On Literary Readings and Community
The number of “Best of 2011” lists is pretty daunting. Not only does ever major media outlet have a “Best of 2011” list, some even have a “Worst of 2011.” There are lists for Most Overlooked and Underrated and Overrated and probably several others that my brain is unable to process at the moment. Often the effect of these lists is to remind me that there were many terrific books this past year that I did not read and, perhaps even worse, never heard of in the first place.
While I missed many books this year, I went to a ton of author readings. Last semester alone, I attended about seven events at the University of Missouri (new PhD student readings and visiting writers), probably three more at Orr Street Studios, and another, oh, let’s call it five at Get Lost Bookstore in Columbia. Over the last five months, I probably went to an average of a reading per week. If I sit and think about it for a while, there are also all the readings from this past summer and this past spring, which would then include readings I went to in St. Louis and Washington, D.C., where the AWP Conference was in February.
Believe me, all semester long, I bitched and moaned about going to readings. We all did. Hey, people like to complain. There was definitely a time this semester when I looked at my calendar, and there was something like seven readings in ten days. I tried to make all of them, too. But why? Why did I want to go to all these things? Especially when, as you probably can guess from this, more than once, I had the sinking feeling I didn’t want to go at all.
But readings aren’t just about me. They are about my literary community, my arts community, and even when I’m cranky, it was always the right decision to get myself in gear and attend.
Readings are, in many ways, just like editing a magazine journal. To paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates, editing is a we, and one can get somewhat tired of an I. She was talking, of course, about the difference between being an editor and being a writer, and why being a magazine editor is an attractive vocation. But the same idea – being involved and being for other people rather than just yourself – applies to readings.
Writers, when writing, spend their time alone. The solitude is essential for deep thinking and the process of creation. Loneliness, of course, goes hand-in-hand with this quiet, and after spending years working on something – poems, a novel, stories – getting in front of an audience of people and sharing that work can be a welcome shift.
It can also be a disaster. Many of us, I’m sure, have been to readings that were … well, lackluster. We’ve also been to readings where people are trying a wee bit too hard to be “entertaining.” There are plenty of these stories. This makes the readings that are really and truly an amazing experience. For me, hearing Edward P. Jones read his work is still one of the most incredible things I’ve ever heard.
Readings are the chance for writers to be outgoing, extroverted, friendly, celebratory. Listeners, often writers and avid readers too, are warm and gregarious. Alcohol is (hopefully) involved. We gossip. Laugh. Shake hands. We crave remarks and thoughts about the work, discover what other people are working on, what we’re reading: we want to know who and what is being read not just published. We’re eager to talk.
Here in Columbia, there are three regular spots for readings: any event our English Department holds, the Hearing Voices series at Orr Street Studios, and at Get Lost Bookshop down on Ninth Street. I attend as many as I can, and hope that wherever you’re reading this from, you’re doing the same in your part of the world.
Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye