I’ve previously bitched about local public reading events because of their focus on “commercial fiction,” the implication being that if you want your work to sell you have to conform to the strictures of some recognized literary genre. I also bitched about attending a meeting of a commercially-oriented fiction-writers’ critique group. Here’s an example of commercial writing at the microlevel. One of the members passed around a 7-page excerpt from a novel in progress, dealing with the plucky adventures of a young girl toughing it out on her own in nineteenth-century Dublin. In this excerpt one of the male characters happens to reflect on the fact that the heroine’s two older brothers didn’t stick up for her when their father was molesting her. This male character wondered what it would be like if he couldn’t rely on his own brothers to help him out in a tight spot. The other members of the writers’ group insisted that this fellow would think no such thing: instead of putting himself in this girl’s shoes, he would have taken the male point of view and reflected on what wusses the girl’s brothers were. Maybe so — I didn’t know this character well enough to say. The point, though, was that all the characters must remain true to gender-role stereotypes if the book is going to sell.
So anyhow, last night I attended another public reading. Apparently this one woman organizes readings every three months or so, presumably just because she feels like doing it. Last night’s readings were limited to two minutes each, which meant that twenty different people had a chance to present snippets of their stuff. Total attendance was about forty, consisting mostly of the readers and someone they brought with them. Going in I was skeptical: what can anyone say in two minutes? — that’s about 200 words at the pace I read aloud. But it turned out to be pretty great. The sheer variety of material and presentation style kept my attention from wandering, which I found happening to me in the ten-minute readings. Plus I didn’t have a sense that these pieces were crafted specifically to attract particular kinds of audiences. There might have been a bit too many personal memoirs for my tastes, but even those never made me squirm uncomfortably since the narcissism and angst generally took a back seat to crafting a good yarn. And there were some quirky literary bits put out there for us to sample. In one story a guy drops his Dickens book on the bathroom floor because his girlfriend says he’s too immature to read that sort of thing, leaving the disconsolate book to read itself to itself. Listening to these short pieces I found that how someone says something — the technical proficiency and literary artistry, the specific word choices and stylistic flourishes — is a lot less important than what the person has to say.
The commercial instinct wasn’t completely suppressed at this event. One presenter, reading a piece about how she just can’t manage to develop a taste for goat cheese, mentioned in her story that she’s able to get particularly good meals at restaurants by flashing her Gourmet magazine badge. After the event was over this woman was surrounded by quite a number of admirers — I didn’t get close enough to see whether they were trying to figure out what she could do for advancing their writing careers. Or maybe they just wanted to tell her that they don’t like goat cheese either.
While chatting with two of the writers I found out about another public reading event coming up tomorrow night. I’m going for it.