Of lit salons and author readings

April 28, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Last night at The Spoke Club, Open Book Toronto hosted the inaugural edition of the Toronto Literary Salon, in partnership with The Spoke and Thompson Hotels. Yesterday’s event featured a panel consisting of authors Russell Smith (Girl Crazy), Joey Comeau (One Bloody Thing After Another), and David Eddie (Damage Control). The panel was moderated by Nathan Whitlock (A Week of This).

Modelled on the French literary salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, Open Book’s new endeavour is meant to be a place where authors and readers can come together in a casual environment to converse, exchange ideas, and maybe even get into some friendly disagreements. From Open Book’s website:

Do what engaged and curious people have done for centuries and gather with writers for a salon. The point? To amuse each other, to be inspired by writing and culture, to expand one’s knowledge and opinions through conversation. Salons are where true dialogue (and yes, often feisty arguments) emerge.

There weren’t many feisty arguments to be had last night, in part, I suspect, because of the size of the group, which increased the intimidation factor. (The audience filled the room, spilling over into a little alcove at the back, which was separated by a wall, so the poor souls who found themselves sequestered there could listen to the proceedings, but could not see the panel.) Moreover, the event was more structured than it was perhaps intended to be, resembling more a typical reading and author Q&A than a free-form discussion between audience and panel. Things did loosen up toward the end, but time constraints cut the conversation short just as it appeared to be gearing up.

One reason the event felt so structured was that it kicked off with each author giving a short reading. (Apparently, neither the authors nor the moderator were aware that there was a reading component to the event prior to arriving on the scene.) As anyone who has ever attended a reading knows, the culture of author readings imposes a separation between the performer and the audience. It’s difficult to smoothly transition from that kind of format to a more open conversation among a large(ish) number of individuals.

There was some discussion among the panelists about whether they enjoyed giving/attending readings – Eddie was in favour of them, Smith was opposed (and did an hilarious, spot-on impersonation of the kind of droning, monotone voice that certain poets adopt when reading their work aloud). Yr. humble correspondent tends to side with Smith, finding the vast majority of author readings tedious in the extreme. There is also something frankly perverse about expecting authors – who are usually introverted individuals and who spend the bulk of their days alone in a room wrestling with the contents of their own heads – to get up on a stage in front of an audience and entertain. The panelists were in general agreement that a reading is a public performance, but it seems to me that an author’s performance exists on the page. Once the book is finished, the author’s job is done. It’s now the reader’s turn to engage with the text the author has created.

I say that I tend to side with Smith, because there are isolated instances in which an author has been so proficient at performing his or her work that I have actually found myself – almost against my will – enjoying the experience. One example of this is a David Foster Wallace reading I attended years ago at Harbourfront’s International Fesitval of Authors here in Toronto. Wallace read a section of Infinite Jest dealing with a couple of inept thieves who burgle the home of a French Canadian man with a head cold. When I read the passage myself, it seemed clever, but nothing special. However, when Wallace read it, providing the requisite pauses and emphases, it was eye-wateringly funny. Here is an instance in which an author’s interpretation of his own material actually transformed the material in my estimation, making it leap off the page where once it had just sat there, inert. That, however, is the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, authors (who may be incredibly engaging when speaking extemporaneously) lose all their charisma and appeal the minute they begin reciting from their work. Not for nothing do people in the know try to time their arrivals at book launches strategically so that they miss the readings but are still able to avail themselves of the open bar.

I look forward to future iterations of the Toronto Literary Salon (there are three more scheduled, one in early summer and the other two in the fall), and hope that they will de-emphasize the more structured component and encourage greater dialogue between authors and readers. The danger is that such a free-form discussion could descend into anarchy, or be dominated by one or two voices. However, the upside would be an enhanced engagement with authors off the page, and perhaps even a few of those feisty arguments that sound so intriguing.


4 Responses to “Of lit salons and author readings”
  1. Rebecca says:

    Ah, Steven, I can never let this one go–I still like readings, attending them and giving them. Some authors aren’t good at it, some books don’t lend themselves to aural experience, but PR departments and the writers themselves should recognize that and not arrange the readings! And people who don’t like to listen–and I know there are plenty–shouldn’t go! I think there’d probably still be a few of us left in the audience, and then we’d have somewhere to put our coats!

    Readings are a chance to sample a book, to be let into a writer’s view of how it sounds, to maybe ask some questions or hear others do so, to talk to others in the audience, and maybe the writer him or herself. It is a chance to hear the person who likes the book best in the world present it to you, and let that voice resonate in your brain. It’s an honour to offer that, and (usually) a joy to experience it. If it isn’t, as Mr. Eddy said, “don’t blame the medium.” I dig both readings and discussions, and I really liked the salon yesterday. The only part I didn’t like–having looked forward to the readings for weeks and come an hour and a half out of my way–was being told I was dumb to enjoy it as much as I had.

  2. patricia says:

    I prefer discussions. As the clever Deanna said sitting next to me last night, “I want to know about the mind of the writer”. I already know what’s in the book, or I will find out on my own. Listening to someone read a part of a novel (and usually badly) will not enhance the experience for me. I like the organic, free-form banter.

    I enjoyed the evening, but didn’t think the readings at the beginning were necessary. I was also disappointed that it ended so suddenly. I for one could not afford to ‘continue the conversation’ for a $35.00 dinner. And speaking of the intimidation factor, I was hesitant to attend, because Spoke Club to me is all about the intimidation factor. I was also nervous about speaking, but then unfortunately for the group, the ‘big mouth broad’ factor took over.

  3. “Most of x is execrable” is a(n) (in)valid argument against just about any human undertaking. I’m with Rebecca.

  4. Nyla says:

    I don’t know why this kind of thing is a called a “salon” at all. In the 18th century it was just a mish mash of people from different cultural spheres. When you set up an event with authors (esp if they give readings) you’re not doing a salon in the strict sense of the term–commingling of ideas by people of different demographics, etc–you’re just assembling people in the manner of a book club. It sounds to me like the April 27 event was a book club, not a salon. I wish someone would organize a real salon in Toronto–not one made up of people from the same cultural camp all the time (e.g, literary, design/architecture, just poets, etc).