Federico Fellini was as brilliant in his prose musings as he was in crafting his cinematic wonders. He bemoaned and lambasted the transfer of movies from the communal house to TV and VCR. The newer technologies profoundly altered the viewer’s experience of those movies. No longer a “prisoner” on a cinema pew, the lucky moviegoer could grab two six-packs – beer and flicks – from the mall, drive home, pop one of the latter in the machine and one of the former down the bodily tube, then peek at the opening scenes while catching up with newspaper headlines, field incoming phone calls (with or without pausing the VCR), rewind the tape twenty seconds if a snatch of dialogue was missed, pause it for a non-metaphorical stargazing break or to visit the porcelain commode, or simply eject it mid-narrative out of a frenzied and happy surfeit of as-yet-to-be sampled diversions, cinematic or otherwise.
The modern viewer was the new boss: no more uncomfortable seats, unwanted audience participation, travelling inconvenience and expense, and (short of leaving the premises) lack of options during the film. Investment, in the deeper sense of the word, was tenuous. Parallels can be drawn with opera, sporting events, and cooking lessons.
Another association parallel can be made with literary readings at book launches, festivals, regional promotions, and ongoing venue series. The crystallizing idea of a literary event as truncated amusement – whether capriccio, metalinguistics, or willed hypergolic category mistake – has become a self-fulfilling intellectual accelerant. Like the info-beset VHS purchaser (now a key-clicker on Netflix, or downloader of nebulous legality), the audience may sign up to be haunted by supraliminal wonder, but, if event orchestration is any indicator, may also attend out of half-baked desire or (reversing Fellini’s contrasts here) social communion.
The poet, short story writer, or novelist now intervenes. “Some of this may be true, but I can’t compete with the fireworks of hockey playoffs, rock concerts, movies, TV, and the Internet.” Quite right, though you can compete with other poets, short story writers, and novelists. But the fatalistic shrug, this time from the audience, persists. “Artists who read from their own work are boring.” At times, yes. But does the fault lie with the work or with the reader?
Let’s investigate the reader’s complaint first. Most are aware of the familiar opposition: plugged-in, overloaded basement-brow Goliath versus page-turning, crafty Luddite David. Most also know who gets voted off the island these days. The outcome doesn’t resemble the Biblical dust-up. It’s the Fellini lament multiplied. We want the pre-digested, but now we want it cheap (or free), without delay, and in micro bites (or bite). But literary readers/authors aren’t competing with optically challenged philistines mistaking the Art Bar for the Dart Bar. Once the clean-cuticle bank dividend checkers conclude that the place is devoid of darts and loud rock, therefrom and therefore promptly departing, the reader is still confronted by the only audience that has ever mattered – those who have at least a passing interest in the highlighted genre.
Those convened on both sides of the microphone frequently bemoan the large number of vacant seats at literary events, the readers (obviously) the most disheartened. Michael Carbert, in an otherwise perceptive September 2008 Maisonneuve essay in September of 2008 for Maisonneuve, offered prescriptions to boost the roll call audience from thirteen to thirty. But everyone knows that most readings, outside of the yearly mega-events with a hundred participating readers or the few readings featuring name brand stars in (usually) well-established festivals, garner few attendees and even fewer neophytes. The focus should always be on quality over quantity, yet the latter is increasingly targeted. Hence the proliferation of gimcrack industries like the (now) international Literary Death Match, the organizational fribblers encouraging similarly produced spinoffs in (to list only two of many) the Vancouver Writers’ Series and the Guelph Spoken Word.
The caffeinated inanity of Literary Death Match enforces a seven minute time limit per actor (sorry, author). If the unfortunate reader actually dares a transformational eight minutes, he or she is body-puckered by a nerf dart. (Perhaps our hypothetic, optically challenged philistine would sign on for that.) The Vancouver Writers’ Series readers were are manacled by a six minute count, and the authors in the Guelph Spoken Word (admittedly more influenced by the Slam line) have to make do with three minutes. Next up: voting on a lone yelp.
The more common time constraints seem to hover around the fifteen minutes mark. That this is standard only emphasizes the conforming timidity of organizers in capitulating to a supposedly fidgety audience. I’ve never been able to understand this attitude. We’re repeatedly told by current practitioners that to go beyond a quarter-hour is to somehow invoke a Dantean sentence of purgatory, if not hell. Lynn Coady sets the familiar tone well: no imposing podium, softish lighting, comfortable seating, and most importantly, easily accessible alcohol and fifteen minutes of fortune if not fame. The sad part about Coady’s ideal literary reading? She’s right. But only if the reader is inept. And in that case, why show up at all? No, it falls on authors to demand (with exceptions stemming from various practical scenarios) lengthier reading periods. The aim of every reading (at least from where I balance on my wobbly plastic seat) should be wonder, if not transcendence, otherwise what the hell’s the poet or novelist really doing up there? Solidifying a career? If the reader cares to take the time to enunciate, project, pace (vocally), change dynamics, create effects with pitch and tone, use pauses wisely, engage with genuine gestures, and, most important, slow down, (along with reading from a worthy piece in the first place, of course), then the audience members who aren’t there just to socialize between and after sets have a chance at a transformative experience in a single, extended reading.
