The Advantages of Group Readings

Elwin CotmanI really love it when SF/F conventions set up group readings rather than scheduling individuals in slots by themselves. Not only is this an advantage to the writer – imagine going to a con where you’re not well known and having no one show up for your reading – but it’s also an advantage to the audience.

Case in point: At FogCon, I attended a reading on Saturday evening because friends of mine were on the program. (I try to go readings by my friends whenever I can.) At the end of it, I bought a book by the one author on the program I didn’t know: Elwin Cotman. The book was his recent collection, Hard Times Blues, and I bought it because his reading blew me away.

It’s a fantastic book – in both senses of the word fantastic. Cotman combines modern life with fantastical speculation and gives us a new slant on reality.

The first story, “The Elvis Room,” appears to be a gritty story of anarchistic-minded young people exploring the country by rail and – at least in the case of Ren – with rage. But something else happens when they end up at the B&B run by Junie, who once sang back-up for Elvis, and it gives us a different perspective on Ren’s rage and wanderlust.

Half the book is devoted to a novella, “The Graveyard Shift,” a story built on the way Wal-Mart is eating us alive. The lives of the employees echo the dreary ones of low-wage retail workers everywhere, but at Mason’s superstore even death doesn’t release you from being a working stiff.

In both cases, the fantastical element makes the stories so much more powerful, so much more real. We can all conceive of dreary, of reasons to hate the way the world is going, but using something speculative to play with that world gives us more to work with. That, I think, is what Cotman is aiming for in his fiction.

Another thing I really liked about this book is that the stories were all different. “The Revelation of John” gives us a new take on the final book of the Christian Bible. “Pulp” is a slipstream piece. “A Song for the Yellow Prince” strikes me as the closest thing to traditional fantasy in the book, but it’s closer to “new weird” than it is to epic fantasy.

Cotman has caught the attention of such writers as Elizabeth Hand and Karen Russell. He’s got another collection – The Jack Daniels Sessions EP — that I’m going to have to read as well.

I gather from googling Cotman that he’s now living in Oakland, making him a neighbor of mine. Lots of good writers around here, so that’s no surprise.

So thanks, FogCon, for putting writers in groups for readings. I’d like to strongly suggest that other cons adopt this model.

It’s good for writers, because it gives us access to people who never heard of us. It’s good for readers, because it introduces us to writers we never heard of.

And it’s good for the convention, because it solves the problem of how to schedule all the people who’d like to read when you don’t have enough time slots.

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The Advantages of Group Readings — 6 Comments

  1. I heard him a few years back at the first FogCon and have his first book around here somewhere. Must pick up the new one.

  2. Thanks!

    The interest across the board in stories and storytelling — genre and otherwise — fiction and non-fiction — has gotten huge in the last years.

    Where had he published these interesting sounding stories before anthologizing them? Is this a self-published anthology?

    Love, C.

    • Most of the stories were first published in this book, though he did note that a “beta-version” of “The Graveyard Shift” appeared in a zine and one of the others in an anthology. He’s published by Six Gallery Press, a small press that distributes through Small Press Distribution. Six Gallery has a lot of books out, but their webpage is not very up to date.

  3. I remember at World Fantasy last fall they had a Book View group reading on the schedule. Was it six of us, in the space of one hour? Allowing for organizational chat and so on, that worked out to less than ten minutes per writer. Laura Anne undertook to herd the cats and cut people off ruthlessly if they seemed to be reading LORD OF THE RINGS. And it all worked out fine!

    • I like groups of 3-5 people best, I think. WisCon has this down to an art form and FogCon is fast catching up. I used to run Broad Universe rapid-fire readings, where people had five minutes each. It’s good, but picking a perfect five-minute segment is hard for a lot of people.

  4. Laura Anne came up with the portion of seven minutes each, but it was David Levine who had the timer. (I think he may have allowed me an extra 45 seconds because he saw I had reached the final few paragraphs of my excerpt.) That World Fantasy Con reading reminded me of how effective group readings are. You get such a big audience! I was also there in the audience for the FogCon reading, which went over quite well indeed.