Gracious Under Pressure: How Not To Be the Person at the Reading Everyone Dislikes
In early 2011, a few months after my first book was published, I was invited to do a bookstore reading in Chicago with two other writers; both were men far along in their careers, many books between them. The reading had been organized by a small press publisher, each of us asked to read for fifteen to twenty minutes, a Q and A and a book-signing to follow.
I hadn’t yet done many readings, but had been to a lot of author events and knew not to test anyone’s patience, having once made the error of reading a few minutes too long, in part because the host encouraged me to keep going—out of politeness or enthusiasm, I’m not sure. (The writer who followed me, the last in our line-up, let me know, however, that I’d taken too long, and I don’t think I’ve made the same mistake again.)
When the first reader took the stage at our three-person event, he pulled out a sheaf of pages. I knew this meant one of two things: he either planned to read every page and far exceed his time allotment, or he’d read a few pages and depart the stage graciously, all the unread pages mere friendly companions to those he read to us.
The former turned out to be the scenario he chose: he read for 55 minutes. I remember seeing him express surprise that he’d taken up so much time after he stepped off the stage, but he had to have known reading a 28-page story would take much longer than fifteen minutes. The event organizer, who had recently published one of this writer’s books, didn’t interrupt him. I had the sense he was uncomfortable with how long this author stayed onstage, but he probably didn’t want to risk embarrassing him by telling him to wrap it up.
The second reader read for 25 minutes. After he’d read six or seven poems, I remember thinking, “Surely he’s aware we’re running out of time.” But he too seemed oblivious or else was hellbent on getting his share of the 90-minute pie.
By the time he stepped offstage, about eight minutes remained. I read two pages of a story and thanked everyone for coming. I think we were all pretty exhausted by then. Afterward, I walked outside to the icy street and went to dinner with my partner somewhere off of Michigan Avenue before we took the train back to our Evanston apartment. It was a very cold March evening, and I remember feeling more bemused than irritated by the selfishness of these two men who were both old enough to be my father.
Flash forward a couple of years. I’m co-directing a reading series, Sunday Salon Chicago, with two other women. Every other month we host a reading at a tavern in the city’s leafy Lakeview neighborhood, four or five readers on tap. Each is given 7-10 minutes, and everyone, with only a couple of exceptions during the two years I helped host the series, respected these parameters without complaint.
The most memorable incident of over-reading during the two years I co-directed involved a writer who drove many hours to participate in a fall salon. We didn’t have a budget for travel expenses or anything else; we didn’t charge for readings, nor did we accept donations, which I was told would have required filing a tax return. This out-of-town author still wanted to make the trip to Chicago.
He did not observe the 7-10 minute rule per reader and instead read for 25 minutes, the room growing increasingly restive as the minutes ticked by. I didn’t try to interrupt him, nor did the other two organizers. I remember silently willing him to stop, not wanting to humiliate him in front of everyone in the room. He had driven so far to take part in our not-glitzy event. But he had also done so without anyone twisting his arm.
Later that night, when he left without saying goodbye or thanking us for featuring him, I thought, “What the hell was that all about?”
I wondered if maybe he was embarrassed he’d read for too long and was expressing his embarrassment as rudeness. Or perhaps he didn’t think our audience of about 40 had adequately appreciated his work.
Now, quite a few years later, I look back on these two incidents with a less bemused, more experienced eye. Each of these writers should have known better and observed their event’s time constraints. I also don’t think it’s fair to put the host in the position of having to decide whether to pull you off the stage.
I used to wince a little when a timer interrupted a reader at the podium, but sometimes I also felt relief. I don’t think every reading requires a timer, but I don’t complain if an organizer decides to use one.
At a reading, authors make a tacit pact with attendees—to entertain and possibly inspire while also respecting the event’s spirit and guidelines. Lastly, it’s almost always better to read a little shorter than to risk going over the time you’ve been allotted.
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