A former professor once said that she liked to think of readings as gifts: something that one gives one’s audience. That listeners can enjoy and take meaning, amusement, solace from. Or anything, really; it’s the author’s gift to give. What it does is, by and large, up to them.
I am fortunate to live in a city never wanting for literary events. This year, especially as it was one of my writing resolutions to attend more readings, I have had the chance not only to experience these events, but to observe just what sort of “gifts” their authors are giving.
Here are some observations I’ve made– both as an attendee, and as an author taking notes for the hopeful Someday she might be on the other side of the podium. First,
As a listener:
1. Most readings consist of the same parts: introduction/stand up (the author introduces him/herself and drops a few well-chosen lines to get listeners laughing and engaged); the actual reading of material from the book the author is there to promote; open Q&A with the audience; the signing of books.
2. Every author reads differently. Some authors read a great deal. Some don’t. Some read from books other than what they are there to promote, or in addition to it, and some read what they’re working on now or just wrote that morning.
3. Distraction happens. People sneeze. Babies cry. Small children, and occasionally long lines of teenagers thread through the audience or before the podium at THE MOST inconvenient occasions. A speaker can either read on, or, as David Mitchell did, take it in stride: acknowledge a running child with, “Hello, little person!” a throng of teens with “Hi guys!” and a crying infant with “It’s my reading, and he can cry if he wants to.” For me, this last approach really harkens back to the gift-giving aspect: rather than shaming these people or willfully ignoring them (or indeed competing with them for the audience’s attention), one is reaching out to the source(s) of distraction in a respectful, playful, and even inviting manner. Thus rather than a nuisance, it becomes a bit of fun for the audience, and parents/sneezers/wanders-through are more likely to feel gratitude than embarrassment. Might even gain some new listeners.
As an author:
1. There is more than one way to engage with an audience. What a speaker can do beyond speaking is perhaps limited by context, but there’s a certain amount of room for creativity here. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, at one point discussed the small indulgence of appreciating smell, and as a sort of enhancing prop passed around vials of some of her favorite handmade scents.
As someone with classroom experience, I could see engagements taken in other directions, too: shows of hands. Short games. Trivia with candy/literary/other prizes. As long as it’s relevant.
2. What a presenter can give is not limited to a great performance. I’m thinking specifically of David Sedaris here, who makes a point of giving his listeners (particularly teens, who it is rarer to see at readings) some kind of physical token to take home. He gives small things, random things: tiny plastic toys, postcards, bracelets, hotel shampoos, packets of honey mustard, things from his pockets, sometimes things former listeners have gifted him (like a small box of chocolates, which he couldn’t eat).
Obviously this is one to exercise good judgment with, but for Mr. Sedaris’s standard genre (humorous creative nonfiction) it’s both amusing and appropriate. And what an unusual, lasting impression it makes!
3. If you’re trying to generate interest in something other than your book, a reading may be a good place to do it. I have seen newsletter signups passed around (Rubin) and authors promoting another author’s book alongside their own (Sedaris). Both alluded to these extras only briefly, and did so in a non-intrusive way.
Again, though, it’s all about relevance. Most readings are not places for promoting political agendas, etc.
4. If you don’t want to take pictures with people, you don’t have to. As a presenting author, you can work with the bookstore/library/school etc. staff to establish some ground rules beforehand. While some speakers are naturally photogenic and happy to pose with those getting their books signed, others would prefer not to pose, and some would rather not take pictures at all. David Sedaris mentions a sly trick in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: he asks the bookstores to put out a large sign forbidding photography, and makes it sound like it’s their policy that photos not be taken.
5. Engagement doesn’t have to end at the event. Many authors are on social media, and some take to the Tweets (/tumbls, etc.) after a reading to continue engaging with people who came to see them.
BJ Novak favorited my Tweet. I felt Twitter famous.