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.

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

July 6, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

tyson_wideweb__470x364,0Yr. 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.