Last night was the Bobbie Ann Mason reading at the University of Memphis. My husband came with me because we had just been at a dinner event for his work. On the way home afterward, he asked me, “Why do they have things like this? Why do people attend them? What do they get out of it?” My husband doesn’t care for literature. He will read my poetry and fiction, and that is pretty much all of the reading he will do the entire year.
The first way I answered that question was from the writer’s point of view: “The writer reads interesting excerpts from his or her novel or short story to encourage people to buy his or her book.”
Then, from my point of view: “I go to see someone in my profession. I learn from what they do or don’t do and figure out what sort of professional writer I would want to be.”
Then, from other people’s point of view: “I guess they go for some of the celebrity, to see a writer who’s book they’ve read and want to meet, or ask them some questions, hear something beautiful.”
For me, I don’t quite understand going to see fiction writers read. Poetry is meant to be listened to. Most fiction doesn’t have the same musical quality poetry does, and usually there’s only enough time for a fiction writer to read a couple of scenes from their work. To me, these never seem enough. Maybe if they could read the whole piece aloud, I’d feel like I’d gotten some sort of resolution, but just reading scenes feels too much like reading one stanza out of an entire poem. It doesn’t draw me to read more; it just annoys me.
There is also that joy of hearing a writer read his or her own words, but sometimes there is also disappointment: you expected them to have some beautiful drawl or a deep baritone and their voice comes out whiny or soft. I saw Mark Doty read at Rhodes College many years ago. I had read a lot of his poetry and enjoyed its beauty and seriousness. When he came to read, I was surprised how jovial and friendly he was. He read these lilting lines about grief and mortality trippingly. I wanted him to be morose, to wear tweed, to read his poetry with an appropriately morose tenor.
Writers are really never what we want or imagine them to be. They never answer our questions right. They wear an open shirt with no undershirt and a silver necklace nestles in their exposed chest hair. They make bad jokes or wear ill-fitting dentures. I can understand why people say we must divorce what the author wrote from the author. There is something that gets ruined when the “real” author bumps up against the author we imagine while we are reading. I build a relationship with that imagined author and then when I meet the real person and he or she is painfully human, it damages that for me just a little bit.
Why do you attend readings? What do you get out of them?