Jarred and I started talking a while back about readings, and what can be done to improve them. This is a description of an event he recently co-organized. —Adam
“Readings shouldn’t be boring.” It’s a pretty simple idea, but amazing how rarely it’s acted upon. This thought occurred to me after I attended one of those must-have-a-reading-to-sell-some-copies literary evenings: free wine, held in a library, three authors. The best part of that evening came when the hobo lady who’d snuck in to ransack the tidy rows of Chablis heckled the poet as he read a piece about Tuscany from inside his own rectum. She was right—the writing was lazy and self-indulgent. (I think her exact phrase was ‘shite’.)
The problem was obvious: a heckling drunk shouldn’t be a reading’s most entertaining part. Surely it’s possible to hold a literary event where if you do have drunk hobo, she’s screaming ‘fuck yeah’ like she was at a Skynard concert. Luckily we’re not the only ones who have thought so. There is Opium’s globetrotting Literary Death Match, San Fransisco’s The Rumpus, and Edinburgh’s Glasgow’s DiScomBoBuLaTe.
Now, in London, two Englishmen and two Americans (me being one) have started The Special Relationship. Following in the great European literary tradition, we started with a manifesto:
(Yes, our manifesto is stained with red wine, cigarette ash and felt from our berets.)
1) The writing isn’t enough. Find people who can perform. If they are too rare, find the writing then get someone else to perform it. Actors know how to inhabit a piece of writing. They are better at setting aside their own personality and bringing to life the characters in a piece. I’ve seen this done many times. Liar’s League of London do it once a month.
2) We’re after new souls. In the movie Crossroads, the devil (Robert Judd) says to the damned Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) as he tries to bargain his soul to save Lightning Boy (Ralph Macchio), “I already got you.” (Quoting from the oeuvre of the Karate Kid is essential for any manifesto.)
We all know that literary people will politely sit through the most boring readings. We already got them. We want people who wouldn’t normally come. I want to entice back the people who have been scared off by the boring readings that lacked drunk hobos. How do you do that?
Invite filmmakers, comedians, illustrators, documentary photographers, and musicians—as long as they don’t break rule #1. Firstly, it breaks up the monotonous tone of most readings. It gives the night variety. It stimulates more than one part of the brain. But, more to the point, they are going to invite their friends, other musicians, filmmakers, etc.—people for whom a literary reading might not be their first choice for a night out.
3) Get the boring stuff right. We needed the right venue; libraries and lecture halls wouldn’t work. They have reverence and polite silences poured into the mortar. But you need a space of your own. A room in a pub between the main bar and the toilets will ruin any serious piece.
We also needed the right length. The magic length seems to be 10–15 minutes per performance. Rarely does an individual still have the crowd’s full attention after 20 minutes. Don’t push your luck. Leave them wishing for more, not less. Shorter pieces do work, especially if they are funny, as un trou normand for the next piece of literature.
And give the poor audience a break! Literature should be enjoyable. It’s not a test of endurance and patience—that’s what Language poet gigs are for. (I kid, I kid!) It is just good manners for a host to let people answer the call of nature, refill their drinks, satisfy their addictions.
“Wanting to entertain isn’t vulgar, bad writing is.”
—Ralph Macchio in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead
On the 9th of June, we put our manifesto into action. The first Special Relationship was held at The Invisible Dot, a small venue (50–60 people) used for alternative comedy gigs. This space worked for a number of reasons, one of which is that it’s relatively central. London is very tribal, and if you plan something too far from the centre, it doesn’t matter if Jesus Christ himself is reading neo-con slash-fiction—no one will come. The Invisible Dot was also specifically made for performances. It had all the tech we needed, such as lighting, a PA system and a projector hooked up to a Mac. And most importantly, it is attached to a bar and some nice outdoor space.
Another thing we did right was recruiting award-winning comedian and playwright Tom Basden as our MC. Tom started the evening by reading from his unfinished ‘novel’. This deliberately humorous piece deflated the pretentiousness and earnestness that often infects readings. The crowd relaxed and realized it was okay to enjoy themselves.
