by Josh Randall, Colorado Review editorial assistant
The first literary reading I attended was in a small coffee shop with one amp and one mic. My high school literary magazine, NHS Lit (we were very avant-garde), invited students who had submitted work to read in front of other anxious, still pimply high school students considered themselves both cultured and artsy.
The first half went well enough. Some read poems about their first loves, and others read stories about characters whose dogs had died after they were dumped by an eccentric ex. Then, after a short break, Marvin (let’s call him Marvin, anyway) appeared. Like a ninja, Marvin ascended the stage in shadow just as the previous reader stepped off. He proceeded, without permission, to read a poem containing unabashed details about how Hannah, a senior who was at this point president of the literary magazine, had rejected his “heartfelt” advances on a field trip to Denver.
As you can imagine, a collective embarrassment was running through the room (Hannah had escaped to the bathroom), and after this incident I wouldn’t attend a reading for a long while.
Recently, CSU’s Creative Writing Reading Series hosted a reading for Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction. Edward Hamlin, winner of the 2013 contest, and Jim Shepard, the final judge, read their pieces and received a fantastic reception. Luckily, no Marvin was present to hijack the microphone and declare love for either Jim or Edward, and, suffice it to say, the reading was much more successful.
Obviously, readings do not usually become disastrous. At worst, an introducer will open for a writer with a long and thoughtful review of a work that was not written by the writer they are introducing. A much more common issue, however, especially for those (I include myself here) who let workloads reach critical mass, is whether attending a reading is worth the time. I’ve heard friends, some of them experienced writers, ask the question of what you get out of a reading.
This isn’t an easy question to answer. Unfortunately life doesn’t come with a gauge to measure how an experience affects you.
The first and most obvious case for attending readings is simply that they grant exposure to new types of writing. I’m sure we all have that ten-page list of books we will someday find the time to read, and that’s great, but “someday” may not come soon. A reading provides a low-commitment time span in which you can be immersed in something different. While you won’t always like what’s being read, just as you won’t always enjoy the books that are recommended to you, it gives you an opportunity to explore at least a small part of the vast literary sea.
But more importantly, I think there’s something to be said about the space and experience of a reading itself. The Nelligan Prize reading took place at Colorado State University’s University Center for the Arts—in an art gallery filled with tapestries, paintings, sculptures, and curious writers and listeners. While Hamlin and Shepard read, you could look across the aisle and see in the faces of the audience a synchronized reaction to the pieces. There was laughter, awe, and hyper-attentiveness. As writers, this is what we usually miss: The physical reaction to words and ideas that have taken painful hours to congregate into a piece.
It’s no secret: We spend a lot of time in isolation, either reading or, of course, writing. Sometimes work gets away from us and sometimes we forget why we do what we do. A piece read aloud, especially within an atmosphere as inspiring as the UCA, can transport words and the art they carry from the realm of the solitary reader and into a medium that can be communally heard, seen, and felt.
After the Nelligan Prize reading concluded, I approached Jim Shepard to shake his hand, congratulate him, and, of course, get him to sign a copy of his short story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway. While he was scribbling, I decided to ask him what his favorite thing was about traveling and reading his work. He responded jovially that it was meeting all the beautiful young writers and seeing that there are still people out there interested in what he’s doing.
I think this touches on something important and deep but that often gets buried under too much red wine and self-doubt. We read fiction in order to, in Jim’s own words, “help us dismantle and reassemble our sense of ourselves.” Sometimes we can forget why this is important. A reading can be the reminder we need to realize that others feel the same way.
For those of you attending AWP, I look forward to seeing you at the twelfth annual Melville house reading on Thursday night.