Traci writes in with this question:
I’m working to establish a really great reading series in Indianapolis, and I’m wondering whether you have suggestions for readers who really own a stage. I’m looking for someone lively and personable (and, of course, someone who writes great prose).
Have you seen anyone who really knocked your socks off?
Emily St. John Mandel: Reading one’s work aloud is a difficult art. Doing it well requires a certain stage presence, and a small degree of talent as a live entertainer: in other words, more or less the exact opposite of the skills you needed to actually sit down and write your book in the first place. Given that the skillsets involved in writing and reading aloud are so different, I’ve found that it’s a rare writer who can give a memorable reading. (By “memorable,” I mean “memorable in a good way.” I’ve been to some memorably bad ones.) More often than not we speak too quickly, or in a monotone, or way too dramatically when the material doesn’t call for it (“and then… she poured the coffee… into a cup.”)
I go to a lot of readings. The ones I like best are assured, understated affairs, where the reading style doesn’t get in the way of the prose, and I think the best reader I’ve come across in this vein so far is John Wray. I went to a reading of Lowboy in a bookstore in Brooklyn a few months back; Wray’s full-back Sharpie tattoo of Michiko Kakutani (“MICHIKO 4-EVAH”) was certainly striking, but I was more taken by his reading style. He reads very calmly and quietly, fairly slowly, with a pause after every sentence. The effect is mesmerizing; the audience in the bookstore was perfectly still.
Andrew Saikali: A great writer, a podium, bookmarked text on the stand, glass of water on the side. Microphone, lights, hushed audience. You’d think this would be the perfect recipe for a literary evening. Far too often it isn’t. The best readings I’ve been to have all deviated, in some way, from this formula.
Many authors are captivating on the page, but lack a magnetic personality. Without it, without that way to connect with the audience, the reading is doomed. That’s not a slight on their work. But let’s face it – a reading is performance. And some do it better than others.
I saw Irvine Welsh a couple of years ago at the Harbourfront reading series here in Toronto. It was a packed house. Welsh has a big, loyal fan base and they all seemed to be there. It fueled him, and he gave back in kind. He read from his novel Crime and also did a Q&A. That’s always a nice touch. An author’s personality comes out when he goes off-script. Add a Scottish burr and a known and fascinating personal history – this was, after all, the man who wrote Trainspotting. His background chronicling young Scottish lives on the margin comes through his wit and his attitude, and that attitude seeps into a novel like Crime set in the United States, a world away from Scottish junkies.
The legendary Ralph Steadman, illustrator and partner in crime with the late Hunter S. Thompson, was in town a few years ago with his book The Joke’s Over, chronicling, in words and drawings, his friendship with the gonzo journalist. His presentation wasn’t even a reading – it was a slideshow of his illustrations, with off-the cuff commentary and anecdotes. It was fascinating and hilarious – a slice of cultural history and outlaw tales.
Top prize though, for me, goes to novelist, artist and designer Douglas Coupland. Having only read his novel Miss Wyoming, I saw him read back in 2005. jPod was the novel he read from, but I don’t actually remember that part. I remember him talking to the audience, doing a Q&A like I’d never heard before, dripping with dry wit (yes, dry wit actually drips. I’ve seen it). Admittedly, Coupland was high on codeine at the time, but I’ve heard him interviewed since, and he’s always extremely articulate and with just the right amount of sarcasm.
Edan Lepucki: I’ll admit, I prefer to read an author’s book on my own than have it performed to me–that way, I can follow the story at my own pace, pick it up or put it down at my leisure, and let the prose suggest a voice to me, rather than have the author’s own monotone, or murmur, or over-enunciation, flung at me. And yet, I attend readings all the time, as if I actually like them. The most memorable one I’ve attended, by Deborah Eisenberg in the spring of 2006 in Iowa City, had nothing to do with her. It wasn’t that she wasn’t a strong reader, she was, but that hail so raucous and terrifying stopped her a few minutes in. The more adventurous among us (not me) ran outside to witness an ominous and greenish cloud coming for our heretofore sturdy university town. A tornado! Before she’d begun reading, Eisenberg had announced that her story would take approximately 40 minutes to read aloud, start to finish. That struck me as too long, and so, when we were interrupted, I felt as if I’d willed the tornado into existence, to rescue me from all that sitting-still. However, after we waited in an interior hallway for over an hour, we were herded into a smaller lecture hall to finish the performance. Eisenberg chose a different story this time, and only read the opening pages. I am sure it was marvelous, but with the winds still howling outside, I was distracted.
The only reading I’ve attended where I was truly riveted from start to finish was also in Iowa City when I was a graduate student. D.A. Powell read from his collection of poems Chronic with such a feisty and comic theatricality that for weeks afterward I found myself reenacting the event, as if I’d seen a dance performance and wanted to try out the steps for myself in my living room. I loved how playful Powell’s poems were, and how this playfulness left you unprepared for their beauty, which made them all the more delicious. D.A. Powell’s reading was followed, and matched in greatness, by Edward Carey’s. Carey is a small English fellow with a flop of boyish blond hair, and his novel Observatory Mansions, is delightfully off-the-wall. He was a masterful reader–it felt like we were gathered around the campfire, or listening to a ye olden radio play, with Britain’s preeminent actor flexing his talent just for the fun of it. That night felt like real theatre.