The first reading was by Grant Gillespie from his debut novel, The Cuckoo Boy. Grant is also a professional actor and I knew he’d be as good a performer as he is a writer. His piece—about an adopted boy, his new well-meaning family and David, his imaginary friend—confirmed that behind the evening’s fun lay a lot of good writing.
After Grant was the comedian Fergus Craig:
He read a story originally commissioned by the BBC, but pulled from broadcast by the organization’s nervous lawyers. The lawyers were right. Fergus read a very entertaining but certainly libelous story about the chef Jamie Oliver. One key scene described the disfigured and irradiated Jamie coming home to find Gordon Ramsey on top of his wife.
The last reading before the break was Sam Taradash. He read a strong piece that when performed in Edinburgh was compared favorably with Carver. The strength of the writing was further improved by Sam’s movie trailer voice-over voice and energetic performance. (Click here to experience it!)
After the break, we showed Taiki Waititi‘s film “Two Cars, One Night,” a stunning black-and-white short that was nominated for an Oscar…
…and was also the inspiration for his new feature-length film Boy:
Next was Toby Litt. I’d already been a fan of his written work, and after seeing him at another gig, the beautiful, if mad, idea of releasing short stories on vinyl. He read a very Litt-esque story about trying to meditate that was as humorous as it was astute in its observations. If you aren’t familiar with Toby’s work, get thee to a book store. Seriously, there is no reason this guy shouldn’t be rock star famous.
Last up was myself. I read a piece about a teenager in a psychiatric unit while illustrations by Justin Chen and photos stolen from the internet cycled through on the projector behind me. The relevance of the repeated images became clear as the narrative progressed. The idea was to give the audience a different kind of stimulus than just another writer reading from a printout.
After the night was over, the four manifesto authors had planned to do a postmortem, discussing what worked and what didn’t. But it all went really well. The best compliments came from the dragged-along friends (remember rule #2) of the literary-minded. Several times they confessed to me that this wasn’t their usual kind of thing—right before asking when the next one will be. Mmmm, new souls. “July 21st” is the answer.
Of course, we might have had beginner’s luck, but I think if we follow the rules, we’ll be safe. For July’s show, we’re working with Granta Magazine and will have a contributor from their forthcoming issue: Colin Grant, reading from his newest memoir, Bageye at the Wheel. Also appearing will be the poet Tim Wells. We’re still waiting for the other guests to confirm, but one new idea is to have a courtroom sketch artist record the night.
A website for The Special Relationship is in the works. In the meantime, if you’d like more information about the series and its authors, feel free to contact Jarred through Facebook.
30 thoughts on “The Special Relationship #1 (a guest post by Jarred McGinnis)”
Readings are not boring.
They are good fun.
you keep them lively (can we get some humor and sex maybe?)
you keep the reading short (not being obnoxious–just please don’t go full hour per reader on us)
you serve beer
I haven’t seen one person leave such a reading (for the after-party at the hardwood floor house, obviously) unhappy.
Just do it right/tight
Just came across your interesting discussion. Point of information. DiScOmBoBuLaTe hails from Glasgow. I should know. I started it along with my husband, stand-up and comedy writer, Ian Macpherson, and novelist, Alan Bissett.
We did a gig at the Edinburgh Book Festival 2010, and would be happy to visit Edinburgh again. We’d also love to come to London some time. Our tagline – where literature and comedy collide, says it all.
All the best with The Special Relationship.
Thank you for the clarification, Magi. Are you in touch with Jarred? If not, I can connect you.
Please do connect me with Jarred, Adam. My email is email@example.com
Wow, I just read the entire post. I would like you to boot camp your reading into all readings.
We would be much happier.
All of it seems like an excellent time.
The boot camp is good idea, literature is a battlefield. Just gas you think you are getting somewhere. your publisher puts in IED or is that in IUD i forget
Readings can also be livened with ear-splitting screams, eh Adam?
