Yesterday, Michael H. Miller of the New York Observer posted an article on the insufferable nature of readings, and if you’ve ever been to one, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement right now because, with few exceptions, readings are terrible experiences.
Best case scenario, a reading involves listening to a friend read for about fifteen minutes and, depending on how, you know, good this friend is, it’s not so bad. Not that it really matters, because you’re going to fall all over yourself telling your reader friend how incredible he/she was. And, really, the point isn’t how good he/she was, but that you’ve shown your support. Despite all the problems with readings, they do foster friendships, essentially doubling as ceremonial cheer sessions.
Now, if you’re lucky (and also not concerned with propriety) your reader friend will be first in the lineup and you can dash out before the next, unknown reader takes the stage. But, should you choose (or be forced) to stay, you’re more than likely about to enter a zone of impenetrable boredom that will last for an unspecified amount of time. Prepare to turn that wall in front of you into middle distance as a non-fiction MFA from some woodsy upstate school traces his suburban origins through uninteresting anecdotes told uninterestingly. That bit about the neighbor cat eating the family gerbil is so dull it can’t possibly be made up.
Because here’s the thing–listening to someone read is hard. The written word (poetry can be an exception, but too many poets fall into the same auto-deliver as their prose peers) is meant to be read. Not heard. Every time a writer verbally delivers his or her story, let’s face it, he/she is asking a lot of you. Think about it this way: how sharply perceptive can you be expected to be when the situation is a room (probably crowded) and all that is happening is a person is reading. There is no stimulation! Think about similar situations. Do you remember much of your commencement speech? When you were in a class, didn’t you immediately tune down your ears once you realized your teacher was giving a memorized lecture?
But Miller’s article is great because it sheds light on a dark, dark corner of the literary world, not because it gives answers. Perhaps there are no answers. The best part of the article is when Miller gets at the fundamentally contradictory nature of readings, stating: “while these turgid, awkward, too-often sexless events are an evil necessity, not enough people enjoy them to justify their existence.”
So we are stuck with them. But here’s something–because people will never stop pretending they are happy to be at readings, perhaps we should take the only really good thing about readings–supporting one’s friends–and adapt that idea. Perhaps it should become socially acceptable for friends to go out together and cheer for each other and their pursuits, for no particular reason. That would be way more fun, anyway.