Readings: The Riot Act

06/22/2005 12:00 AM |

Another reading series is hardly worth noticing in a city with a dozen literary events each day, so when this magazine introduced Literary Upstart: The Search for Pocket Fiction, we were a bit taken aback by the 200-odd people who showed up — and continued to show up. Especially since once can find readings of every kind in New York: from the traditional nodding-and-ahhing variety at Barnes & Noble, to the offbeat, like the “Little Gray Book Lectures,” in Williamsburg, which incorporates spelling bees and sing-a-longs. There are barroom readings like KGB, which lengthen listeners’ attention spans with alcohol, and a host of multimedia events that use visual art and music to accompany words. There are internationally renowned writers brought in by the Pen America Center, and open-mic nights that give voice to any earnest scribbler.

But varied as these events are, they’re similar in one way in which Upstart differs: they bring together the reader’s fans, friends and family (for most writers, an indistinguishable lot) in total support of his work, whereas Upstart readers face a panel of publishing insiders, and have their stories set on a public chopping block, with flaws discussed before the audience, and winners and losers announced. N+1, a semiannual culture magazine, compared literary readings to bedside visits. “The audience extends a giant moist hand and strokes the poor reader’s hair.” The notion of readings as therapeutic pats on the back is what Upstart tried to challenge. Whether or not it was critically successful, people came back again and again.  

The act of going to a reading itself is an expression of faith in a writer’s creative and career choices. This is true of musicians and other artists, but at least it makes sense to hear live music, or to see art on display. American literature, however, is not particularly rooted in an oral tradition (except spoken word poetry and its hip-hop cousins), and more often than not the best way to take in our writing is by reading it off the page. To hear it read aloud can simply be boring. As novelist and veteran reader Meg Wolitzer pointed out in a recent essay in the Times, many in the audience struggle to be good listeners at readings, and often “they close their eyes, perfecting that look of concentration we all recognize as sleep.” This effect can happen even when the Paul Austers and Ian McEwans are in town. And Upstart features, as yet, no Booker winners.

The Upstart readers were unknown and often unpublished writers from around the city, though some had written books or prominent publications, and came from as far as Houston. It perhaps suggests something about the competitive curiosity of the literary minded that so many were willing to sit (and stand) in hushed attention at a crowded bar to hear writers most had never heard of. In the same essay, Wolitzer wonders if she should give out quizzes after her readings to see if the audience was paying attention.

At Upstart, many were at least as interested to hear what judgment the professional purveyors of literature had arrived at (the panel included Doubleday editors, an agent, a New Yorker editor, and a columnist from this magazine) and whether it satisfied or challenged their own view of the story. Rather than close their eyes in concentration, here was a good reason to pay critical attention. At one reading, the judges deemed that a story kept its listeners at arm’s length from the characters, “except the feeling was that the arm was actually prosthetic, and slightly longer than a real arm.” The audience’s enthusiastic agreement suggested their engagement with the story   

The event’s popularity was partly due to press comparisons to another panel-wielding-search engine for talent, American Idol. The New Yorker, along with literary blogger Maud Newton, referred to Upstart as a “Literary American Idol.” Initially wary of the comparison, we protested, albeit gently: we’d selected the readers from many submissions, so none could be seen as obvious targets of ridicule (no William Hungs in this bunch). Also, our judges are thoughtful and constructive, we insisted.

They’re not unnecessarily cruel, nor do any cry when certain writers don’t win. The real goal was to turn the modern day MFA workshop inside out, and incorporate the criticism all writers must face into the dynamic of the readings — this would be writing as a constant work-in-progress, even for the winners, who didn’t escape criticism.

But slowly, we came to accept the validity of the Idol comparison. First, there were scandals, which I’ll wait for the DVD edition to reveal. Second, we realized it was the Idol-style critique that drew people the most. It helped that submitters were entitled to a drink on the magazine (and there were close to 1,000 submissions). The lure of payment in alcohol for their work must strike at something primal in writers (or getting paid anything at all). But the number of writers calling in for free drinks decreased each round, while the audience grew. It would be lovely if everyone came for good writing, but in truth it’s not evident if those who attend superstar readings even do so for the high quality of the fiction. This is America, after all, where the cult of celebrity and personality is likely to outshine the actual literature. The more entertaining readers over the past few years have drawn more attention to themselves than their work. Dave Eggers shows slide shows of frogs and has his audience write haikus. Jonathan Ames told the Times that he hands out diagrams of his balding pattern at readings, “just to let [the audience] know I’m on top of it.” And though neither these stunts nor Upstart are particularly sophisticated or subtle, sometimes a gimmick has its place, even among high culture.   

The quality of writing presented at the events was surprisingly good, considering this magazine had never before dealt with fiction. However, it’s not difficult to point out the stories’ weaknesses, particularly since none could exceed 1,000 words. But flaws were part of the point. Upstart provided the chance to see the authors bleed a little, and to revel in it. These readings were attempts to nurture the writing community without smothering it in sentimental support. Anyone who has been through workshops, or has an editor or agent, knows the importance of criticism, since writing is neither entirely solitary, nor sweetly democratic. In the end, the writers were serious enough that they were happy to take slaps from judges. And the audience was even happier to hear it.