fact that writers write and readers read and the vital tradition survives.