Garth Risk Hallberg: As an undergraduate in Missouri, I learned as much from the surfeit of on-campus readings as I did from any class. One of the most memorable featured Ben Marcus performing parts of his novel-in-progress Notable American Women. I use the term “performing” advisedly; Marcus had concocted an elaborate conceptual framework in which he was not himself but (I think) a secret agent shadowing “the author Ben Marcus.” Equally performative, in his own canny way, was David Foster Wallace, who delivered an hour-long reading from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men still talked about by those who attended. Wallace’s prefatory remarks played up his ineptitutude at public speaking – “I seem to have misplaced my saliva,” he said at one point – but what followed (B.I. #20; the one about the rape) was beyond ept. Indeed, in a twangy shambolic way I’m finding impossible to describe, it was riveting.
Later, I got to hear the late Kenneth Koch – a hero of my semi-rural adolescence – read from New Addresses. Usually, I get impatient with explanations about a poem’s composition, strategies, place in the author’s oeuvre, etc., but Koch was a wonderful storyteller, and as the reading went on, poems and exposition began to bleed into each other: witty, philosophical, and humane. And in 1999, I saw William H. Gass, whose International Writers Center (IWC) had sponsored the above events, read a scarifying section of The Tunnel. (Readers can now hear the entire novel as an audiobook.)
In larger cities where authors appear like summer fireflies – nightly, and en masse – it’s easy to come to see readings as transactions: obligations (from one side of the ledger), or as promotional stunts (from the other). But those irruptions of literature into the flat gray Midwestern winters remind me – as Deborah Eisenberg and Péter Esterházy would later, in New York – that a great reading is a singular communal experience. Indeed, as a way into the minds of other human beings, declamation predates literature. Maybe this is why I get misty-eyed every time I hear that old wire recording of Walt Whitman reading “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” – even if the occasion is just a Levi’s commercial.
Sonya Chung: The other night, poet/performance artist/novelist Sapphire – author of the novel Push, on which the feature film Precious is based – did a public reading at the National Arts Club in New York to kick off the Poetry Society of America’s Centennial. The event was also the opening reception for an impressive and seemingly exhaustive exhibit of drawings, photographs, and oil portraits of distinguished poets (living and dead), and was preceded by a benefit reading featuring Galway Kinnell, Marie Ponsot, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Richard Howard.
Sapphire opened with a poem by Etheridge Knight and went on to read her own work. Remind me to wear tight jeans and spike heels and to use my whole body and every register of voice I can muster the next time I do a reading. She sang, she incanted, she channeled and grooved. She read a poem about Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, another featuring Raskolnikov and Katerina, and the penultimate of the evening – a poem called “Survivor,” named for the reality show – that you’ll really just have to see/hear her read in person sometime. She stood in that venerable Gramercy parlor with 100 years of poetry creation and community welling up behind her, those venerable poets of yore looking on from their immortalized frames on all four walls; and one couldn’t help but be reminded of another kick-off event: January 20, 2009. Sapphire’s performance – both elegant and no-nonsense – and its spark of contextual incongruousness, made the reading utterly memorable.
Anne Yoder: The bookish should take a cue from our more extroverted playwriting brethren and remember that an audience needs to be entertained. Literary readings are performances, people. This fact is too often forgotten, and readings frequently resemble reversions to grade school story time, or are reminiscent of lay readings at church services, where the nervous race to finish and the serious, often zealous, overdose on sincerity and didacticism. In terms of material, light, funny, and sexy generally goes further than complicated, sentimental, or sorrowful. But what stands out more are the readers themselves. Readers with oversized egos, with larger-than-life personas, or even a dollop of theatricality, know that impudence, playfulness, and ego make for a good show, and often, a memorable reading.
The most remarkable readers I’ve seen have hewed to this rule. At a New Yorker Festival reading, Martin Amis made heads spin when he claimed that when he was younger his idea of a good time was lighting a joint, swigging a bottle of wine, and spending an evening reading his own writing. T.C. Boyle was endearingly cocky and wore suitably matched hot-pink Converse high-tops when he read at the 92nd Street Y last fall. Memory recalls hot pink, though my mind may be playing up his already eccentric appearance (loud shirt, gaunt face, and thin though voluminous hair). When artist Tracey Emin read from her memoir during Performa 09, her racy tale of an oversexed drug-addled visit to New York became so debauched she refused to read the passage to its end. She stopped short and exclaimed, “Schoolchildren in England read this?!” Emin’s infamous shamelessness made her obvious discomfort and subsequent omission all the more enticing.