If you can, try to keep us updated about the upcoming The Special Relationship website.
I learned that scream from Robert Wilson. To him all credit.
I’ve asked Jarred to write another report about the second TSR…
@ Sean: I think the real question is, “How boring?” (Or: “How not boring?”) And to whom? There are different degrees.
By which I mean: What I generally find sad is that most non-writers I know will go to see shows, see movies, go to galleries, museums, etc.—but not readings.
What’s even sadder is that, most of the time, non-writers are correct in their behavior, because most readings often offer very little to non-writers.
Last sentence of ‘The Renaissance’ by Walter Pater:
“For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing bu the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.”
Not trying to be flippant. Many people are readers and I think they have to come meet the writer sometimes. Yes, the reader can gussy it up by locution and the power of words.
I think we have to accept that sitting down and listening to a story is one of the harder activities in today’s art world.
The question becomes, then, “Why is it hard?” Maybe it’s because we brainy writers are simply smarter than everyone else, and have special powers others lack? …Many do, in fact, believe this: “Oh, people don’t have the patience for reading any more. We writers are like monks in the Dark Ages, keeping literature alive for future, more enlightened generations.”
There’s probably some truth to this, but I find it unsatisfying for two reasons. One (and worst of all), it’s defeatist.
Two, it’s probably just plain wrong. People read all the time, all over the place. (I just rode the train to work, and saw dozens of people reading.)
So why don’t non-writers come to readings? I think it’s largely because they aren’t in the habit of doing so. And because there’s little-to-no social pressure to do so. People will talk to you at work about bands, movies. They never ask you whether you went to see so-and-so read.
(They *will* ask you whether you’ve *read* such-and-such a book. So there’s a social pressure, and public habit, in terms of reading. But not in attending readings.)
Quick, when’s the last time you attended a fencing tournament? …Well, why haven’t you been to one? …Oh, I see: you’re not part of that specialized world. Unless fencing happens to already be your hobby, why would you bother seeking it out? But would you go to one if a fencer friend invited you? And would you be happy if she or her helped explain the sport to you? (I still recall being invited to attend my first jazz concert, and how a lot had to be explained to me. Ditto my first foreign art film. Today I adore both jazz and foreign art films. But I came to neither one on my own: I was brought to them by others.) (It’s tempting to believe otherwise sometime, and to pretend I’m brainier than others because I like those things, and can understand them, but the truth is I owe a lot of my love and understanding to other people. As I often tell my students, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, because almost everything we already know, we learned from others.”)
The failure of literary readings (and they have for the most part failed) lies almost entirely with writers. If they want non-writers to attend, they must reach out to them and accommodate them.
I should add that “gussying it up” isn’t quite what I have in mind. I am not proposing that writing be decorated.
Rather, I’m proposing that writers work harder to reintegrate what they do with the larger public and with other art forms.
How do you italicize?
Adam, you know non-writers come to readings. I’ve even had people off the street who I’ve never met come to readings.
Yes, going to a reading is not a chic thing to do. That’s why places pair it with burlesque.
I agree their should be outreach, but not hand-holding. Maybe readings just have a built in funereal aspect. So, stand-up should teach us?
I once had to sit through Sherman Alexie riffing about how important he was for fifty minutes, no reading. There were 300 people their laughing their asses off. For me, it staled but maybe that is the way to go, to just anecdote and fuck the reading. Lots of people sell personality, not the words. Did you see that Gary Shyn (sic) book trailer? No words, just SNL skit-stuff. And the book is in softcover. Softcore for softcover.
Oh, and I wanted to say, I really really really LOVE you!
I love you, too, Greg! I’m just writing this to tell you something terrible has happened… It’s a *friendly* comment. Of course it’s a friendly comment… Listen, if it wasn’t friendly… you probably wouldn’t have even got it… It is not a trick… Well, I’ll tell you. Ah-ah-eh-uhm-hm… I love you, too, Greg… I’m very loving… *All right*, you’re more loving than I am, but I am as loving as well… I am as loving as you are, Greg! Don’t say that you’re more loving than I am, because I’m capable of being just as loving as you are… So we’re both loving, all right?… All right.
