I am sitting in a private flat on Bloomsbury Square in London, waiting to be read a short story by the Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy. There is a glass of cold champagne in my hand. The walls are hung with dazzling contemporary canvases, and pieces of arresting sculpture are scattered about the space. And despite all this loveliness, I am filled with a familiar creeping dread. The problem is, I hate readings.
Even though I write novels myself and have participated in my fair share of readings, I have never been able to see the point of them. Just hearing the word (usually uttered by an earnest and well-intentioned community arts administrator in an itchy-looking sweater coat and bifocals) gives me the urge to scroll through my e-mail in search of an urgent note from, say, my insurance broker – anything at all to detract from the crippling tedium brought on by the culturally conscripted reading of recently published literary fiction. It's horrible and hypocritical of me, I know. But there it is.
Tonight, however, I am in luck, because this reading isn't actually a reading at all. Yes, it involves a noted author of fiction speaking aloud a long string of words she happens to have written – but there is no podium, no stilted introduction, no guilt-inducing table of earlier works for sale on the way out. This is PinDrop Studio, a successful London-based storytelling series, which has a refreshingly simple and unique aim: short stories told in amazing settings. It's about being read to, as opposed to attending a reading. The distinction, while admittedly subtle, makes a world of difference.
For starters, the notion of listening to a short story in its entirety (as opposed to sitting through a random excerpt from a recent novel) has a funny way of breaking down the barrier between reader and audience. Kennedy, a tiny, mischievous-looking woman, sits in an arm chair in the corner looking out at the room as if she is not entirely sure what's about to happen. Finally she thanks our host and PinDrop's co-founder, the Mayfair gallery-owner Simon Oldfield, for inviting us to his beautiful flat. "But I always feel nervous when people have nice things," she adds with a shiver.
Then she begins to read. The story, titled This Man, is an interior monologue in the third person from her latest collection, All The Rage. It is difficult to describe the experience of hearing it except to say that as soon as she starts, the mood in the room shifts. The audience are lulled into a parallel state that feels a bit like the place between dreaming and consciousness. The last time I took this much pleasure in listening to a story, it was as a child at bedtime.
PinDrop's other co-founder, the novelist and journalist Elizabeth Day, says this is precisely what she and Oldfield were hoping to achieve with their series, which launched just over a year ago and has since booked story readings by Lionel Shriver, William Boyd and Julian Barnes. "When I was a little girl, I absolutely loved having stories read to me," Day told me. "But as an adult I realized you don't have that opportunity any more. There are literary festivals which are formal and quite intimidating, or there are audio books which are wonderful but very isolating. But with PinDrop, we're not trying to sell or promote anything. It's purely for the direct experience of the story."
The directness, in this case, is brought home by the intimacy of the room, the haphazard nature of the seating and the chatty camaraderie of the guests. PinDrop is casual – which is not to say inherently light. According to Day, it's not uncommon for guests to be moved to tears. And it's not restricted to literary types, either. A number of actors (including the British TV comedian Alistair McGowan and the acclaimed Irish theatre actress Lisa Dwyer Hogg) have turned up to read stories they chose.
PinDrop events have taken place in all manner of glamorous settings around the city, from the magnificent Royal Academy of Arts to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster to Regent's Park Open Air Theatre. Last fall, PinDrop hopped an ocean to host its first New York event headlined by the novelist Colum McCann, who, like Kennedy, read one of his own short stories. (Many authors choose to read stories written by writers other than themselves.)
Meanwhile, here in Bloomsbury Square, the night is winding down. Kennedy has finished her story and sits in the corner kibitzing with guests. The rest of us sip our champagne and complain good-naturedly about our lives, in the way that Londoners do. The feeling is more cocktail party than "cultural event." And yet I sense that everyone here has been moved by this experience in some way. Great short stories told in amazing settings. It's such a simple concept and yet it's changed my notion of how literature works. Readings can be unbearable because we saddle them with stultifying cultural baggage. Being read to, on the other hand, is perfectly sublime.