TSR smackdown: Steven W. Beattie vs. Pasha Malla, Part one
Yr. humble correspondent has recently been in contact with Pasha Malla, the author of the Trillium Prize-winning debut collection, The Withdrawal Method, who is currently serving as writer-in-residence at Berton House, in Dawson City, Yukon. Malla agreed to participate in an online discussion about literary readings for TSR. Part one of the resulting conversation appears below. Note that the participants in this online exchange may not be exactly as pictured.
SWB: The culture of literary readings is kind of strange: there are apparently grown adults who will pay money to hear authors read aloud from their work. I’ve heard some people suggest that the impulse behind this is embedded in the memory of being read to as children, but I’m not sure that I’d go quite that far. I think for many people, hearing an author read is a chance to get closer to the creator of a literary work, to see an author up close and personal, as it were. For me, if an author is a skilled reader, it’s interesting to hear how she interprets her own work: where she places the inflection in particular sentences, for example, which may be very different from where I would place the inflection while I’m reading. In certain cases, the experience can be revelatory. I remember reading a passage from Infinite Jest years ago, and thinking it was okay, nothing special. Then I heard David Foster Wallace read it aloud, and I was actually crying with laughter. It’s as though a light bulb went on in my brain and I thought, “Oh, now I get it.” I wonder what it’s like for you, on the other side of the podium? Are you conscious of performing your work for an audience that might or might not share your literary sensibility?
PM: Well, to begin with I’ll tell you a little story. A few years ago, on the way to the Ann Arbor Book Festival, I stopped in Windsor to visit a high school friend of mine, Joel. Joel’s a great guy, and we still get along really well, but as adults we’ve come to inhabit two very different worlds. He asked why I was going to Ann Arbor and I told him: for a reading. He didn’t understand what this meant, so I explained that I would be reading my stories in front of people. “Out loud?” Yes. “Why?” Obviously I didn’t really have an answer to this question, or at least one that made sense to either of us.
Here’s another story (somewhat unsubstantiated, though illustrative all the same). A friend of mine was telling me that he knows a Russian author who, back in the most oppressive days of the old USSR, found it impossible to publish his writing, which the state deemed subversive material. Even pamphlets he and his friends produced and attempted to circulate were confiscated and destroyed, and most of his literary circle had spent at least some time in prison. So the only way for him to disseminate his work was through public readings – and even then the KGB would often turn up afterward and kick the shit out of the writers. So obviously you can imagine the immediacy and necessity of reading your work aloud in that sort of climate, how empowering and significant it must have felt to even be in the audience under those circumstances.
So these are the extremes: total irrelevance and life-or-death urgency. Obviously as a writer/reader you’d like to be on the more urgent end of the spectrum; the problem is that, for me and writers of a similar demographic, there’s nothing really that urgent about reading for 15 minutes from a book that anyone can buy and read themselves. The writer’s life, financial struggles aside (and, that said, in Canada we’re incredibly lucky to have such a strong grant system), is a pretty cushy one; getting out in public and presenting your work is less political victory than marketing opportunity. I’m being facetious, and I’d like to think most writers don’t view readings this way, but it’s hard to argue that there’s much at stake for either writer or reader at, say, the IFOA, at least when you compare it to some grotty basement speakeasy in St. Petersburg being stormed by the KGB.
So my feeling is that it’s up to the writer to raise the stakes. I think your story about hearing DFW read from Infinite Jest is a good one, although that’s what you took from it, and while it definitely has something to do with how well he performed his work, it remains an entirely subjective experience. For me as a writer I feel like it’s on me to make my readings feel urgent – and that begins with feeling myself that what I’m doing is urgent.
SWB: Well, it’s urgent in the sense that it’s another mechanism for getting works of art in front of a public, and given the Harperites’ evident antipathy toward anything cultural, that is itself a political act. True, nobody’s shooting at you while you’re doing it and, unless you’re Ernst Zundel, you’re unlikely to get carted off to jail for reading your work in public. Still, in our current frosty political climate, there’s something almost subversive about standing up in public and declaiming, “I’m an artist: listen to me.”
