TSR smackdown: Steven W. Beattie vs. Pasha Malla, Part two

July 20, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

tyson_wideweb__470x364,0This is part two of TSR’s coversation with Pasha Malla about the culture of literary readings. Part one can be found here.

PM: Have you had experiences at readings when hearing a writer you like read has been disappointing? Has the text ever been ruined for you?

SWB: Oh, sure, you copped to the Peter Carey thing, so now you’re putting me on the hot seat. I get it.

I’m not sure that I’ve had an experience where a text has been ruined for me, but I have sat through many readings in which the author never once looks up and recites the text in a kind of robotic monotone. Those are particularly painful. By and large, I find the younger the author, the more comfortable he or she is in front of a crowd. That’s a huge generalization, of course, but it’s true more often than not. I think this may have something to do with the fact that younger authors today have grown up in a culture of celebrity and attention, where fewer people are reticent to expose themselves in front of strangers (think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc., to say nothing of American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance.) I remember reading about Graham Greene, who couldn’t fathom why on earth he’d want to meet his readers, let alone interact with them. These days, of course, it’s expected.

But to get back to your original question: while there haven’t been any authors I admire who poison their work for me by reading it aloud, I have been surprised by authors when I encounter them in the flesh at readings. I once heard Joyce Carol Oates read from her novel Zombie, which is a fictional account of a serial killer, told in the first person, and loosely based on Jeffrey Dahlmer. When I read the book, I found it terrifying, muscular, and slashing. Then this tiny woman ascends to the stage, with huge glasses that make her eyes stand out like an owl’s, and begins reading in a thick New Joisey accent (she pronounced “zombie” to rhyme with “Bambi”). To say I was startled would be an understatement. But, I can still read that book and feel the same frisson I did the first time, so the disconnect was clearly not sufficient to turn me off the writing.

Then there are those times when an author’s idiosyncratic delivery actually augments the material. On the new Criterion release of John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, there’s a rare audio track of O’Connor reading her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Hearing that story in O’Connor’s heavy Georgia accent gives the writing a cadence that it doesn’t necessarily have in a reader’s mind, even despite the fact that her writing was so steeped in the rhythms of the Southern dialect.

PM: I totally have to watch that movie! I love Wise Blood (the book) so much. And I do want to add that I still really like Peter Carey: I understand that touring can be exhausting, so having a go-to bit makes it that much easier.

I think that the expectation for writers also to be performers can be unfair. It seems counterintuitive to a career based in solitude and the much more contemplative, private practice of typing, thinking, editing, retyping. I know a lot of writers who loathe the idea of getting up in front of strangers and performing; if they wanted to do that, they reason, they would have been actors – or maybe politicians.

How integral are readings, really, to a writer’s success? I mean, if you’re not particularly good at them, isn’t it likely more helpful not to do them at all? Maybe, in our “increasingly wired age,” or whatever people are calling it, the mandatory public performance will start to phase out, or at least become more of an option, rather than an obligation.

Here’s (what I hope is) a relevant example: recently I went to see a band that’s benefited almost exclusively from huge Internet hype. They went from basically one guy recording a bunch of stuff in his bedroom to, thanks to a bunch of glowing Web reviews and blog posts, indie rock’s Next Big Thing. Now, the record is actually pretty solid, and I think actually does live up to the hype. But their live show, at least when I saw them, was horrible: sloppy, amateurish, boring.

In the past, bands used to have to tour small clubs and gain a following that way; these guys had generated interest from Facebook and Twitter and their Myspace page, and had already MADE IT in a lot of people’s minds before anyone had ever seen them play live. That might sound critical, but I’ve realized that this is just another option for musicians, and maybe that’s okay. Why toil as a shitty live band when polished versions of your music are so easily accessible to anyone with broadband access? And, to get back to writing, maybe it’s possible that writers will be able to harness the Internet in a similar way, rather than having to go out on book tours or do the festival circuit or whatever, especially if that’s something they don’t feel comfortable doing and might even be detrimental to their careers.

This is not to say it’s something I want for myself. As I hope I’ve made clear, I love the face-to-face interaction of readings. But some writers don’t – and, as you point out, those are the folks who aren’t particularly captivating performers, and so their “live show” rarely gains new fans. It’s maybe nice to think that the web offers another alternative for writers to get noticed beyond reading out loud to strangers to get them to buy your books.

SWB: I find it interesting that you use the word “fans” to describe the people who attend readings. As part of her Twitter meltdown following a (slightly) negative review in the Boston Globe, Alice Hoffman snapped, “I don’t have fans, I have readers.” I’m fairly certain this is not an isolated attitude among writers, particularly writers of a certain age. Now, you’re a pretty affable guy, and you genuinely seem to enjoy mingling with your readership. But, do you think it should be incumbent upon writers to be expected to do this? I guess this touches on the cult of celebrity: to what extent do you think public appearances (readings, signings, etc.) have become a necessary part of the process for writers these days?

PM: Hey, whoa, I’d never call anyone who attends my readings “fans.” Ha! More like “people trying to have a quiet drink/browse a bookstore and unwittingly stumble on something disruptive.” Maybe that’s a little harsh …

Anyway, no, I don’t think writers have to engage with their readers at all. It’s just something I like doing, and has nothing to do with selling books. I gave a reading at the Toronto Public Library last year as part of the Luminato Festival, and there was an elderly guy in the audience who got up during the Q&A period and really laid into me – said I wrote about nothing, that I believed in nothing. I thought it was great. We chatted afterward and it turned out that he was a Dachau survivor, a Hungarian war orphan, a genuinely fascinating guy and definitely worth listening to – someone who’s lived it, you know? We exchanged e-mail addresses and maintain an ongoing correspondence, though that faltered some when he dismissed last year’s Greyhound bus beheading as a “psycho-homosexual quarrel.” Anyway, he’s definitely no one I would have had the chance to engage with had I stayed sequestered in my apartment with my laptop.

