How to read – Randall at The Book Hive

Saturday was a reading at that charming independent bookshop The Book Hive in Norwich, featuring seven writers who graduated from the UEA MA in Creative Writing the previous year, myself included. It came as a part of the Norwich Festival Fringe and was organised by Andy Spragg, who read a couple of short poems, including one fine one about writing on train and coach journeys (something I touched on in piece on inspiration for Resonance FM). He titled the reading ‘Yesterday’s New School’, which is a great title. There were probably 40 or 50 people there, which, considering that I knew barely any of them outside of the readers, was impressive.

I read part of a new scene from my art novel, Randall, and the process of adapting it for reading, reading it, and listening to others read made me think a little about how these things work. Generally, I’m not a big fan of book readings. I’d prefer the book, a drink of my choice and a comfy chair. I would say that the prime responsibility for someone reading their work in a live setting is to be entertaining. So here are my rules:

1. Be short. Be shorter than everyone else will almost certainly make them like you more.

2. Be short, be slow. If you have a limited time slot, then cut your words until you can read your piece slowly. Reading slowly means people can understand what you’re saying, and take it in.

3. Be slow. Being slow means that you can put some effort into performing, in some manner, your piece. This doesn’t have to mean putting on voices and hamming it up (though I suspect I err towards that) but it means allowing pace and pauses.

4. Don’t cut, fillet. As I was cutting my piece down to size, in the days before the reading, I worried that I was cutting everything extraneous, and leaving just the bare bones. All the colour, all the texture, all the meat had gone. But then I realised that, in prose, a lot of the writing is filler, to take the reader from one important sentence, one important phrase, to the next. Like resistance in an electrical circuit, it stops you moving too swiftly from one element to the next, but forces you to slow and assimilate what you’ve taken in. When you read aloud, you have far more control over how you build to and retreat from those crucial, critical moments.

5. Make it whole. If you can’t read a whole story or scene, then cut/edit/fillet until you can. Half a story, chopped off in its prime, is not as good as a whole story cut down to the bare bones. Unless you leave a cliffhanger. (Geoff Dyer, reading from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, read from the section where a monkey steals the narrator’s sunglasses and he tries to bribe it to give them back with bananas – a very funny scene, but he ended it before the denouement, saying “If you want to know what happened, you’ll have to buy the book.”)

No doubt it helps me that what I’m writing has elements of humour in it, and I readily admit that, in adapting my scene for the reading, I aimed to make it as funny as possible. It depends on the setting, but I’m sure people who come to book readings are usually happy to be given the opportunity to laugh. Other readers had stories set in Auschwitz and the siege of Sarajevo, and so can’t be accused of not being sidesplitting, but I think the rules still apply. You’ve still got to entertain. (Not that those readers weren’t entertaining! They were.)

Finally, the problem of children. There was a 11- or 12-year-old sat at the front of the reading with his parents, and my piece had multiple shits and three, I think, fucks. The shits were necessary parts of the piece, but should I have bowlderised my fucks? Perhaps I should have. Though at home we’re very clear with our own kids that pop songs and films and books sometimes have swear words in for specific reasons, and that doesn’t mean they can copy them. Context is all.

After the reading I saw there had been an even younger child present, too. Context is all. Context is all.

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One comment

  1. Andy Spragg

    Hi Jonathan,

    I just found this purely by chance, what a fab dissection of the reading experience — as for the children? Well, presumably their parents had an inkling that it was aimed at an adult audience from the publicity put about. Personally I think you ought to have exchanged every third word for an obscenity — it would still have been markedly better than most of the stuff they’re exposed to on a normal Saturday night in…

    Best,
    Andy

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