Friday, August 27, 2010

An Alternative to "Readings," Anyone?

I remember a "reading" at a glittering hall rented for the occasion, set with 150 chairs. $35 per person included the distinguished writer's new book, and cocktails, and shrimp on ice. There were 20 attendees. We circled through the echoing hall, all embarrassed for the distinguished writer (a personal friend) and trying to be more people than we were.

Where did it go wrong, the "reading"? Laypeople love the sign "Free Poetry" the way they love "Free Pregnant Cat." And increasingly only the readers, or their close friends, attend. (True friends are those who will attend your reading, your opening, or your slam performance. Your "fans" don't care to see you more often than every two years.) It's not that art these days is bad or irrelevant; it isn't. There's a lot more of it to delight in, and audiences for the fine arts have always been sort of small, and now more specialized. But no writer goes anymore to an "open mike" night just to listen. It's to network, scout the place, to be seen or counted, buy the book and get off the hook; and enjoyment, including surprises, has taken a back seat.

The "reading" is now pretty much a setup to promote oneself or one's book or club. There is room for book "launches," but each book needs only one launch. It is nice to have another chance to sell or buy a new book, meet the artist, hope he will buy our new book. But if the audience is largely those who feel obliged to show up, no wonder we become exhausted by the very idea, unless we are scheduled to read. Attempts to give readings a service orientation, as fundraisers for good causes, never brought in anyone who wouldn't normally be there, except for some of the readers. And in the end the experience differed only in where our money went.

The "reading" is moribund. What should we do instead?

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