"Readings can be tricky affairs," Irish author Aidan Higgins wrote. "There's nothing more calculated to cause a gritting of the teeth, a shudder of the spirit or even a rising of the gorge than to be voluntarily confined in a Function Room to endure an hour-long ranting by the author in person, of predigested matter now regurgitated, delivered in a monotonous drone. It is enough to make a cat laugh or a dog throw up."
Public readings by beloved authors that will grace, or litter, the country this fall (depending on your point of view), or readings by obscure poets endured from the sore-bum folding aluminum chairs at the local library, both afford the same ambiguous prospect.
Why then do we go in such numbers, when the possibility of hair-numbing boredom is so much a possibility? I mean we wouldn't go off to see, say, Rush if we thought Neil Peart would be keeping time with just the one cymbal, would we? Why do readers who experience the writer's work as an entirely private matter turn out in such numbers to experience it again as a public performance?
It's a puzzler even for the folks whose life work it is to promote and encourage writers to get up in front of an audience. John Fraser, Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, a venue for innumerable readings and book launches and other smart chatter, says, "Authors who go on for too long really, really irritate me."
And, while Fraser refuses to name names, he doesn't go on to qualify that statement with any suggestion that these cases are in a decided minority: "In our case, readings are more for the moral and psychological support of the author." Ouch.
Of course, Massey, being an academically oriented institution, gets more than its share of worthy scholars passionately declaiming on the Canadian implications of thermonuclear war – so consider the source.
That said, even the greatest literary voices on the page don't necessarily inspire confidence in the promoters tasked with selling their appearances beneath the proscenium. A senior programmer for one of the world's great literary festivals, loath to discuss the subject of poor performers on the record, says there are writers he won't be inviting back to the stage again on their own. "Some authors are simply better interview subjects than they are readers," he says.
Ben McNally, a bookseller in downtown Toronto who runs a variety of readings and author events, recalls attending a reading by Peter Matthiessen of his novel Killing Mr. Watson, a book McNally admired. "He was one of the worst readers in history, just excruciating; halting and monotone. It just seemed like a very difficult for him to do." McNally appreciated that in that instance both the audience and the work were done a disservice.
Still, the mere appearance of the author can often be enough to sate the public appetite. Yet that can often be enough.
"Part of what we offer is to remove the veil of mystery," says Geoffrey Taylor, artistic director of the International Festival of Authors. And that, he says, is an essential aspect of that event's brief as a vehicle for entertainment. "We're not a literacy organization … we have to compete with opera, theatre and movies." In short, in certain instances, the loyal reader of a particular author/icon need only touch, as it were, the hem of the garment in order to be "entertained."
Moreover, Taylor says, in the right setting on the right night, a reading affords an experience both profound and elemental: "After I heard Rohinton Mistry, I never read his work the same way. I can't get his voice out of my head."
Charles Foran, Mordecai Richler's award-winning biographer and a novelist in his own right, points out that the audience for a reading is looking to "widen that amazing experience of the conversation between the reader and the work by adding a third party. The reader is trying to get a feeling for the new participant. Is the author empathetic, sweet and enlightened or dyspeptic? And have I been reading his or her work correctly?"
Furthermore, the benefits of reading aloud don't necessarily accrue entirely to the audience. Bestselling Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, while dubious about public readings in his genre, admits that he, at least, still gets a lot out of it.
"I don't really think readings work that well for crime/mystery fiction; too much dialogue for one thing, and authors aren't often good enough actors to deliver different voices/registers. … I keep my reading to a minimum, five minutes or so – enough to give a flavour of the novel. I prefer talking about the genesis of the book … and taking questions. Sometimes audiences provide ideas for themes I could explore. … If they like a secondary character, I may decide to do more with that character in a future book."
And yet, for all the cynicism and faux bonhomie that characterizes the "show business" aspect of authorial public presentations, the reading, when it hits the sweet spot, still has that elemental appeal.
Random House Canada editor Anne Collins, while holding few illusions about just how wrong a reading can go, still "loves being read aloud to, taking language and story in through my ears.
"When you hear a brilliant reader like Julian Barnes or Peter Carey, you never wonder why readings exist. But it's hard. Choice of material and brevity help. … Funny often is the best choice, but I've heard Annabel Lyon, for one, read a battlefield scene of some gruesomeness, and the whole auditorium held its breath. When it works, it's magic."
Last year TV icon Ken Finkleman arrived in Uxbridge, Ont., to promote his first novel Noah's Turn on a bill with fellow scribes Lisa Moore and Trevor Cole. Patrons of the local arts festival were mystified when Finkleman announced from the stage that, in his view, reading from his own novel (as advertised) wouldn't be sufficient to properly hold the audience's attention. He then proceeded, instead, with his rendition of works by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
Perhaps the quintessential tale of the reading gone wrong relates to the late novelist Matt Cohen. The story is something of a talisman of the trade, passed from author to author down the years. Cohen, it seems, found himself arriving, on a dead of winter book tour, in some northern outpost of the dominion. He had instructions to head to a local high school for the event.
On arrival, he found a barely illuminated building with a note pasted to the front door directing the audience where to go. Cohen wandered the darkened halls and saw a feeble light emanating from the designated classroom. He entered to find an audience of one. Cohen settled himself at the front facing the otherwise empty rows of desks. After a decent interval he enquired of the man whether they might be better off retiring to some local boite, there to discuss the work and otherwise drown their mutual sorrows.
"Nope," said the man, folding his arms into a pose of skeptical anticipation. "I'm here for the reading."
Douglas Bell co-wrote the screenplay for the recently released film Afghan Luke. He's thankful that professional actors were paid to read those words.
Note to readers This story has been changed to reflect the following print correction: Kenneth Finkleman read from the works of Rainer Maria Rilke at an arts festival in Uxbridge, Ont., last year, rather than from his own novel Noah's Turn in accordance with the festival program. Incorrect information appeared on Saturday.