To italicize: put the text between these two tags (sans spaces):
Adam, you know non-writers come to readings. I’ve even had people off the street who I’ve never met come to readings.
I’ve seen this happen, once. I also saw a unicorn, once.
I think you know what I’m talking about. Most people at readings are writers or friends/family of the writers. But go to a concert: not everyone in the audience is a musician, or friends of the band. Go to a movie: not everyone in the audience is a filmmaker.
As for whether reaching out to non-writers is pandering, or hand-holding, or anything else that makes it sound disagreeable…sure, sometimes it might be. And other times not.
In general, I think it’s best to respect people’s intelligences. But I also believe in connecting what we know and like to what they know and like. That’s neither pandering nor hand-holding. It’s just basic education and communication.
I take non-museum-goers people to the Art Institute all the time. And when we get to the Modern Wing, they always tell me, “I don’t understand Modern Art at all.” They often say this with a little look of guilt.
And so we talk about the Modern Art—not all of it, but some of it—and I try to explain it to them, mostly by giving a little context and connecting it to what they know, and then I let them try to figure it out. (Lord knows, there was a time when I didn’t like it, either.)
It always works! They leave the museum loving Modern Art! And wanting to go back later and look at it again.
I’m cracking up President Muffley.
Great about the Art Institute.
Well, musicians and filmmakers make a lot more money than writers. The payoff is different. You can pick up boys or chicks during those events (kiss at the movies). At readings, it’s a little hard, because the old man in front will shus you.
More wine and beer. More fun. Arm wrestling?
Well, musicians and filmmakers make a lot more money than writers. The payoff is different.
But is that why audiences go? Because they want to see people who make money?
I go see lots of bands and films made by people who make no money whatsoever.
You can pick up boys or chicks during those events
Readings, too! Which remains one of their few saving graces! The last few dates I’ve been on, they’ve all been people I’ve met at readings!
Urm, these are the italics tags (and more).
Sorry, I had a mini stroke!
A good friend of mine saw Alexie read and described pretty much what you’re describing here, Greg, and she didn’t appreciate it either. These things can definitely get old. But someone like David Antin — who does brilliant “talk-poems” — is a whiz at it; he interlocks anecdote within anecdote so deftly that the mere talking is the poetry.
There are many ways to do a “good” reading. I’ve always liked Charles Bernstein’s distinction regarding poetry readings between concave and convex acoustical spaces (this is from his book _Close Listening_). One doesn’t necessarily have to project something boldly or aggressively at the reader — as in a slam style reading. One can create a “concave acoustical space” that invites the reader in, that encourages him or her to listen closely.
Those are all great distinctions, Michael. Readers, ideally, should be able to draw on numerous theatrical, rhetorical, and oratorical effects. (Universities once considered the latter two pretty important.)
Since giving readings is an unspoken professional obligation for anyone pursuing an academic career in fiction or poetry, I’ve long thought that the curriculum should include at least one class in public speaking and/or theatrical performance.
Instead, there’s mostly an absence of instruction (just as students are rarely taught anything practical about submitting work or publishing). MFA grads usually give one fumbling reading at the end of their studies, after which they’re left to fend for themselves.
Quel surprise, most fend rather poorly. (I consider this an institutional failing.)
One reason for combining readings with other related art forms (music, performance art, theater, stand-up, improv, sketch comedy) is that it allows everyone to learn from one another, sharing presentation techniques. Most of what I know about performance I learned at lectures, theater events, performance art performances, rock concerts—NOT at readings.
I hear you, Adam. If someone could have taught me what Tracie Morris can do, then I would have been more than indebted…
but it seems like this kind of thing should start from the ground up and institutions can only be blamed so much…
It is the kind of thing that can be done from every possible end, from the ground up, from the top down, and from the middle inward.
Don’t get me started on the topic of how MFA programs could be completely re-imagined! (Step one: abolish workshops.)