Friday, October 28, 2016

On Watching Writers Perform

Seattle hosted its annual Lit Crawl last night. I didn't go because I didn't know about it. Instead, I went out to dinner with a professor in my department, and afterwards I went home to read for a few hours. One of the books I read was related directly to my disseration. The other was a textbook for a class I am TAing for.

I have lived in Seattle for four years. Seattle is one of the most literate cities in the country. Washington, D.C. has more readers, but Seattle has smarter readers. It is home to wonderful independent and used bookstores. I've seen some giants come through, some of whom I've interviewed. But I just don't feel that comfortable at literary events anymore, even though I feel like I'm supposed to go to them. 

Maybe it's the anxiousness. There are so many aspiring writers in the audience who are quietly rooting against the young poet on stage or who are eager to sound smart in the Q&A. I admire anyone who is willing to stand up and go for broke on stage, but when a slam poet fails it's worse than watching a stand-up comedian die. I attended a great event four years ago. A group of local writers got together to do public readings of celebrity memoirs. Since they weren't so caught up in reading their own work, they were actually able to perform.

I guess that's the problem with the Lit Crawl. It puts the act of reading and writing into the public space. It turns the written word into the spoken word. It encourages an oral tradition. The participants of the Lit Crawlare are part of a tradition that goes back to the Greeks in the West, and American Indian storytelling, except with a lot less talent and a lot more pretension. 

I never like the Q&A's because I don't think anyone ever learns anything from them, and I prefer to ask my own questions, which I do, when I interview the writers I want to interview. Lately, I've been conducting interviews by email. My questions are more focused. My subjects' answers are more thoughtful. We're not performing. We're writing.

In an age when the media has offered us more access to the writer than ever before, it's odd that we don't have that many great writer-performers. Go on YouTube and watch the footage of Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, and Mary McCarthy. They could say the most idiotic things -- even Baldwin -- but in their idiocy they had an amazing command of the American language. Like all actors, they had amazing command of their bodies. They had more interesting personas than most Hollywood stars. Vidal's American history novels and Buckley's impenetrable essays may not survive another three decades, but their public debates will live forever.

Lesson to writers: If you don't want to perform, don't go on stage. Lesson to publishers: Direct some of your publicity budget into public speaking and acting lessons for your writers. 

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