You had quite a response to your critique of literary readings. Enough to write another piece.( Globe and Mail, Russell Smith, Virtual Culture: “Why am I so grumpy about readings” Thursday, March 3, 2005 – Page R1) I debated whether I should wade in again (see Virtual Claptrap entry below) but here I am a second time to defend the practice of reading aloud to an audience.
You talked about the support for your position first, the readers who shared your “bafflement over why anyone would go to public readings”. My only bafflement is why you would go if you don’t like them? You don’t like tea? Don’t drink it. Why complain about all the tea drinkers who do and tea drinking in general?
There was the painter who supported you and compared “responding to art” to making love - the presence of a third party is not required. I think the analogy is not very apt. Making love takes two and it is helpful I think if the partner is in the same room. I had to think I would not like to be this artist’s partner- passive, inactive, for the “responders” pleasure only, like the art piece (or book) he is responding to.
I can agree with those who, like you, say that jazzing up reading with visuals is distracting. I go to a Readings for the reading not anything else. But you didn’t complain that Readings should be real Readings, you complained about the practice in general.
Finally you get to those who responded to your piece who found value in Readings. You say that on the RARE occasion when the author is “dramatic and entertaining, they can bring new levels of understanding and appreciation to their work.” I have to agree except that I don’t think it all that rare for good authors.”You say “Authors will inevitably disappoint” and you say we, including yourself. I have heard Robertson Davies and Farley Mowat and Margaret Atwood and Jane Urquhart and Peter Gzowski and quite a few others, including some lesser knowns. Rarely was I disappointed. It wasn’t until I heard Dylan Thomas read A Child’s Christmas in Wales (on tape) that I really LOVED it. What about Garrison Kieller, or Stuart McLean? Their work sings in their voices. And I have heard good writing read by others, not the author. Have you heard a good reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Perhaps it is the quality of the writing you have been going to hear that disappoints? What authors have you been hearing?
You say the heart of your discomfort with Readings is “the promotion of author as performer”. You believe that the thing should stand on its own and the author's intention is only a distraction to what is in the work. Again a Reading is a reading, not a Q and A session although that might come after, and might offer some interpretation which the “listener” can take or leave but the listener is still free to interpret the work in a singular way. Each listener will take something different from the reading depending on his/her experience. It is usually only an excerpt too, not the whole work.
I detect in your piece an attitude that this is a chore expected of authors. Some authors don’t like book signings either. What a bore. Yes. But like hockey players and celebs who give autographs it is a gift to fans who care for such things. Have you perhaps ordered one of Margaret Atwood’s autograph signing machines, Russell? A Reading is a gift to members of the public who buy books and authors can also get much from them. When I read my pieces in public sometimes the audience laughs or sheds a tear and this is helpful. I know I have reached my readers with my writing.
So I liked the response of the lady artist who told you that “one of the most exciting things about performance is the chance and vulnerability that surrounds the act itself and one of the joys of presenting your work in a public space is an exchange that can happen with your audience.” And you end with “Perhaps this exciting thing is exactly what we are afraid of?” Have you changed your mind? It isn’t quite clear. Have you reached your reader?