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 faireto 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 whole enterprise.

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.

Joan FrankComment