(Pause for laughter.)
Poets, I always think – with a glum touch of envy – come to live reading events equipped like a soldier in the SAS. Not even that. Better than that. Equipped like an eight-year-old child acting out the fantasy of what it must be like to be a soldier in the SAS. Crowd are sullen? Rattle out the short poems like an assault rifle! Hit them with the grenade of the haiku! Get in close for some hand-to-hand audience participation, then slug away with the slow, intensely personal shotgun-poem! Maybe even the lightsaber of the love-sonnet, for good measure. An armament for every occasion.
Pictured: a poet.
Fiction writers (and I’m talking about writers of short stories all the way up to novels, not the cunning flash-fiction and prose-poem guerrillas) come to live reading events holding one of those enormous, immensely heavy medieval weapons that was essentially a cow-sized length of metal with a handle. It only really does one thing, and its impact depends on your being able to use it as quickly as you possibly can, which is not very.
Many poets, like fiction writers, are bad at giving live readings. But poets get a chance to slink away faster if necessary, picking and choosing their poems, getting through their set with the speed and precision of a Black Hawk helicopter while fiction writers are forced to clunk their way through page after page of solid prose as elegantly as Henry VIII in his later-life suit of full plate armour.
What's that? All these military references are making you sort of queasy? All right, we'll stop.
It’s a serious problem. You may think your three-page short story with the killer twist is perfect for live readings, only to discover that the previous reader has bored the audience silly and they’re now beginning to shift in their seats as soon as you’ve cleared your breath. Suddenly, you don’t have nearly enough flexibility.
This is a problem which has, in the past, resulted in me ‘panic editing’ – skipping out the more descriptive sentences and even paragraphs because I’m afraid my audience is getting bored. In part, I do feel bad about that, almost as if I should hold my ground against my listeners - maybe even annunciate every word as clearly and slowly as I possibly can. But, hell, shouldn’t there be some way of giving live readings of fiction which is flexible and exciting, instead of feeling like a written medium awkwardly transposed into an oral form?
Part of the issue, I’m sure, is the nature of literary readings themselves. When Virgil gave a reading, he’d have had his audience cheering for their heroes, booing for the villains, and hurling dormice at him where they felt the story was getting a little far-fetched. Today’s culture of sitting politely and occasionally grunting appreciatively can kill the energy fast. Damn it, the whole thing’s far too civilised, too sedate; and, as Bruce Chatwin might argue, it begins to stagnate as a result.
What fiction writers need, more than ever, to put a spark back in their readings, is a crowd supplied with some rotten tomatoes, and a drunken heckler at the front who thinks he deserves to be listened too by everybody. Far, far better than a crowd supplied with a dull stupor, and an elderly gentleman at the front who’s going to raise his hand at the end and tell you exactly how your story relates to his time as an Angolan silk-trader.