Monday, May 17, 2004

Thanks Dave

What is becoming of authors? According to an article in the New York Times Book Review yesterday, it is no longer good enough for a writer to simply read from her book and then answer questions. No, the author must perform

But novelists of the recent past seemed to have lacked that passion for performance. A typical reading took place "in a library, a bookstore or community center," with "a polite audience and an extremely unnerved and often inaudible writer," said John Hodgman, creator of the Little Gray Book series. The shift toward performance was evolutionary, said Jonathan Ames, who began performing in 1993 as a way to ease a particularly acute case of writer's block. "The cumulative effect of the dullness created a Darwinian adjustment," said Mr. Ames. "It just began to happen." (He has been known to loosen up an audience by distributing diagrams of his balding pattern, "to let them know I was on top of it.") It was a reading series called McSweeney's -- organized in 1998 by Dave Eggers, a novelist whose skill at extemporaneous riffing drew large crowds and inspired riskier performances among readers -- that set the standard for the new type of reading.
Call me old fashioned, but I like the typical boring reading. I don't go with the main view to be entertained, I go to readings because I like the author and want to bask in the author's presence and see what the person looks like in real life (most I have seen tend to be shorter than I imagined). Of course I appreciate a good and practiced reading. I also hope for a good story or two (P.D. James was marvelous on this front. She had the sixty or so of us captivated with her story of giving birth to one of her children during and air raid in World War II). It's fun to find out a little about the person behind the pen. And people buy books at these readings, I've seen them. I've been them. According to the article, the performances don't generally inspire anyone to buy a book. Perhaps a "typical reading" is as much performance as Arthur Bradford playing a guitar while he reads and then breaking the guitar at the end--author as rock star. But it seems to me if you need a gimmick, then you probably didn't give a good reading in the first place. I think this whole performance thing is more performance art than literature. It has its place, but I hope it doesn't become the expectation. Though Margaret Atwood making me a drink while she reads is kind of appealing. And maybe Hillary Clinton could bake her audiences chocolate chip cookies. That, I'm sure would be a crowd pleaser.