October 28th, 2010 / 5:07 pm

Reading out loud to an audience.

Dear touring authors,

A lot of you are really lousy readers of your own work. I’ve seen thousands of you. I’ve been bored by quite a few of you. Stop doing it.

If you suspect you are really lousy at it, you are. Stop doing it. If you are on a book tour, talk to the audience about the book. Pitch the book to people. Just answer a bunch of questions. Stop reading to us. It’s boring. You are boring us. There are other things you can do. Figure out where your strengths are, and go with them.

If you are an agent and you have an author who is not good at reading to an audience, tell her/him. Seriously. Just say it. And then figure out what the author can do instead. Stop sending them out to bore the hell out of an audience. A small audience. A very small audience that will inevitably get smaller and smaller because so many authors are so damn lousy at reading to an audience.

If you have a friend who is not good at reading to an audience, and her/his agent won’t say anything, or her/his editor/publisher won’t say anything to her/him, cowgirl/boy up and tell her/him. For all our sakes. Tell them to cut it the fuck out and figure out something else to do when given the chance to stand in front of a group of people her/him hopes will buy her/his book.

“Hey…listen. You guys in the front, if you see somebody going down, help them out. It’s what we’re here to do.”

And, really, if you are a terrible reader, but you insist on following the silly ritual, if you think because you are a writer asked to go to a bookstore, you must read something, read something in first person. First person fiction, memoir, maybe some autobiographical poetry. People perk up at the “I.” And you are a lousy reader of your own work. At least you can cover it by appearing to talk about yourself.

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  1. Gene Morgan

      For real.

  2. Kevin Sampsell

      Good advice, Matthew. But there’s a god damn typo, man! What is wrong with you!? “It’s what we’re here too do”???
      Fix it, pal. Before I say something mean!

  3. Matthew Simmons

      Blake’s way ahead of you.

      Cut and pasted that from some guy who transcribed it. Identify it without Google can ya?

  4. alan

      Why are writers ever asked to read? Most writers are not performers. Most works are not written for performance. Most grown-ups don’t like being read to.

  5. Blake Butler

      Instrument, yo

  6. mdbell79

      I know it’s mean week, so we’re bitching, but there have been seemingly dozens of posts bitching about readings at HTMLGiant, and often by people who, you know, give readings, sometimes frequently. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I love going to readings, whether I’m reading or not. I go to a lot of them, and they’re generally worthwhile. I even enjoy the bad ones, as long as there are friends there to drink with and talk shit later.

      You know, even arts that are more performative have their bad performers. There are millions of shitty bands. It’s not going to stop me from wanting to see live music.

  7. Matthew Simmons

      Only if it’s a sample.

      “This next song is called WAR ENSEMBLE!”

  8. Blake Butler

      damn i knew i should have thought harder

  9. Kate Magoc

      haha…so true. It all reverts back to the third grade when we were read Farmer Boy or some such shit. Childishness. You’d think with the notoriously large ego of writers that said writers could just talk about themselves for an hour. Right?

  10. Sean

      Blake Butler told me you could avoid this entire problem if you just read funny or sexual titillating material. But who knows?

  11. Matthew Simmons

      I didn’t really mean to be a part of the piling on. This is actually a shortened version of a post I’ve been thinking about for a while.

      I’m not bagging on the opportunities for socializing after a reading—but, really, if you’re out on a reading tour, you’re trying to connect with readers, not putting in an hour’s drudgery so you can hang out after, are you?—or even suggesting that I dislike readings, or am thinking about never again attending one. I’m specifically interested in suggesting to some folks—touring authors, really—that they consider whether or not a live reading of one’s work is the best way to present that work to people. We all seem to think that it’s the best way to promote a piece of work, and, frankly, it’s not.

