Speakers and the Spoken-To

October 20, 2008 | 2 books mentioned 3 min read

A streetcar along the lake brings you to a low-rise white building where artists and artisans further their craft. It’s evening, somewhat deserted, but turn down one hallway and the tools of their trade remain in public view. Turn another corner and photographic art lines the walls.

In a secluded room: a sea of café tables. Free coffee at the back. Small lamps on each table for warm candle-lit effect as the house lights dim and the stage lights go on. Rows of seating near the entrance – for stragglers and for the lazy and for the shy.

This has been the setting for most of the literary readings I’ve attended in the past four years. The Brigantine Room is one of four venues within Toronto’s Harbourfront complex where the most private of writers take the stage and transform into the most gregarious of orators. Or they try. Or some of them try.

Maisonneuve ran an article last month bemoaning the state of the literary reading. Provocatively titled “Why are literary readings so excruciatingly bad?” the piece deconstructed the reading and argued, quite reasonably, for greater effort on the part of organizers, writers, and audience alike to transform what is often a flat and flaccid affair into a spirited, even enthralling, experience.

First, the venue must be suitable. Bars and cafés are often used, and while they create an ambiance of sorts and allow the speakers and the spoken-to to be appropriately lubricated (which, not incidentally, allows the venue itself to reap some economic reward), the downside of all this is excessive kitchen noise, the clinking of glasses and bottles, and people who have become so obnoxiously lubricated that the quiet little literary event happening in their midst can’t compete.

Over the years, the Brigantine Room has taken some of the best trappings of the café experience and integrated them into a more controlled literary environment. Effective lighting, café tables, noiseless refreshments. A romantic stillness greets the author who can then take the audience on a journey, unruffled by extraneous noise.

Troublingly, for the most recent reading I attended – an evening with Irvine Welsh – the organizers had removed the café tables, replacing them with rows of chairs, presumably to accommodate the hordes of fans, and there was no coffee, or any other refreshment to be had. Not too sure what to make of that.

At any rate, once the ambiance is set, the writer must become an effective orator. The author could assume character voices. Deborah Eisenberg memorably slipped into a whole range of voices for the characters in her short story “Some Other, Better Otto”, from Twilight of the Superheroes at a reading two years ago. Irvine Welsh also added drama to a reading from his most recent novel Crime by voicing its characters.

Visual aids can be effective. When I heard scientist and environmentalist David Suzuki “read” from a recent autobiography, what he really gave was a slideshow presentation, which, coupled with his engaging running commentary, made for a breezy event. Some of the best “readings” I’ve been to have incorporated one or more of: tangential asides, slideshows, interviews, panel discussions, and Q and A.

Some authors, even without dramatic or visual aids, are just so naturally affable that the audience is with them right from the start. A number of years ago, in a large theatrical venue, John Irving regaled us with excerpts from what was then his latest opus, along with passages from a work in progress. His seemingly natural ease at the podium kept the audience riveted.

Then of course there’s the audience member, without whose focus and attentiveness the whole endeavor could unravel. There are times, of course, when the mind wanders. Every audience member has his own narrative playing out in his head, and it’s not unheard of for a speaker to unwittingly say something during the course of the reading that triggers some private thought in the hapless audience member, who then drifts off for several minutes and returns, hopelessly dispirited and lost – unable to simply flip back a few pages.

It’s a bit of a crapshoot. Some of the finest writers aren’t comfortable in such a public setting – and it shows. Some venues are better suited to watching the hockey game than being transported on a literary journey. And some listeners just need to sharpen their concentration skills a little bit. But when it all comes magically together, and when all sides rise to the challenge, a literary reading can linger with you long after the house lights come up and you’ve boarded that streetcar for the lonely ride back to reality.

is a writer in Toronto, Canada, and passes his days as a copy editor with The Globe and Mail. He spends his moments of leisure listening to music, reading, watching films and prowling the streets of Toronto, and he feels that he is long-overdue for a vacation so that he can do more of those things. At any given time, he is probably pining for distant shores and really should do more traveling and less pining.

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