Playwright Edward Albee takes the prize, though, for his dramatic command in an impromptu performance. Albee read at a PEN reading to protest silenced Chinese writers on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, and began by remarking that many countries continue to violate their citizens’ rights and imprison them unlawfully, most notably the United States and the People’s Republic of China. At which point, a man wearing a red T-shirt and bandana started shouting, “Long live the People’s Republic of China,” and, “PEN is the CIA.” At first Albee tried to engage the man’s remarks and said that China should be allowed to continue on with nothing but severe criticism, and then lost patience and ordered him to be quiet. The protester was swiftly escorted outside where he continued his protest. In an apt denouement, Albee remarked that he was happy he lived in a country where people are free to say such things and continued reading.
Millions readers, let us know about your best experiences at a reading – who are the best you’ve seen?
Whether or not Invictus—Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming film about South African rugby—manages to sentimentalize apartheid, the 2009 film season has already been defined by gritty, emotional realism. Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-epic, The Hurt Locker, was the first fictional film on the Iraq War to approximate the conflict psychologically. Save for David Simon’s HBO miniseries Generation Kill, only The Hurt Locker achieves verisimilitude; sitting through the picture in the theater must feel something like serving in country. More recently, Lars von Trier’s harrowing, and ultimately, despicable masterpiece Antichrist, was at least as unwatchable, to those who haven’t suffered such a loss, as losing a child is unimaginable.
Lee Daniels’ second feature, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, (the novel was adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher), does for life in the ghetto what Bigelow did for modern war, and von Trier for filicide. At the start of the film, Precious (Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe) is sixteen, illiterate, obese, and pregnant with her own father’s child—for the second time. She’s a quiet girl in the initial scenes, and when we first hear her speak it’s in voiceover. Though she may be piteous—in fact, there may never have been a character more deserving of sympathy—her tone isn’t pitiable. Precious lives in her imagination, and it is only in her fantasies that she finds sovereignty. At home with her mother, she is a slave in the truest sense: she’s an indentured servant and a source of income for her master. Welfare is the lone industry in the film, and the greater the recipient’s need appears, the larger the monthly check. For Precious’ mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), to survive without working, she must keep Precious—and whatever issues from Precious—under her ward. Before a visit from their social worker, Mary’s mother brings over Precious’ first child, whom Mary, on paper, claims as her own. The girl is a product of incest and afflicted with Down syndrome. She’s called Mongo, short for mongoloid. We’re never given her real name.
Precious is, throughout, a film about perverse subjugation. Mary profits from her control over Precious (the fuller the house, the greater the yield), but the gains themselves are dependent upon stasis. If Precious leaves the house, Mary can’t eat. Precious, therefore, is a resource and a crutch, and as any head of an empire, Mary fights violently to keep her progeny in the commonwealth. In an early scene, after a counselor from Precious’ school stops by the apartment building to conference with Mary, thinking she’ll be reported—for abuse and neglect, ostensibly—Mary attacks her daughter, throwing at her whatever she can find, in this case a shoe. Later, she throws a television.
The film is in many ways unbearable to watch, and because of that all the more necessary to see. But unlike Antichrist, for instance, which was relentlessly horrific to no purpose (and still astounding in spite of that), Precious strives to alleviate misery. Precious moves to an alternative school where she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who commits herself wholeheartedly to Precious’ resurrection. What keeps this plot point from turning saccharine, though, is the fact that Precious herself may be past saving. Even if she were to earn her GED and go to college, by the end of the film, one feels, as an observer, that her psychic wounds are too deep to close. How can she, for instance, tell her son about his father?
Precious is the preeminent victim of her circumstances. But at the same time, excepting a few intense moments of introspection (the grandest one being the final encounter she has with her mother at the welfare office, a scene that may be the most terrifyingly cathartic of the year—surpassing even Charlotte Gainsbourg’s self-mutilation scene in Antichrist) she doesn’t dwell very long on her plight. And that she remains optimistic in spite of everything is either this film’s greatest flaw, or its triumph. If it’s the latter—and I would argue it is—Precious is much more than an exposé of poverty or an argument against government aid. It earns its optimism, if only because the labors necessary to achieve that hope are so awful.
When Precious leaves the welfare office, carrying her son, and holding her daughter’s hand, I thought of the close of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. After the execution of the innocent deserters in that film, the surviving soldiers sit in a mess hall. A beautiful young woman comes out onto the stage. The men jeer her as she begins to sing. But soon they stop. They’re unable to summon more insults. The beauty of her art, for that moment, eliminates their horrors. Similarly, Precious’ love for her children wipes away, temporarily, the mess of her circumstances.
Lee Daniels, by making this film, trained his eye—subjective as that eye may sometimes seem—on a family whose abhorrent situation, terrifyingly enough, isn’t unique. For many audiences (even those familiar with the fourth season of The Wire), Precious ought to come as a sickening shock. Despite its dream sequences and fantasies, it is overwhelmingly real.