But that sort of experience definitely isn’t for everyone. I’m not really sure how the culture’s developed, either, to the point where authors are such public figures. I have to admit that my history on that is pretty shaky – I don’t know whether it’s a new phenomenon or something that’s always been part of the job. Though I would differentiate between the “cult of celebrity” that exists around someone like Philip Roth and a Canadian small-press author who does a reading at an independent bookstore in Guelph (I’m thinking of The Bookshelf, here: a truly awesome little spot). I suppose readings and touring and festival appearances are all part of the gig once you have a book out – that is, if your publisher has the funds to swing it and genuinely wants to push you.

I do think that authors are sold to the public as much their books are – and, again, I don’t know if that’s a more recent trend or not. But there’s an undoubted branding that happens at a bunch of levels. A number of people have told me that the Canadian version of The Withdrawal Method “looks like a Douglas Coupland book.” That floors me, that an author can be associated with (and monopolize) a certain visual aesthetic, especially when the covers of books are so much about marketing and sales. And I think the more known an author becomes, the more obvious this sort of branding is.

To deny that books are commodities is naive. But to start to feel like you, yourself, are becoming commodified – that’s pretty creepy. I certainly don’t exist at anywhere near the level of success and celebrity as Coupland (and I feel bad picking on him; he’s just one useful example), but any book – and, accordingly, its author – is advertised and sold to the public. I imagine that could be a disheartening process if a writer isn’t as fortunate as I’ve been to have a publisher and publicity team as conscientious and considerate as the good folks at Anansi. I’ve never once felt compromised, just allowed to be myself, and that’s been amazing, and a huge relief.

Feel like I’ve derailed the conversation somewhat. Sorry. Back to readings, right?

SWB: I don’t think you’ve derailed the conversation, actually, since readings are part of the way publishers “package” their authors, which I believe is a relatively new phenomenon. Not so much the “branding” of authors: that’s happened for a while. In the introduction to Different Seasons, for example, Stephen King talks about his publisher’s nervousness at the prospect of King being “typed” as a horror writer (something that didn’t bother King at all). But we have come to a point at which an author is expected to take a more active part the marketing of his or her book.

When I was working at Stoddart, we had this author’s questionnaire that we gave out to writers who signed with the house. One of the questions was, How do you perceive the author/publisher relationship? My favourite response to this question was: “I don’t know. I write the books and you sell them?” Which sounds like just a funny quip, but there was a time when that was precisely the relationship. While the house was busy selling an author’s book, the author was in his garret writing the next one. Now it’s expected that the author get out there and actively promote the book, by giving readings, going on the radio, appearing at in-store signings and book festivals, etc. Houses are no longer likely to sign authors who are averse to putting themselves in the spotlight, which, again, seems counterintuitive for a group of people who spend most of their time alone or operating on the periphery of society.

PM: Sure, exactly, and if I’d felt like little more than a marketing tool, having a book out and appearing in public to support it would have been a pretty awful experience. So that’s another reason why I’ve been trying to figure out a way to do readings a little differently: not letting them feel like infomercials for my book. My hope is that the expectation of writers isn’t to unquestioningly capitulate to – or, worse, actively participate in – the machine and mechanisms of the business end of things. Although, with that said, writers also shouldn’t piss off their publishers by being difficult and so staunchly anti-consumerist that they actually end up sabotaging their own book sales.

There’s just got to be a balance. Obviously you want people to buy (and, far more so, read!) your books. This is an industry like any other, and the people who work in publicity and marketing are invaluable to lucky folks like me who are able to write for a living. But, as per your example (and that’s a hilarious, awesome thing for someone to say), marketing should fall on those who work in sales. A writer’s job is to write; if you want to get out and do readings and chat with people, that should be a choice, not an obligation – and a choice based in something beyond moving units (unless moving units is your thing, in which case: god fucking help you). And not to repeat myself too much, though I do think it bears one more mention: in my estimation, a good publisher is one that affords its authors the agency to make these choices – ultimately, as cheesy as it sounds, “to be yourself,” something I’ve been very fortunate to experience with Anansi.

So what about the introvert author who loathes even the idea of interviews and readings? I’d return to what I said earlier about the role of technology: thanks to the Internet, there are other ways developing to get the word out about writers and books. If it takes off (as I genuinely think it will), this e-book stuff could be a huge boon to indie presses, as buzz and attention can now so easily be generated independent of major media outlets and other traditional, highly corporatized channels, such as prime real estate on chain bookstore tables. (There’s a whole discussion here about the possible re-democratization of public space, but this probably isn’t the right forum for that …)

So while I doubt that the public reading will ever die, I do think that these newer models for “selling authors” have the potential to create a more level playing field, both for smaller publishers and writers whose books (and more so, I hope, the books themselves) may not be so easily marketable, and still maintain the integrity and individuality of the people behind the work.


One Response to “TSR smackdown: Steven W. Beattie vs. Pasha Malla, Part two”
  1. Andrew says:

    “By and large, I find the younger the author, the more comfortable he or she is in front of a crowd. That’s a huge generalization, of course, but it’s true more often than not.”

    That’s simply moronic.

    When will second-rate thinkers stop grasping for imagined generational distinctions based on social media?