Now it’s time to flip the mirror. What about that (often true) whine, “the readers are boring”? Poets, novelists, and short story writers don’t get enough credit for their vocal capabilities. The failures outlined in the last paragraph are obvious to any audience member who’s attended more than a few readings, but many do a decent, if not exquisite, job in letting the glory of their creations do the work for them. After all, the author more than most, knows what sonic effect she wants to strike when stressing delayed consonantal twins, for example. Similarly, the tone a listener may have thought ironic upon first acquaintance with the page may turn out to be genuine when hearing the poet read the now dramatically altered passage. But the most important quality the audience member needs to bring to a reading is attention.
Awareness and attention. Everyone agrees on their importance, but how many pull a Todd Zuniga (founder of that Literary Death Match) and text a buddy after a desert of jokes at minute three, then awake to the proceedings at minute five when catching a multiple dessert of scatalogical clichés? And less obviously, how many intellectualize the small epiphanies, snapshot the deep images, and turn up the internal chatter, thereby drowning many subtle aural surprises line to line?
There’s no need to assign romance, nobility, or charm to the rhetorical effusions of mid-eighteenth century Jonathan Edwards competitors, nor to their stoically receptive parishioners under stark joists trying to ward off chilblains on ass-punishing pews. There’s also no need to follow the pendulum to the opposite and extreme arc, though that’s where the arrow is currently frozen. We live in distaste, if not terror, of being bored, and want our epiphanies paradoxically pre-ordered and familiar. We also want to like and admire the author, as if the reading is on a horizontal plane of easy reciprocity. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of performing, largely, for a coterie of sympathetic fellow pracitioners, made even more clubby by regional repetition. There are ways of avoiding the churchly mutuality, though: organizing events at non-traditional milieus (halls over libraries; parks over pubs) and in alien quarters (while on holidays, overseas). This is still market tweaking, however.
A poem on the page is not the same as a musical score. The squiggly type of the former can be voiced by a lone reader effectively; the latter usually needs a professional with ready instrument, if not a coordinated assembly and skilled direction. But to voice a poem, short story, or novel extract with a view to “entertain,” or to “enlarge” the words, perverts the original, just as altering the stage directions of a play or the staff markings of a sonata effectively contravenes the composer’s wishes, and usually makes a farce and travesty of the performance. Samuel Beckett and Dmitri Shostakovich weren’t shy regarding their crass interpreters. The playwright took some of them to court; the composer received LPs of his own work, then turned them into coasters. Wanting the author to perform her or his work in the spirit in which it was written, then, is likely going to mean a lot of unsensational voicing. This is a problem if one is only happy with tone-knockoffs of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf or “Howl.”
It’s not only OK-okay, but inevitable and historically par for the course that the receiver of art must often work to plumb a few depths – hidden metaphor, traded phrase-making, image hierarchy, voice tone, allusion, meta-punning, lyrical subtlety, narrative reverie – and that he or she must have the patience, good will, and love for literature to maintain energy and focus during the inevitable dull patches, wrong turns, and misunderstandings. Why? How else know when the tide has turned, and out of nowhere enters the startling phrase, the contextual epigram, the emotional shift? In sublime art, the author sometimes has such confidence in his own procedure that he purposely injects tedious prose into the fabric just to tease out a tear in order to make the contrast more amazing and worthy. Yes, authors at times botch their own works by ineffective presence and voice projection. Yes, at other times the acoustics and ambiance of the specific site are unredeemable. More often, though, patrons are guilty of receiving the words out of benign sociability or a “greatest hits” wishthe problem is really the audience’s, and their expectation to be both entertained and enlightened, when these are not always the same thing. It’s often easy to blame organizers, but it seems the argument here, again, hinges on comfort levels, both physical and literary.
It’s interesting that the six-to-fifteen minute monitors don’t have much of a problem with extended post-reading Q-and-A sessions, interminable pre-reading poetic statements, or lengthy set-ups to each individual poem. This reinforces another dynamic: the fact that we’re here to learn about the poet’s processes. The poems? Not so much. Unless and until the CanLit readership – other authors, those authors’ friends, lifestyle commentators, biographers, students pressed by profs who are friends of the author, and the occasional book lover mildly curious about the event – approaches readings with intense focus on the poems, stories, and novel passages being read, we’d at times be better off to attend these events by scrapping the usual event itinerary. Hang out, talk shop, buy or swap books, and drink.
That view – the total vocal white-out (pardon the anachronistic typewriter term) – certainly has antecedent traction in other artistic worlds. Robert Schumann, donning his critic’s hat in 1838, opined that an unspectacular contemporary’s latest quartet was “for the entertainment of good dilettantes who are kept fully occupied by things that an expert artist can grasp with one glance at the page, a quartet to be heard by bright candlelight and in the company of beautiful women; whereas true Beethovenians lock the doors, savoring and reveling in every single measure [of the late quartets].” Like many provocative statements, this is true, but it also has its limitations. His comments were prescient and against the grain. But poetry and prose, no less than the Great Fugue, needs an audience, a live interpretation, to introduce or revivify a silent page read or cloistered CD play.
Fellini thought technology knocked him out. He was wise to be concerned, but he was wrong. So was Marshall McLuhan. People still line up at movie houses, and others still attend hour-long poetry readings performed by a single author. The medium only changes the message in that it amplifies defects already entrenched in reader and listener. That kind of awareness is invaluable. Sometimes progress is a boon.