Why Do Literary Readings Always Make Me Want to Kill Myself?

Lynn Coady
Dec 24, 2012 · 3 min read

Because literary readings are subconsciously viewed as the cultural equivalent of bran. They’re good for us and therefore something we dutifully attend, like church or a community college life drawing class. They remind us of school. We associate them with homework, just as we might a visit to the textile museum. Yay, we get a day off school but, boo, we’re still learning about stuff. Whereas activities such as mini-golf, laser tag, electro-stim—we think of these as entertainments, something we do for fun in our leisure time. Literary readings aren’t going to shake their reputation as the added-fibre of our entertainment diet until the people who organize and participate in them snap out of this mentality. Organizers must insist to themselves and their audience that having some shlubby author stand up and grunt into a microphone while holding a book in front of his terrified, sun-deprived face equals one rip-snorter of a Wednesday night.

How do you do this? Here are some very basic strategies.

1—Serve liquor.

2—Do not make the writer stand behind a podium. Anything but. A podium reeks of the lecture hall. A music stand, on the other hand, is nicely minimal, and lends the writer—who usually needs all the help s/he can get—a musician’s second-hand cool-factor. A lone microphone in a stand is even more minimal, therefore cooler, and forces the reader to hold his or her sheaf of genius in one hand, or else memorize the whole reading and recite it, which can be very Kerouac.

3—Do not line up a bunch of chairs in front of the podium (which, remember, you won’t be using) for the audience to sit in. A bunch of chairs lined up in front of a podium equals school. Again, we need to dislodge that feeling of learning altogether.

4—Ok so yes, I’m basically just saying: hold the reading in a bar.

5—For the love of god, don’t turn on every fluorescent overhead light in the room and blaze it down on writer and audience. Stark lighting provokes an alienating, Gregor Samsa-type ambiance, which you don’t want. Think: mood lighting. Party lighting, even. We’re here to have fun, after all. A strobe light might be going too far, but why not a disco-ball?

6—Do not let the writer read for any longer than 15 minutes, 20 minutes max. I’m really serious about this. If the writer is a spotlight-loving diva, and who among us isn’t, only let them stay beyond their allotted 15-minute fame-window if they are willing to answer questions from the host or the audience. Audience participation can often inject a dose of adrenalin into your average dial-tone literary reading, especially if a handful of audience-members are mentally unhinged and, let’s face it, you can always depend on at least one crackpot at these things.

(Important note: if the audience doesn’t rise to the occasion and offer up a few questions/paranoid manifestoes for the author to respond to, fuck them, they’ve had their chance. Don’t let the poor author just stand there listening to crickets—shut it down and get him or her the hell off the stage.)

7—If the writer is wildly charismatic, a joy to look upon and a mesmerizing reader, sit back, relax, and give him or her the whole 20 minutes—hell, tack on another 5 minutes if everyone is really feeling it. Keep in mind there are maybe 6 writers in the world who possess these qualities.

8—Whenever a writer is not on the stage, play music. Encourage dancing. Not the arm-waving, art-weirdo, folk-festival kind (figure out a way to take these people down if they start working their excruciating mojo).

9—None of these rules apply if you are hosting authors such as David Sedaris, Diana Gabaldon, Salman Rushdie, Mike Holmes or Sarah Palin. Audiences for such people require no fluffing from you, the humble organizer. They arrive fully fluffed, which is, needless to say, ideal for all concerned.

The Moving Finger

Notes on the Writing Life