Reading as a Spectator Sport

Recently the Bay Area was abuzz about something that happened at 49er football training camp. Vernon Davis apparently got in Michael Crabtree's face, allegedly about his apathetic performance in preseason games. They got het up on the practice field, yelling and swearing, and then the fracas continued in the locker room.

To us, it was a micro-story: a big who-cares. Yet the media couldn't get enough of it. They're not to blame, they're just giving us what we crave. The human race is addicted to the adrenaline of watching our most daring athletes living life on the edge: race drivers careening around a track at dizzying speeds, football players sacking quarterbacks, baseball players sliding into home spikes first. And authors doing public readings.

That's right, authors are sports stars in their own way. And we think it's high time literary events were also considered a spectator sport. It takes courage akin to donning a hockey mask for an author to face a large audience (hopefully -- or at least one or two), crack a book spine and deliver words, midwife-like, to eager ears and hearts: words that were written probably a year before in a musty office or kitchen table, while the author ignored things like eating, paying bills and personal hygiene, all in the quest for this golden moment.
Such as golden moments may be. Every author has had a reading interrupted by an unforeseen element that threatens to derail an already shaky process. In Seattle, as I was reading to maybe seven people, a homeless person wandered into the bookstore's reading area, sat down and proceeded to sing. Another time, as I was reading a personal essay about having my heart broken by a younger man, said younger man appeared in the back of the room, grinning from ear to ear.

Then to face questions after a reading takes even more courage. "What do you say to your critics who say your writing is superficial chick lit?" "Is the guy you called Fred in your memoir actually my Uncle Fred?" Many's the reading that we've sweated through and wished was followed by a personal trainer's rubdown.

And readings are only one type of literary event. There is live storytelling, the likes of which they do in New York at The Moth, and in San Francisco at Porchlight, during which an author is deprived of his or her only prop: something to actually read. The writer must try to be eloquent and coherent, spinning a tale sans notes that engages audience members who sit there with arms crossed and heads tilted, as if to say, come on, knock me out, I dare ya. If a storyteller has thought through their story and faces the challenge with grace, they emerge feeling as exhilarated as if they'd run a marathon. If they fail -- as many do -- it's a long walk back to the dugout -- or the dimly-lit cocktail table in the corner.

And if these kinds of smackdowns weren't enough to recalibrate our opinions of bookish events, consider the Literary Death Match, now in cities across America , which is something of an American Idol for authors. Three authors face a sea of lit-lovers, who can be harsh in their reception. Authors give their reading their all, and are then judged by a panel of "experts" on literary merit, presentation and "intangibles." (Oh the pressure! To have to worry about one's haircut and attire in addition to the merit of one's words!)

It's all done in the spirit of fun -- although there have been some incidents when the fun was forgotten and personal tiffs were reinvigorated between judge and author. San Francisco literati are still talking about an incident a couple of years ago when upstart author Stephen Elliott (New York Literary Lion finalist and author of "The Adderall Diaries") threw a full glass of beer on Zyzzyva magazine founder and editor, the estimable Howard Junker, after he said into the microphone with calm conviction: "Stephen Elliott has no literary merit whatsoever." Attendees reported later that the audience gasped, as if an invisible rule has been broken; as if Tyson were biting off Holyfield's ear in front of them.

This time, rather than swallow the criticism as James Frey did on Oprah's couch, the author served it back to his critic. (It turns out Stephen had been trying for years to be published in Zyzzyva and Junker's harsh comment was the proverbial straw on the camel's back.) Those of us who were ever stung by bad reviews ate the story up. Who hasn't wanted to "share a drink" with Michiko Kakutani and her kin?

Yes, readings can be spectator sports and ought to be considered such. It's one reason a group of writers started the Litquake festival eleven years ago: to be a forum for lively oral interpretations of all kinds - from kids books to science fiction, from biography to erotica, from women's (don't call it chick) lit to sports lit, from Porchlight to the Literary Death Match -- every conceivable genre and literary form is included. We are just answering the demand for reading as a spectator sport: in 11 years, we've grown from 20 authors in one foggy afternoon in Golden Gate Park to 550 authors in 2010, doing readings, panels, storytelling and more in 110 venues around the Bay Area during one insane nine-day period.

For lovers of the written word, it's a chance to get close to authors and their derring-do; for authors, it's a chance to feel the exhilaration of walking out on the highwire, a chance to show the audience they can bring the goods. To quote the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is being honored this year in a Litquake tribute:

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of day

~ Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The Litquake Festival runs from Oct. 1 - 9, 2010. For schedule and other information, go to