      There’s a science fiction author here in Seattle who got me thinking about this. We’ve hosted him on more than one occasion. He’s read a couple of times, but he rarely does so for more than five minutes. Instead, he knows his audience, he talks to his audience, and he pitches his book to his audience. And he does it really well. When he engages with the people sitting in front of him, he talks their language, he piques there interest, and he sells them on his book. (Sure, many of them are already sold, but not the whole crowd. You’d be surprised what percentage of an audience needs to be convinced to buy a book.) And the very next night, a person who presumably has at least as much of a sense of her/his audience will come in, give a monotone recitation of a random section of her/his book, and scare off readers.

      I’m trying to say that readings don’t have to be readings. They can be something else. And it would benefit authors to think beyond what they think they are supposed to do.

      The thing about this post is that a lot of the people who contribute to or comment a lot on HTML Giant are already way ahead of this one. Sans a “Don’t bore me at a reading” Manifesto of any type, they have already broken away and created something interesting. Vermin on the Mount, Solar Anus, 510, Five Things…a few dozen more.

  12. Tim Horvath

      I like being read to. Do it right, get some coaching. I blew through a stop sign listening to Midnight’s Children–that was done right. Reading your work out loud to yourself is such common advice it verges on cliche, no? Also, if you heard three writers talking about themselves for an hour you’d wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days of readings. I’m just speculating here, but…also Farmer Boy was awesome.

  13. Sean

      Relatively recently, I have been to two confrontational readings. One a person with a popular memoir showed up for an audience expecting her to read and sign all that the memoir and she instead read a compressed, complex argument about the founding of a certain religion, etc.

      A very odd feeling in the room.

      The other reading a poet started off with nature poetry then abruptly shifted to children and penises and a lot of uncomfortable imagery, etc.

      Both were unusual, not lame, awkward, buzz-worthy, unexpected.

      You go to enough readings and some really leap out.

      I’m going with Bell here, I like readings.

  14. Matthew Simmons

      Moreover, there is certainly more than one way to be a good reader. You don’t have to be a crazy, high-energy slam poet. Patrick deWitt, or friend in Portland, and author of the wonderful novel Ablutions reads in a very quiet, understated way. He’s a bit slow and a bit deliberate. And, frankly, he’s hypnotic. I saw him at Bumbershoot two years ago, and still think about it when I think about good readings I’ve seen in the past.

      Heck, my friend Tim Cook reads in a similar way in slam poetry venues, where one expects to see a fairly animated performance, and he kills.

  15. Blake Butler

      next time i see you eating nachos (not that i ever have, bag of wind) i am going to knock them off the table and drink your beer

  16. Sean

      One of my bow-hunting friends has this saying: “I’ve never seen a deer from my living room.”

      It is his response to whiny hunters who go, “Oh, it’s so windy, should I hunt today,” etc.

      You haven’t seen me eat nachos because we have never eaten together.

      There is a reason a nacho cheese company sponsors me. I eat a fuck-load of nachos.

  17. mykle

      I think everybody reads better when they strip naked first.

  18. mark leidner

      the cause of boring readings is boring writing… something no amount of showmanship redeems

  19. Sean

      Where is Tim Jones-Yelvington?

  20. Matthew Simmons

      I only half agree. I have seen plenty of very talented writers bore the hell out of a room by being particularly bad at reading to other people. No amount of showmanship redeems bad writing—probably true. But no amount of good writing will save a lousy reader, either.

      And, again, what I’m saying is: you don’t have to read! You can do something else.

      Another world is possible.

  21. Matthew Simmons

      I will endorse this as a way to avoid needing to resort to first person stories. Get naked and read a third person story because you are, simply by being naked, putting yourself—metaphorically—at the center of the text. Cause yr junk is showing.

  22. jereme_dean

      hahaha, matthew simmons finally musters a little fucking mean and you spank him for it.

      that is awesome.

  23. Matthew Simmons

      I like readings that stand out, too.

      I have lived more than half the years I will live. I am slowly becoming more aware of when my time is being wasted, because my time is not unlimited.

  24. jereme_dean


      that’s how i know it’s the 21st century.

