On Readings

Public performances are another aspect of the writer’s business about which I feel some ambivalence. There are ironies here: I enjoy reading aloud, and I derive a great deal of pleasure from meeting readers. What’s the problem, then?

Well, I’ve done a great many author festivals and conventions and I suppose I have to say that after each one I’m made aware again of the distortions embedded in writers performing texts meant to be read in privacy. Book festivals are one more example of the way in which we intrude the personality of the artist into the integrity of the work these days. It isn’t a new thing: Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas are all examples of writers who created near-hysteria when they read on tour. One of the great benefits of research into history is the way it teaches how many aspects of today that we see as unique are, in fact, simply revisitings of motifs from the past. (Compare British soccer fans today with Hippodrome chariot racing partisans 1500 years ago.)

Having acknowledged this, I do believe that the focus on personality and performer is greater today than it has ever been with respect to writing. Television contributes, obviously, ‘people’-based magazines do, and very clearly the Web does. Books are sold by how cute the author is, or how resonant a reading voice they have, or how funny they can be on a talk show. What’s the story, the publicity people want to know. How do we sell this? Has he slept with Madonna? Has she slept with Madonna?

It’s against this backdrop that I’ve watched gifted writers ‘lose’ an audience because they aren’t stage performers (they set out to be writers not actors, after all), and I’ve seen trivial authors with a good body and a polished routine seduce the same crowd on the same night.

It is all part of popular culture today, one might say – and I know it is. Doesn’t mean one has to like it, or turn away from some of the implications.

So, with all this as preamble, I’ll note that when I do choose a reading passage from each novel, it is with an awareness that it is exactly what I’ve said above: a performance. What ‘works’ for someone reading at home alone is not necessarily what will hold and engage that same person when they are listening as part of an audience, large or small.

I try to avoid heavy spoilers. I try to keep the readings fairly short. I aim for passages that offer contrasts in mood or tone within themselves. I like to find sections that are amusing, to some degree. I hate (as much as an audience does) having to provide elaborate backfill to explain the selected passage, so I’ve tended towards reading from early in the books the last few years. I don’t pick sections that might demand of the listener that they invest more of themselves than they are comfortable doing in a public gathering. That means no to passages of extreme emotion, eroticism, violence. I don’t see author readings as confrontation theatre. They are a sidebar for the book, a taste of it, an introduction of sorts to the writer, with all sorts of caveats about the fact that this is the ‘public’ version of the writer.

There’s one exception in the passages here to many of those rules (they aren’t really rules), and that’s the selection from Tigana. For that book, with its core use of magic as a metaphor for the cultural eradication of a people, the obliteration of their name and identity it seemed proper to me to offer the passage that most concisely shows how the book attempts to focus these themes within the framework of a fantasy. The fragment is dark, very intense, isn’t funny at all, and can be seen as a spoiler.

As I said, the rules aren’t rules.

© Guy Gavriel Kay 2000



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