A paragraph in Alex Clark’s recent article on the current new wave of literary nights particularly caught my eye: “What of the writers who can’t, or don’t want to [read]? Those for whom the words on the page are the thing, not their talent for doing a turn?”
With a novel coming out soon and having been asked to appear at a fair few readings myself, it’s something I’ve considered a lot of late. Though flattered, it’s not a request I always enjoy. I’ve been to many literary readings — some brilliant, some cringeworthy — and know writers who excel at performing their work. But aside from playing Ronnie Corbett in a school production, and a drunken teenage tenure on bass in a punk band, I’ve never been one for getting on stage.
I know I’m not alone in this. There are a silent many who see a huge difference between writing and reading; those for whom writing is an intensely personal thing and, for some, a chance to express things that could not be spoken.
However, we’re living in era where a writer can’t just write. They have to be out there. I understand that. Some would argue that readings are part of a writer’s job; I would counter that if someone is terrible at an aspect of their job, then they should instead play to their strengths. I fear that a bad reading could be counterproductive.
So how does the performance-shy writer compensate? Well, fortunately there are many alternatives. Personally I’ve signed up to social network sites and built up mailing lists. With each inane tweet my dream of being a Salinger-esque enigma diminishes, yet it still feels a necessary evil. I’ve also schmoozed booksellers and chain store buyers, made audio recordings and printed up postcards that I leave in strategic places. It’s shameless really. Employing someone to read instead — an actor, say — is a tactic that can work well, as it did when I saw octogenarian Watership Down author Richard Adams launch a novel that had a young black slave as the narrator. I also once attended a memorably fraught J.T. Leroy reading not helped by inane vocal encouragements in the audience from Marianne Faithful. It was all the more baffling when it was later revealed that “J.T. Leroy” was not a young man but a female stand-in. And in fact J.T. Leroy never existed in the first place.
The question is: do readers expect their writers to be performers too?