What the Dickens?

Some novelists and poets are extraordinary readers. By all accounts, Charles Dickens was an incredible orator. And I’ve gotten goosebumps while listening to Dylan Thomas read Under Milk Wood in a recording.

But in general, I have to question the point of the majority of public author readings these days. They’re mostly quite dull and perhaps even a waste of time, no matter what the marketers think.

I often leave not wanting to read the book, and only buying a copy out of deference to the poor author, who more often than not looks like he or she is having a miserable time up there wedged between the shelves of self-help titles and adoring fans.

I was at a friend’s novel reading just last night and this feeling was palpable. His book seems fine. And he’s a sweet, thoughtful guy. But he’s far from being a lively performer.

My friend’s novel, like the majority of novels out there, was written to be read in private, not shared aloud with other people. And just because you’re a good writer, that doesn’t necessarily make you a good public speaker. Reading out one’s own work can also be particularly trying for an author. One just doesn’t have the necessary distance from the material to make it come alive in speech.

I understand that live author appearances help to sell books. However, as our reading habits become increasingly digitized and fans find ways to interact with their favorite authors through avenues like Twitter, Facebook and video feeds at festivals and conferences, I wonder whether publishers will eventually let go of public readings altogether? Book tours are certainly not as much of a priority for the publishing companies as they used to be, so it’s not like these words should come as much of a surprise.

And then there’s another aspect of technology to consider: One of the main reasons why a fan might attend a book reading is to get a signed copy of the book. But with Kindle editions of texts making the physical act of an author leaving his or her mark impossible (digital signature, anyone?) one of the main reasons for going to a live reading is fast becoming obsolete.

In order for live readings to have a place in tomorrow’s world (or even today’s) I think authors need to write increasingly with a live listener in mind. And they need to develop their delivery and interaction skills, maybe by taking acting or at least public speaking classes. Finally, the techies at Kindle and the other e-reader companies need to find a way to enable authors to sign digital copies of books. Maybe the technology already exists to do this. If so, it needs more uptake.


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  1. says

    Symphony Space many years ago originated the notion of “literature in performance,” in which actors would read stories and/or book excerpts, for the reasons you cite. Writers are not performers and most don’t have the training, never mind the predilection, to bring literature to life in a public setting. We have several literary programs which feature actors reading stories and book excerpts: Selected Shorts (available on public radio and as podcast), Thalia Book Club, Thalia Kids’ Book Club, and Bloomsday on Broadway (latter 3 can be heard at symphonyspacelive.org).

  2. says

    I’ve hosted quite a few salons in my studio, including several readings. I too have noticed authors often have no sense for the stage. I once presented three women writers. One was also an opera singer. She read wonderfully because she had stage training — though her thoughts were probably the most banal of the three. I’ve also noticed that authors who center their work around story-telling, like Malcolm Gladwell, can really hold an audience. I would guess that writers of children’s books are good public readers. I’ve also had good luck interspersing readings with musical performances.