Two weekends ago was our Editors’ Prize weekend, and my class had the opportunity to listen to three writers read their work in front of a crowd of eighty (or so) people, all of whom had wine and beer and plates of food. It was a Saturday night, and the Country Club of Missouri had two other events: prom and a wedding. There were stretch limos (maybe even a stretch Hummer) in the parking lot and lots of people dressed to the nines. While none of us who went to the Editors’ Prize reception crashed the wedding—as far as I know, anyway—it lead to a couple of good jokes about our Saturday night plans.
So, in class last week, we started by talking specifically about the Editors’ Prize reading, and then other readings that we’ve attended over the years (or, just the semester). The University of Missouri hosted Karen Russell and Colson Whitehead, and those two readings were quite different. Yellow Dog Bookshop is the home for The Next Weather reading series, curated by poet Marc McKee, and usually features graduate students. There is also the Hearing Voices/Seeing Visions series at Orr Street Studios. And, many of the students have been to other readings, at say AWP or (for my graduate students) in their various MFA programs or cities other than Columbia.
When I lived in St. Louis, I worked for River Styx, a literary magazine that hosts a reading on Monday nights. For years, the reading was at Duff’s Restaurant in the Central West End; now, the reading is at a new venue, the Tavern of Fine Arts (also in CWE). This reading series has been established for a long term, but having history isn’t enough to make a reading series successful, and five years of watching Richard Newman make it work taught me quite a bit about what takes place behind the scenes to make a reading great.
I’ve been on all sides of it—reader, host, audience—and after a decade of going to readings, from the small to the big, new writers to established bigwigs, I’ve seen what makes readings work and what makes them a dog. Here are things to keep in mind for organizers, readers, and listeners:
The Venue Matters. A bookstore? A bar? An art gallery? All of these things make a difference by setting the audience’s expectations. A bar crowd might be a bit rowdier than an art gallery crowd. Perhaps not. You never know.
Russell and Whitehead were both guests of MU, but they were held in two very different venues. Russell was in a large lecture hall in the English building that was renovated a very years ago; people that have been here longer than me remember when it was a beautiful library. Now? Taupe. No decorations. No podium for the reader, just a flat computer desk. Bad acoustics. Pretty tricky to make work (though it helps that Karen Russell was reading to an absolutely packed house).
Whitehead was in a different venue, an alumni center that hosts multiple events at one time. The wall behind Whitehead was also the wall for the hallway where the caterers, racing from room to room for various events, could be heard zipping around. With so many events going on, there was a tendency to hear other voices, periodically, or applause, or silverware clattering. Like Russell, Whitehead was a pro, and the audience was captivated, so it didn’t do much harm. Just one of those things that people notice.
Want all the (appropriate) attention on the reader? Keep in mind all those peripheral events and noises, especially the ones that can’t be controlled.
Alcohol = Good. Does this need explanation? Look: it can be box wine. It does not have to be good. Social lubrication is helpful at literary events. As the great Homer Simpson once said: “Alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!”
Books For Sale! There’s a saying in small press circles that there is a difference between printing your book and publishing your book. Note: the latter is preferred. Sure, often books are for sale at readings. But having the author carry books in a messenger bag and mumble something about it at the beginning of the reading isn’t really “selling books.” Good readings have a table setup, preferably near the entrance, with prices clearly marked and someone who takes cash (or Square payments) and can speak with enthusiasm and insight into the books. River Styx is excellent at this, something I didn’t truly appreciate until after I left. Especially for small press authors, ones that are travelling on their own dime, this is one of the ways to cover expenses.
Funny = Good. While there is always space for a dark, brooding, complex reading, for the most part, people love to laugh. And, it seems, good humor is hard to write, so hearing it is especially terrific. Ever notice that movies are much funnier when you watch it in a theater rather than at home? Laughter is contagious. When picking a piece to read, something “lighter” is always a good call. The audience will recognize the skill while also appreciate the humor.
Airplane Mode. Hey, Audience! Phones off. You aren’t missing anything within the next hour. Phones trilling during a reading are the equivalent of fingernails on the chalkboard.
Watch Your Time. The host, curator, organizer, or whatever this person is titled, should tell the reader(s) how much time she/he has to read the work. This is important! Equally important is that the reader complies. Decide how long you want someone to read; if you have a solo act, okay, thirty minutes, perhaps a bit more if the reader is, you know, Margaret Atwood. But if there are two or more readers? Shorter is always better.
Everyone has been to a reading where there are four or more readers, and one clown decides to go ahead and read, I dunno, his entire oeuvre and endlessly rattle until the entire audience is asleep or angry (or angrily asleep). This is brutal and should be punishable by death. Don’t be a clown!
The Hostess with Mostest. A good host primes the audience. The host sets the tenor for the night. The host says thank you. The host tells you to buy books so the author doesn’t like a bad salesperson. The host lets you know what to expect. The host closes the night, reminds you to buy a book, have a drink, say hello, all while focusing the attention on the readers. The host has charm. The host navigates the treacherous and makes it look effortless (yes, I “borrowed” that rhyme).
In the End, It Comes Down to the Reader. A fabulous reader makes any and all sins forgivable. Of course, if you’ve never heard the author read from her/his work before, you won’t really know until thirty seconds into the reading. Everyone is there for the reader, and if the reader delivers, nothing else really matters.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye