Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Trouble With Book Readings
A case for conversation
On Friday, I made my inaugural visit to P&T Knitwear, the glossy Manhattan bookstore owned by Bradley Tusk, to see Will Leitch, the author and sportswriter who is out with his latest novel, The Time Has Come. Will was there for a stop on his book tour, and conversed for nearly an hour with Adam Moss, the former editor chief of New York Magazine. Will and Adam talked about the new novel, their love of film, the craft of writing and editing, and what it takes to do a novel in the first place. It was a pleasure listening to them both, and the audience Q&A was a delight. Will and Adam themselves occupy fascinating positions in the history and present of media. Though Will has long outgrown this distinction—he’s been a contributing editor at New York, where I also write, since 2008, and he’s now a successful novelist—he was known to me, long ago, as Deadspin’s founding editor. The Gawker sports blog, highly influential in its time, was where I spent many an afternoon, constantly refreshing the home page for irreverent takes and reportage on the sports landscape. Will’s writing was a lifeline in those days and it was very exciting for me, years later, to get to know him as something of a colleague. (And I’ll say this for Tusk: P&T is a nice little spot on the Lower East Side. If more rapacious tech millionaires and political operatives want to open bookstores in New York, all power to them.)
As I was leaving the event, I began to think more on why I enjoyed it so much. And I realized Will and I agreed on one fundamental thing: it’s often not fun to hear authors read from their own books, particularly novels. Poetry is a different matter—it comes out of an oral tradition, and poems lend themselves to spoken rhythm. Poems can be performed. Novels, less so. Will did not read from The Time Has Come. There were no awkward five or six minutes of listening to him read to a crowd. This is nothing against Will, or any writer; what’s best, at any event, is to hear the writer talk about the work, to have them offer a window into how it came to be, what motivates them, what inspires them, their particular views on literature—or anything else, really, but a rote reading. Will had much to say and it was great to hear him say it. He had more time than usual because he skipped the reading altogether.
I’ve published three books now, and that’s meant three events to promote them. My favorite event, a party for The Prince, was prized not because I enjoyed writing the book the most—when it comes to long-form, I prefer fiction—but because I never read from the book at all. I got up, said hello, thanked everyone for coming, and talked about the subject of my book, Andrew Cuomo, then New York’s imperial governor. My sense, at the time, was that most people in the crowd preferred this. I do not have a dulcet reading voice. I am not a trained actor or performer. You can read my books out loud better than I can.
Why do we insist on hearing so many authors, especially novelists, read aloud from their own books before discussing them? What is the point, exactly? We don’t insist on novelists recording their own audiobooks. (My latest novel, thankfully, had an actual voice actor on the audiobook, and it sounds infinitely better than anything I could have done.) The reading aloud portion of any book talk, for me, amounts to dead time. I listen partially. I zone out. I reengage when the author begins speaking anew about their creation. I reengage when a moderator presses the author further. A great disappointment, for my father and I, was traveling to the 92nd Street Y about a decade ago to see Philip Roth in person. It would turn out to be one of his very last public appearances. My father, a fellow Jew from New Jersey, had grown up on Roth, reading Goodbye Columbus when it was first published and dutifully consuming every subsequent book Roth wrote. He was a Roth reader in 1959, 1979, and 2009. No writer matters more to him. (My father will always insist, as will I, of Roth’s superiority to his mentor-turned-rival, Saul Bellow.)
At the 92nd Street Y, Roth was paired with the writer Nicole Krauss. My father and I imagined there would be some kind of lengthy conversation between them. Krauss, an esteemed novelist herself, surely would make for an astute interviewer. Roth walked slowly onto the stage, sat down, and began to read. If I recall, he read from Sabbath’s Theater, a novel that was, perhaps, my father’s most cherished. Long before I read it—and it became, along with The Counterlife, one of the Roth novels I enjoyed most—my father would recount to me his favorite scene: elderly, sobbing Mickey Sabbath on the Jersey Shore, wrapping himself in the flag that was once draped around the coffin of a beloved brother who died in World War II.
That night, Roth read. He finished. He stood up and walked off stage. We waited for more. There was no more. No questions, no discussion. We were perplexed. It was a strange and dissatisfying night. Of course, most writers do not do what Roth did. They read from their work and then they talk to the audience or a moderator. But it was a reminder, for me, what I did not want to see. A writer reading is not terribly interesting. I can read a book on my own time. A writer sharing insight is something else and that is worth the price of admission. The time spent reading aloud is little more than time spent not discussing the work itself. It amounts to filler, a distraction from why most of us have actually gathered together. Athletes perform. Actors perform. Writers write, and if they have the opportunity, they talk about what they’ve written. They make, for a brief time, the alchemy of creation understandable. What they don’t need to do is convince me they know how to read.