Friday, July 9, 2010

Read Out Loud

By Russel D McLean

Recently, I’ve been working some (sssssh, top secret, but keep yer eye on me website blog for more details soon!) events for… well, sometime. In communication with one venue, I got an interesting email that said, in part, “we tend to discourage “readings””

I found that an interesting comment and one I wholeheartedly agree with. While I have done some small excerpts at events, I tend to keep these as short as I can because I feel the audience only has so much of an attention span and I know that I tend to zone out when hearing long excerpts. I also know that when I go to an author event, I’m not there to hear the author because – let’s face it – most authors cannot read from their books. Noteable exceptions of course include Allan Guthrie’s “Jesus” voice from Hardman (I still read the book and hear him) and the mighty mighty James “Devil Dog” Ellroy reading anything because, holy shit, the way he reads is the way you hear that damn book in your head. He’s whaaaacked, brother, and so far goooooone you gotta see him to believe him.

But on the whole, I like writers to give me something… something else. Because in general there’s a reason they’re writers and not actors (of course, Stuart MacBride has read his own book on audio, but he’s had theaterly training and Martyn Waites’ reading of Ray Banks is brilliant, because Waites was a professional actor for many years) Hands up, one of the worst events I saw was a writer whom I like on a personal level who did nothing but read from the book. It was a painful experience, even more so when they started answering questions and suddenly the event came to life. I mean, honestly, out of context excerpts are yawnsville except in small, staccato bursts. When I do read, I limit myself to maybe five pages and two excerpts. And then because mostly I have believed it to be expected of me.

But the more I think about the more I love the events where the author can talk about their life, their work, their reading habits. Iain (M) Banks is brilliant at this – so much that last time I saw he just went straight to the Q&A, and held it for the full hour. I think when we go to see an author, we are not expecting the book to be read to us. Why would we as an audience want that when the book part of he conversation between author and reader is very much a private one and we are going to see them in public? I think as a public spectacle, we want writers to show us something of the mind behind the book. And, yes, some authors are dull, but many are more interesting than they might believe and if they present us with themselves, naturally as they can, many readers will be immensely pleased, as I am, to have seen another side to the process, to understanding the creation of the writing I love.

I’m not saying events have to be intellectual or intensely illuminating, but I am saying that they should always be about more than simply making us aware of a book’s presence. They are, in essence, a form of entertainment, and I have found there to be little entertaining about someone just reading from a book you will later be paying to read yourself.

Of course, I realise I’m setting myself up here… am I as good as my own standards? Goodness only knows, but I try my best to give the audience something that’s fun; a few facts they might not know, some stories I think they might find amusing (ask me about rejection letters; I got a few doozies) and maybe some sense of what they might expect to find in my work if they haven’t read it, and if they have maybe some idea about the thought processes that went into the novels.

And if that fails I just swear in a Fife accent. That seems to amuse people no end…


Donna said...

I agree about readings. Tiny little bits are OK but you can see an audience getting restless when people start reading pages and pages. As well as the you mention I once heard Joe Lansdale read and could have listened to him for HOURS. I wanted to invite him to come home as reader in residence and read to me every day.

Mike Dennis said...

Great point, Russel. Keep the reading to a minimum, and for those authors who tend to mumble when they speak, don't read at all. Don't even do the event. Instead, practice up on public speaking before appearing somewhere before an audience.

Scott D. Parker said...

Neil Gaiman is another author who does do readings and they are hugely entertaining. In fact, since he reads much of his own work, that is my preferred method to digest Gaiman.

There is a danger for us book nerds: the curse of knowing too much about an author before he/she arrives at our local bookstores. There was a famous author whom I tremendously enjoy reading and about whom I've done considerable research. He never even attempted to read his then-latest book and shot straight into Q&A. The problem I encountered was that the inane questions being asked, *I* knew all the answers, just by reading his blog. It was pretty darn boring.