“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!)
…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.