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First, I want to apologize for what will surely be the rushed and sloppy nature of today's blog: my wife is having surgery this morning to fix a macular hole in her left eye, and, well, things are pretty damn hectic around here. She's going to be sitting in something that looks like a masseuse chair for the next two weeks or so and staring at the floor. By the time she's recovered, it's predicted that we'll both be pretty much out of our minds.By the time she's recovered, it's predicted that we'll both be pretty much out of our minds.

Okay, so jm mentioned yesterday in his great comment about signings that he didn't "like being read at," and that got me to thinking about, well, readings. As you all know by now from the way I've been blowing off, I've got a book coming out soon, and I'm going to have to read at a few bookstores. I'm certainly grateful for the opportunity to do this, but, since I've read maybe six of seven times in the past, I also know how extremely nervous I get. The worst thing is that weird feeling that I can't breathe. My wife has given me some good advice on that one — "Just breathe, dummy" — but I still have trouble with that first page or so. Things get better after that (usually), but I'm a very self-conscious and shy person even on a good day. Any ideas?

Okay, but I'm digressing here, and what I'd really like to figure out is the amount of time should I read? Or, for that matter, the amount of time any writer should read? Jamie Attenberg, author of the recently published novel The Kept Man, told me to stick to maybe ten minutes. "Make it short," she wrote. A publicist at Doubleday said to have two different readings prepared, and then figure out when you get there if you should do the short one (ten minutes), or the long one (twenty or twenty-five minutes). In other words, read the audience. Now I do know that I've been to readings where the writer went over twenty-five minutes, and no matter how great the book might have been, it was obvious that he carried on way too long.I've been to readings where the writer went over twenty-five minutes, and no matter how great the book might have been, it was obvious that he carried on way too long. In fact, I felt a bit embarrassed for him, wanted to go up and lead him down to his chair. But if you go with ten minutes, are you going to disappoint people? I mean, even if you take questions after? I'm thinking even as I write this, that fifteen minutes might be a good compromise. A few people can get in a quick catnap without actually rising a stiff neck and maybe the other customers won't be disappointed, either. Another thing I guess you have to consider is the venue. A reading in a bookstore crowded with customers who don't give a damn about your book is going to be entirely different from a quiet room where the people are all there to hear you. And then, talking about venues, there's the problem of what to do about the language in some of my stuff. Do I say "f-ing" or "fucking'? "Sonofabitch" or "S.O.B."?

So anyway, I'd like for some of you to help me out today (by the time you read this, my wife will be out of the surgery, and we should be on our way home). Please, if you have some free time, I'd appreciate any tips, advice, feedback on the whole reading experience (from either side of the podium); nerves, long-winded versus short, rudeness, snipers, cuss words, the gurgling expresso machine, etc. And, if you have any good stories (or bad ones!) about readings you've attended, it would be great if you could share them. And, oh, thanks to those who posted the great advice yesterday about signings.

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Donald Ray Pollock grew up in Knockemstiff, Ohio. His stories have appeared in the Berkeley Fiction Review, the Journal, Third Coast, Chiron Review, Sou'wester, Boulevard, and Folio, and he has contributed essays on politics to the op-ed page of the New York Times.

Books mentioned in this post

Donald Ray Pollock is the author of Knockemstiff

2 Responses to "Readings"

    jm March 6th, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    First off, here's hoping for a speedy recovery for your wife! Secondly, I suspect that my issue with readings has something to do with not being read to as a child and may not translate to the rest of your audience. For nervousness, I DON'T recommend the "imagine them naked" approach. Though now that I've said it, I suppose it's inevitable (sorry).
    Naturally I prefer short passages, with more time spent talking about research and background info, since your audience is mostly composed of people who have A) read the book, or B) will be reading the book. Telling other stories will have both sides listening with interest. I vividly remember a great story an author once told about smuggling armagnac back from France on a plane only to have the cork pop in his luggage (which included his reading copy). The store filled with the a sweet smokey scent of French booze when he opened the book...but he followed that great story with half an hour of reading (I was bored).
    And feel free to curse up a storm. If someone brought babies, warn them you're about to curse up a storm.
    Best of luck to you. I will be buying your book, sir.

    Gwendolyn Dawson March 7th, 2008 at 6:44 am

    Interesting topic. I imagine there's a wide range of opinions on this topic. Personally, I really enjoy the longer readings. For example, earlier this year I was lucky enough to see Michael Chabon read for 45 minutes from The Yiddish Policeman's Union (2 separate selections), and it was enchanting. Of course, Chabon is a wonderful reader--very engaging and funny. I've enjoyed other long readings as well. Whenever I go to the touble to go to see a reading, I'm always disappointed if the reading is shorter than 20 minutes. I also like it when the author reads a couple different selections rather than just one, long selection. That said, I really enjoy the Q&A, and if I had to choose more Q&A or more reading, I would choose more Q&A.

    Perhaps I enjoy the longer readings because I was read to a lot as a child. Or it could be because I always read the book before any reading, and I enjoy hearing the author's oral interpretation of something I've already read. Inevitably, the author will stress a word or a phrase in a different way than I did in my mind as I read the book, and it's interesting to hear that new perspective.

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