Bookstore readings, those mainstays of author promotional tours, have come to feel like slow torture sessions. The show must go on, no matter how many people don't turn up. Midlist authors schlep around the country from venue to venue, sometimes paying for gas or airfare out of their own pockets. They have to play nice with publicists and bookstore owners and anybody who might shell out 25 bucks for a book. They have to answer questions like "Do you write longhand, at night, in the tub, wearing only a pair of reindeer antlers?"
When the talented Brad Leithauser read from his new novel, A Few Corrections, at Chapters Literary Bookstore in Washington, D.C., last week, he fielded almost as many questions about The Wind Done Gone brouhaha as he did about his own well-received literary efforts. The biggest laugh of the night came when somebody moved a vase of flowers out of his way. That's what passes for excitement at readings nowadays? Where did the joy go? And what sadistic soul thought up those vertebra-crushing metal chairs that every bookstore in the country seems to stock?
"The whole strategy of promoting writers is wrong," says Matthew Klam, author of the story collection Sam the Cat. "The publishing business is crappy, the writer book-tour thing is crappy." James Hynes, author of the academic satire Publish and Perish, reports that "there's nothing more soul-shriveling than hearing a lonely snicker in an empty bookstore."
No wonder some writers—especially members of Klam's media-saturated and Dave Eggers-savvy generation, people in their 20s and 30s—have been finding fresh ways to take their stuff to the people. Last month, Rick Moody—yes, the fiction writer—opened for Stephin Merritt's super-literate band the Magnetic Fields at D.C.'s 9:30 Club. Wearing black jeans and a retro plaid jacket, Moody came out onstage and read—make that performed—two stories from his latest collection, Demonology.
It was mesmerizing, and brave. ("TERRIFYING" is how Moody describes it.) Nobody was there to hear literature; half the audience didn't seem to know who this guy was, standing up there and reading prose at them while they drank microbrews and milled around in the smoky semi-dark. He warmed them up with a fun little number called "Drawer" ("She called it an armoire, which was the problem, which was why he had dragged it onto the beach behind the house …") Then he hit 'em with the more serious "Boys," whose refrain ("Boys enter the house") punctuates the story like a drumbeat.
This sort of strategy may energize literature lovers in the audience and sell some books—I rushed out and bought my very own copy of Demonology the next day—but it's risky for writers to venture outside the sometimes desiccated but reverential atmosphere of bookstore events. There, no matter how desolate the experience, at least you can expect the people who do show up to have a nodding acquaintance with your work—otherwise they wouldn't have gotten off the sofa to come hear your deathless prose. "I went into it almost certain that I would be heckled or ignored," Moody says of the 9:30 Club event, "and while I wasn't heckled, it was hard work just the same." You have to be prepared to deal with ambient noise, blinding stage lights, someone else's perplexed or disgruntled fans—and lots of them. Moody says, "Part of the terror of Magnetic Fields shows was the size of them. I rarely read to more than a hundred people, so 700-800 is huge by my standards. I haven't quite learned yet how to deal with a crowd that size." (It didn't show.)
If a writer can get in touch with his inner entertainer, the payoff's worth the gamble. "The interest in these gigs, for me, is being off balance," Moody says. "I don't truck with the idea that I'm coming into my own as a 'rock star' or bringing readings to a new place or any of that nonsense. But it kind of amplifies the experience for me, occasionally, if there's something new at stake." (Moody has also done shows with They Might Be Giants and with his musician friend Syd Straw.)
Novelist Daniel Handler ( The Basic Eight, the "Lemony Snicket" series) has also read (and played accordion) at Magnetic Fields gigs, and when they play on June 17 at the Bottom Line in New York City, Neil "Sandman" Gaiman will be the warm-up. "It's a message that we're not just a 'rock band' and that our music has ties to other arts," says manager Claudia Gonsen, who sings and plays piano in the band. "Readings [before shows] force audiences to think differently, focus more acutely."
Whatever you think of their stunts and the artistic quality of their endeavors, the McSweeney's gang has trained us to expect writers to pop up in the unlikeliest places. Neal Pollack got attention, and almost got himself arrested, trying to stage a reading in the bathroom of the Philadelphia train station while flacking The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. On April 30, Dave Eggers hooked up with They Might Be Giants for a gonzo charity show at the Bowery Ballroom.
And the New York Times reported last week that some young writers, including Klam and Lucinda Rosenfeld, have done New Yorker-sponsored readings at boutiques including Max Mara and TSE (at the latter, the writers were decked out in the company's cashmere outfits, which they got to keep afterward). Klam says he's had daydreams of doing a literary Lilith Fair, loading writers onto a bus and taking them on the road. Or, the D.C.-based writer says, "I'm going to have myself loaded into a cannon and fired across the Potomac."
The quickest way to marginalize fiction is to insist that it can only be appreciated in hushed awe in the proper—and I do mean proper—setting. Say what you will about the sanctity of the written word or the unseemliness of the marriage of art and commerce (like they haven't been in bed together for centuries); you can't put a price tag on the energizing power of novelty. "It felt skanky," says Klam of his boutique appearances, "but not as skanky as it should have."