  25. jereme_dean

      also, i like how the dark pigmented girls are in stereo around obama’s wooden head.

      i will bet my fifth clit that there was a discussion regarding placement of children with an emphasis on race/color.

  26. jereme_dean

      hahaha, the one on the left is snorlaxing. fuck yes.

  27. mark leidner

      lots of’very talented writers still write bad. these days it’s not difficult to write a story or poem or several of each bursting with talent but that adds up to a boring thing because it’s unoriginal… so whenever i leave a reading disappointed or having been bored it’s almost always b/c of that. good reader. talented work. saying nothing striking or unexpected

      i mean i know what you mean. bad performance of good writing exists. but it’s not a big concern for me b/c it’s kind of hard to read something truly amazing poorly. but it’s oh so easy to write something talented but boring and then read it competently to me that’s a bigger disease

  28. JimR

      Thanks, amigo! I appreciate the shout out. At the end of the day, regardless of preference or style, it’s all about owning the words.

  29. Tim Jones-Yelvington


  30. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I’ve been trying to figure out how I could dramatically rip off a piece of clothing mid-reading the way a pop star would mid-song.


  31. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      at a work function.

  32. aaron b

      snaps, tim. snaps.

  33. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Sometimes you have to find ways to trick people’s bodies into listening.

  34. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Yes to both — its both text and performance, I think, but it’s not necessarily abt “truly amazing” or not, I think some texts are better-suited to performance b/c of language, because of form, because of rhythm, because of repetition, because of whatever, so that truly amazing performed does not mean the same thing as truly amazing on the page. This is what folks like Lindsay Hunter and Amelia Gray so totally get, I think.

  35. MM

      i don’t keep company at many readings (uh, i dwell in a desert), but, thirsty for anything, (i like the bit about the deer), i go to my coffee-pusher pal’s establishment and endure awful musics, but always bring something I can do with my hands (in my case bookbinding). I’d love to write while poor performers test my patience, but then I can’t even pretend that I’m listening. maybe, matthew, it’s time to learn to knit and purl, knit and purl. but yes, your aggravation swims in my sympathy. I think we need more weirdos, personally. I can’t wait to one day see this sequin’d Yelvington.

  36. MM

      pre-rippd blouse re-sewn with leaves of grass

  37. MM

      ML(&MS), “no amount of show(biz) redeems bad writing”…

      I can imagine plenty of ways to turn insipid writing into something amusing, read aloud. But I suppose the author who wrote it would not be one to caricature it.

      but, what a wonderful idea: vid-blog project-thingy-contest, find the dullest, then an editor assigns it to their favorite readers to try and get those schmatta‘s to catch on fire.

      But anyway, back to reality — an awful author will never know it until you throw tomatoes. gonnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggggggggg……………………,,,,,,,,,,,,,¸¸¸¸¸¸¸ֵֵֵֵֵֵֵֵ֦֦֦֦֦֦

  38. matthew unable to login normal

      I’m all for that, too Jim. But writing is a very specific kind of malady. It’s one that in more cases than not afflicts a sort of person who wants more than anything else to observe the behavior of others, to contemplate the behavior of others, and to go home and sit alone in a room limning the behavior of others on a page. And those afflicted with that strange melody sometimes ain’t so good at owning what they have put to page means owning it by reading that page out loud.

      Those people should be told it’s okay that they don’t do so. Those people should discover a brand new–or really very old–way of owning what they have done. I fear they are not told so. I fear they are told they must do what authors have always done. (‘Always…hah!’) Because that’s what folks do. Are supposed to do.

      Dear sweet talented lousy fucking reader: figure something else out. You are killing your really good writing.

  39. Donald

      I’ve noticed this when listening to the readings on Pank. You (American indie poets and prose writers) nearly all seem to read in the same mildly upsetting, lifeless, slow-paced, tramping monotone. I find it really bizarre. Most of the time, it completely kills the material, especially (it seems to me) if it’s a poem.

  40. Igor

      I’m all for monotone.