This usually isn’t what we mean when we talk about a writer’s “voice”

Have you ever been to a book reading?  Sat in a chair — usually an incredibly uncomfortable folding chair, set out for that event — and listened to a reader present their story?

Writers generally do not like the stage.  If we did, we’d be actors.  We are the backstage people, the observers, the commentators… .

Readings change all that.There are all sorts of readings: formal events in auditoriums.  Smaller, more intimate bookstore venues.  A small conference room at a convention. Seated on the floor in a circle, reading to 4th graders who are busy picking their noses without shame.   Paying gigs and promotional gigs, whistlestop tours and local gatherings, solo and multi-author, leisurely afternoons and rapidfire group sessions.   Well-attended and…not.  But whatever the format, readings take us from our familiar position on the sidelines and thrust us front-and-center, mic’d up and scrutinized, judged on the instrument we don’t use professionally — our voice — as much as the ones we do.

So why give readings at all?   The point, with blunt honesty, is to convince someone to buy the book, the magazine, the anthology.  To make the listener say “okay, that was very cool, give me more.”  But for some of us, it’s more than just marketing.

Me?  I’m an introvert with a streak of shyness.  I like to sit at the edge of the bar and observe the flow around me — or, occasionally, direct that flow — but being the center of attention?  No thank you. I leave that to my more extroverted (aka “attention hog”) cohort.

But I love to read. Not the actual getting-up-in-front-of-people, but the act of reading. Infusing sound into my words, giving them inflection and emphasis, and seeing people react, laughing, or sobering, thinking and dealing with the things my characters go through.  It’s an immediacy that we lack, sitting in front of our monitors, months and sometimes years before the reader completes the loop by opening the book.

A Tale of Two Readings:

Earlier this month, I shared the stage with Blake Charlton, David Barr Kirtley,  and Saladin Ahmed at an impromptu reading at a Borders in NYC.  We each had ten minutes to read, and then answered some questions, and then went out for beer after.  The Borders managed not to stock any of my books [it happens, especially with spur-of-the-moment deals],  so I handed out cards and hoped someone liked my work enough to follow up.  It was all very casual, and if the turnout was light, we all had fun.  That was the usual kind of reading, where I don’t have time to panic.

This past Wednesday night, I read at  Fantastic Fiction, held the third Wednesday of every month in the KGB Bar, also in NYC.  Considerably more formal deal, with a much larger turnout than the Borders gig.  And, for me, higher stress.  I was reading with Mary Robinette Kowal.  Mary is not only a damned fine writer, she is a trained puppeteer and voice performer.  My usual performance anxiety — please god don’t let me stutter, don’t let me flub it — doubled.

So I did the only thing I could do.  I claimed the right to go first, ordered a double whisky,  opened the book to a passage I love, and opened my mouth.

copyright Ellen Datlow

People laughed in the right places, and I’m pretty sure there was applause at the end — I go into a place where everything else grays out, soundwise, so I’m not entirely sure.  But it felt good.  And maybe, somewhere in that crowd of folk who knew me, and folk who didn’t, someone said “ok, that sounded good.  I need to pick up a copy and see what goes on.”

And She Gets to the Question

So that’s why I do it.  But it’s not just the writer who needs to be there; without an audience, nothing happens.  And I’ve always wondered:  who goes to readings?  Who wants to hear the writer, who is rarely a trained performer and often does not have an ideal reading voice?  What draws people to hear someone speak?  What do you, the audience, get out of an author reading that you might not, from the words-on-page itself?

And for the writers out there: how do you feel about readings?  Are they a chance to strut your stuff, a dire responsibility, or something in-between?

——————

Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the Nebula-nominated epic fantasy FLESH AND FIRE, Book 1 of the Vineart War, and the on-going “Cosa Nostradamus” Urban Fantasy series, most recently HARD MAGIC   She also writes short fiction, although not as much as she’d like, these days.

You can find more on her bookshelf

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

Comments

This usually isn’t what we mean when we talk about a writer’s “voice” — 6 Comments

  1. Actually, I love to read. To give readings, I mean. My prose is sort of bespoke for my voice, we fit together; and given that all writing is to some extent an exercise in egotism, “look at me, see what I can do!”, then a reading is the ultimate expression of that exercise, because lo, the audience really is looking at you…

    And readings are easy, the easiest of performance: the text is there, and it’s your own, you’re embedded already. All the rhythms are native to you. I do still get nervous beforehand, but one plunge and I’m away, and I love it. Then I can ride that confidence through the Q&A after. It’s not like panels, you don’t have to express opinions or sound intelligent, it’s just your own words doing what comes naturally, coming from your own mouth…

  2. I feel that only I can read it the way it was meant to be read; someday if my books are every turned into audio books I may feel different.

  3. This question is not about reading, but about the changing expectations for modern authors. Is a contemporary author now *expected* to have readings, blog(s), book trailers, launch parties and “DVD” style extras on the up to the second up to date web site – or can you just write a hell of a good story?

  4. If you can’t do ‘hell of a good story’ then no book trailers or DVD extras will save you.

  5. Perhaps I should clarify – that wasn’t really my point. The point is that I as a fan have started to learn that a really good story frequently is not enough. A handful of folks in my age group (middle) and many younger fans that I have talked to expect something more of an author in order to share and grow the fan base. Many of the younger fans I know want to be able to push a web site or FB connection to their friends rather than simply discussing the book. This is directly related to “performing” a live reading. I don’t think this is necessarily the first thing expected, but I think to some degree it is part of what defines a modern author. Yes, I have been turned off by a dreadfully boring reader or a bad interview.