14 February 2005

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On literary readings

If you’ve made the mistake of going to literary readings, you know that the only thing that can make them endurable is to ha at each funny bit, and ah at each clever observation, and oh at any grotesque turn. Pity rescues art on these occasions. But art can’t survive it.

A reading is like a bedside visit. The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair. Up at the podium is someone who means to believe in his or her work, and instead he’s betrayed by his twitchy body and nervous laughter. The writer looks like his mother dresses him, he has razor burn on his neck, his hands may be shaking, his voice is creaky. Or she—she was always afraid of public speaking, this is why she became a writer!

And so, to send out a little life preserver, you laugh at a line, which maybe wasn’t intended to be a joke. The writer looks up, a smile possesses one side of his mouth. He is funny? Tears well up in his eyes. You’ve saved him. Literature is so much easier than he thought. But one of your laughs, in pity, leads to two, soon people are laughing for no reason. And the work he’s reading—well, in this format, who can tell if it’s any good on the page? Nobody. And suddenly it’s his life we’re talking about—not only the words and lines, but the pathetic effort he’s devoted his entire life to. This figure in front of you was formerly an independent artist, with at least the solitary belief in himself that a writer needs. Now he’s desperate for a laugh.

On the page, the same person can be a sovereign. And you also are sovereign, throwing the book across the room if it’s terrible, or paying silent homage if it’s brilliant, laughing or crying only when you’re moved. Two sovereigns, writer and reader, meet in a nowhere place, proud, independent, and for once in their lives completely undeceitful.

For the reader in his chair, the act of private reading requires forgetting that the person who produced this work of art is a person with a face. The author’s physical existence in the mind of a reader is a sign of the writer’s failure to do what writing properly does, that is, to create a different world of appearances, one that makes this world so inferior that you don’t want to recall yourself to it. You can measure the unsuccess of many a novel by the number of times you turn to the author photo in the back.

The author photo: Few books fail to include a headshot now; it makes it that much harder to read anything. Even book reviews run photos of the author, in a triumph of crassness that took a decade to worm its way up from local newspapers to the New York Times. The local papers had no other way to fill the columns, lacking staff reporters. What is the Times‘ excuse?

There ought to be nothing more irrelevant than an author’s face. With a photo you enter the double-bind of literature in a celebrity culture: If the writer is attractive, you’re less likely to trust him. If ugly, you’re less likely to read the book. We remember when a friend dragged us to look at the picture of Jhumpa Lahiri on the back—why not the front?—of The Interpreter of Maladies. “Have you read the book?” we asked our friend. He answered, “Why read the book?”

The only really justifiable public appearances are by those who are already famous enough to be monuments, their personas set in stone, whose work we love beyond reason because it is so great and strange. Then it’s necessary that they appear before readers, so they can confirm that it was a human being who wrote so well, and not a God.

Still, it would be nice for authors simply to step through the doorway—not read—and answer the perennial questions: How do you get your ideas? Where do you write? Do you use a computer? And, unspoken: Do you really exist? Let them sign the book, to prove a human hand wrote the rest. Let that be the end of it.

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