Still, for publishers at least, readings do seem to tilt more toward marketing than toward art. The measure of how well the writer performs is in how many books get sold afterward. I know I’ve picked up books I otherwise would not have because I was engaged by the way an author read (again, the subjective, effective aspect of readings); similarly, I’ve passed over books because an unskilled reader has made them sound ponderous and plodding.
I don’t want to make it sound like writers are tantamount to trained seals in this context, but the entertainment aspect of a reading is clearly important. Many people avoid readings because they find them boring; this usually has to do with the way authors present their material. Your readings are quite lively, but there are other writers who seem to forget everything they’re supposed to know about tone and rhythm when they step onstage.
In one respect this is understandable: asking writers, who spend the majority of their time alone in a room, to get up in front of hundreds (okay, dozens) of people and be entertaining is contrary to their natures most of the time. Writers perform on the page; actors perform on the stage. They are two entirely different skill sets. As a writer, how do you overcome this apparent disconnect?
PM: I agree with you about the need to entertain, but the way I deal with the disconnect is to treat readings as something else entirely. Generally I’ve gotten a lot less interested in getting up and doing a straight reading from my book. As you point out, it can often feel like the writer is just up there trying to sell a product, and that makes me really uncomfortable. Obviously books are commodities, but I try (with due respect to the good folks at Anansi) to avoid being reminded of that aspect of what I do as much as possible.
What’s great about readings is that writing can be such a lonely enterprise, and it’s nice to be in the same room with, and witness the responses of, actual human beings – and, as you mention, that sort of experience has the potential to feel almost political. With that in mind, I interpret my role in that context – up in front of everyone, presenting creative work – as having the potential to enjoy and maybe even foster some sense of community, or at least intimacy and camaraderie. And that’s something I don’t think can be achieved reading from a published book, which feels a little too polished and as such sort of impenetrable. It becomes didactic, the writer talking at the audience; for me it’s more interesting to think of the whole thing more in terms of a conversation. That’s why I like reading new stuff, often first drafts, or telling off-the-cuff stories, asking the audience questions, making lame jokes, whatever. Essentially I want to seem like a human and not some performing automaton, which I hope facilitates a connection with the people in attendance. Ideally it creates an atmosphere of access and agency and everyone in the room is part of a collaborative experience.
So the danger with this is that there’s an expectation of readings that the writer should be entertaining people – get up there and put on a good show! – and with that is the expectation of a polished performance. I mean, you wouldn’t go to a play to see people flub their lines and miss cues and fall over on stage (or maybe you would, that could actually be kind of fun).
Anyway, if people do expect polish, my approach could be construed as narcissistic. But I really just want readings to have a sense of immediacy – not just for the reader, though that’s important, but for everyone there. To me getting up on stage with something that’s less than perfect – something that likely only exists on my hard-drive and in my hands – is more generous than a rehearsed recitation of the same published passage, again and again. I remember seeing Peter Carey do a reading in Toronto and then a couple days later in New York – he read the exact same bit, exactly the same way, gave the same preamble, and concluded with the same joke. Your experience of books is so individual, you want the author’s readings to feel the same way – and this just felt like a rip-off.
SWB: The other advantage of reading unpublished material, I suppose, is that the audience doesn’t come at it with any preconceptions. If they’ve read a particular book before, they may have an idea of how it should come across (i.e. the way it came across in their heads as they were reading). If the author strays from this preconception, it can be revelatory (à la DFW), or it can be disappointing. By premiering new material each time, this disappointment is mitigated.
There’s also a sense of an author working without a net by reading the first draft of something, which has the potential to work really well or to fall completely flat. At a reading in Vancouver, Bill Gaston read an early draft of “Freedom,” a story that later appeared in Gargoyles. I got the sense that he was testing the waters, so to speak – gauging how the material would go over with an audience. He told me later that he’s often surprised at what people laugh at (and what they don’t), and at what gets the biggest reaction, and this prompts him to think about the story in a different way. Do you ever experience anything similar when you read new material? (Assuming, of course, it’s stuff you intend to publish at some point.)
PM: Yeah, totally, that can be one experience of reading new stuff, and might have been one of the initial reasons I started doing it. But then that alone started to feel a little self-serving – treating the audience as a sounding-board. Maybe some people would be into it, but I don’t think I have anything even approaching “fans” who are dying for early looks at my stuff. So as I said, it’s more an attempt to break down some of the barriers between author and reader.