I Know All There is to Know
About the Reading Game
by Joan Frank
On the occasion of the release of a new novel of mine, a writing
student e-mailed to ask:
"Just wondering—if you have you done any readings so far, how have
people interacted with you? I'm curious about authors' book signings
or readings. Have you had any strange or funny experiences?"
I stared at her words. Strange or funny experiences. How
could I answer in a way that wouldn't appall her?
Most writers with a reading or two under their belts know that the
event is theater, first and last: forced to compete these
days with so much else in real-time America, an author's got to
really shine to draw anyone to the gig.
By "shine," I mean the author should be fairly well-known in the
places she goes to read—also that she'll have the savoir faire
to have already publicized the daylights out of the event,
reaching out to every source of support she knows. Never least, she
must engage and provoke and (sorry) entertain.
In short, the burden of a reading's success falls more heavily than
ever on an author. Even some of the biggest names (publicists
notwithstanding) are required by publishers to help bang the
drum for their readings. In bookstores that allow it, I actually
haul snacks and beer or wine to my readings. I promise, it's worth
the expense. The author's a one-person show, and people's
lives—their distractions—are complex. Like it or not, you must
breathe deeply and shift into "showtime" gear.
Alas: even when an author has banged the drum loudly, alerting her
personal networks and posting notice of the pending event all over
the ether-sphere (and the bookstore, too, has done its part), the
outcome's often unpredictable. Much seems to depend on the day of
the week—who can know which is optimal?—the time of day, the
weather, and whether the event's date is a holiday or directly
follows a holiday. One's hunches about these variables grow nearly
superstitious. What does become crystal clear, though, is how
much—how very much—we owe our friends. If it weren't for mine,
despite exhaustive efforts, my own readings would often draw just
two or three people.
So when those lovely, amazing people (friends and strangers both)
do appear, of course, one's job as an author is to make them
passionately glad they did. One must sparkle. Don't just read an
excerpt. Tell a couple of juicy stories first, about the writing of
the story—a few memorable "hooks" you can toss out to allow
listeners to feel they're sneaking into the work's half-lit, secret
"back room" with you.
Then read like an angel. (You'll have rehearsed the passage at home,
naturally, timing it and marking any phrases that need extra
attention, using your breath and modulating your voice to pump heat
and color and music into it. Make the hour come alive. Make your
listeners catch their breath.)
And don't worry if you've had no sleep and are a nervous wreck.
Adrenaline sweeps you into its electric arms and dances you around
the room, making you a fountain of bubbling energy: someone even
you don't recognize.
The reward? Listeners are ignited, galvanized. They ask good
questions. They buy books. And you'll never forget that. You'll
always feel obliged to them, and you'll tell them so.
Likewise, however, you may also notice who did not show up.
And though you'd best never act on it or mention it, the awareness
lingers darkly. There's something almost Cosa Nostra-like about the
But here's a pleasant side-perk: after the reading, one feels
lightheaded with relief and lavish affection for everyone in
sight—for about 24 hours.
Then the whole ritual starts again, as the next reading looms.
My husband reminds me, as I sit beetle-browed over coffee the
following morning, that even if nine-tenths of last night's
reading's audience did happen to be personal friends—they bought
books. That's real. Undeniable. I'm certainly grateful for it.
And if the larger reality isn't quite what I wish it would be, that
will secure my membership in a big, big club, will it not?
I sent my writing student a few pleasant generalizations about how
readings tend to work. I didn't tell her about the long-haired young
man who snores in a back row, or the handful of tourists who enter,
sit, listen a moment, stand, and depart. I gently urged my student
to consider that the requisites of giving readings aren't exactly
restful—and reminded her to take fanatical care of her health.
I didn't append, "so that the adrenaline will pop forth at just the
right moment." That, she'll learn.