At a book reading last week, Chuck Klosterman acknowledged what we all know but may not have suspected authors knew: The reading portion of these book reading events is the boring part. So Klosterman decided to keep his reading short. He spent the remaining time speaking about that section and his novel, before fielding questions from the anxious audience waiting to get a crack at the pop culturalist.
From a sales standpoint, this decision seems troubling. After all, the audience members might be looking to hear a sampling from the book that could determine whether they make a purchase or not. On the other hand, though, there was a collective sigh of relief at the reading when Klosterman revealed his intention to keep his eyes outside the book.
The structure and delivery of these types of events depends solely on the author's understanding of what his audience likes and seeks. When I heard James Frey in the spring, he also opted to keep his reading at a minimum in favor of a longer dialogue with attendees. In both cases, it was evident that the members of the audience were there to hear the writer speak, think and opine. The passages from their latest creations took a backseat to the writers' brainstorms.
Others have noticed the changing nature to these promotional book readings. Recently, however, I have seen a shift away from the traditional model of book readings and for-and-against Oxford Union-style debates and towards a showier kind of speaking event, in which bookish ideas and themes are lifted off the page and into the stuff of rhetoric and performance.
Readings can give more than just a taste for the material; if performed well, they can offer an unguarded entry into the minds of brilliant and heartfelt writers. The writer above singles out Malcolm Gladwell as a performing writer who can engage his audience for over an hour speaking thoughtfully about the content of his books. These performers worry about elements that traditional writers might not have considered. They work on their tone and expression, worry about their body language, and imbue passion from behind a podium.
It may be asking too much of certain writers who cherish the more widespread book reading model. It is predictably structured with a reading portion followed by a Q&A focused entirely and directly on the book or, in some cases, on writers' previous works. I've attended events that ran according to this design and I have found them to be rather dry.
In other cases, I have found my interest in books sharpened or piqued by writers willing to go the extra mile for fans who have turned out. Both Klosterman and Frey nonchalantly announced at the top of their readings that they'd open up to take questions about any subject. At the Frey reading, upon prompting, he spoke candidly about the controversy that surrounded his book A Million Little Pieces. Klosterman issued the same open-ended formula and was asked about what was sitting on his DVR at home. In each of these cases, the writers recognized and embraced their intrigue and fame as book celebs who excelled beyond the book.
So we shouldn't be surprised that Gladwell has re-imagined, redefined and reshaped his book readings to fashion them into larger performances. He's accommodating to what his followers want, but it seems only to a point. Gladwell doesn't accept audience questions at these events, probably an indication that he nary faces a question that can be answered with a short enough response to fit the time. Gladwell has conditioned his audience to approach the world differently, his way.
For all of these writers, and hopefully more, book readings provide evidence of the impact their work has had on other people. Sure, the primary purpose for authors making public appearances is to sell more books. Reading aloud from their books, authors hope that readers will relate to the material, its characters, themes, comedic moments and underlying messages. When writers can convey these elements themselves, it's even more potentially provocative and lucrative.
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