Readings for Idiots

I went to a reading last night by a Famous Writer who is getting on in years. She is smart, funny, and her prose is so good it will make you cry. If only the questions the audience asked were as good. But, dear god, they weren’t. One of my friends who was with me said that Famous Writer should have a tape recording of herself answering the five most common questions and play it at the end of the reading. There were five types of questioners.

1. Beginning Writers

I have sympathy for beginning writers. I was once a beginner too. I remember asking people about line breaks and how you decide where they should go. (Answer: you put them where they belong. This is not a satisfying answer for the beginning writer, but it is true nonetheless.)

They ask questions like where do you get your ideas or how do you cope with your interior editor or how do you do dialogue? There is no quick answer to the beginning writer. Famous Writer says just get in the trenches and do it.

2. The Narcissists

Narcissists are possibly the worst. They spend five minutes talking about their own writing or their own ideas and then pose a question that is just a thinly veiled plug for their own work. They get ten profound eyerolls from my friends and me. The Famous Writer answers their questions with as few words as she can manage.

3. The Crazies

You gotta have sympathy for the crazies because they are at the mercy of their raging mental illnesses. They are the ones who get up and ask rambling questions that don’t make a lot of sense. The Famous Writer gently tells them something and the bookstore staff hurries them out of line.

4. The Ignorant

Many years ago I heard Toni Morrison read at a state university. She was introduced by (very white) trustees and they read questions sent to the front by the audience. I watched a man who was paid infinitely more than I was misread a question and say “How does the work of Zora Neale and Hurston [fumbles over the name and pauses, hopefully reflecting on his ignorance]… how do they influence your work?” And Ms. Morrison graciously and pointedly repeated the question and said something like “How does Zora Neale Hurston influence my work? Well, of course, she is very influential to me….”

5. The Intrusive Nosy Jerks

These are the people who say things like “How did you feel when your husband was shot right in front of you? Did the resulting head wound affect your sex life?” They, like the narcissists, should be expelled immediately from the room.

I always admire the way writers manage to answer stupid questions graciously. One of my friends turned to me and said “I’m never going to be able to do this. I feel like I have to school people. I will tell the audience member ‘That question is inappropriate.'” Another friend commented that my first friend will never sell any books. She glumly agreed. My friend the former journalist said that she learned from politicians that you should always answer the question you wish you had been asked. We all resolved to do better when our books are published.

What do you hate about readings?


9 responses to “Readings for Idiots

  1. Oh God – I have been the eye-roller at similar functions with the same cast of characters present.Every.Time.

    “Always answer the question you wish you had been asked” – Tony Blair -Every. Time.

  2. Jeez I like this blog. I never ask anything because I’m too afraid of coming off as any of the above and too busy thinking how stupid the questions are. What’s the best question you’ve heard asked and which author received it?

  3. That’s a good question. I might need to email you the answer, though, so as to not reveal my location and my identity. I have to keep ahead of the papparazi (sp?), you know.

    I never ask questions either. A lot of times the askers just want the author’s brilliance to rub off on them or to establish a personal connection to the author the same way they have a personal connection to their work.

  4. OK, as usual, I have somehow misplaced the source for this. I know I read it in some online newspaper, but don’t have the exact reference and have failed to Google anything that corroborates, so take the following with a large grain of salt…

    Audience Member: Don’t you feel concerned that your books will lead vulnerable children into sin and witchcraft?
    J.K.Rowling: You are a kook. Go home.

      • There’s a similar (and also possibly apocryphal) story about David Mamet, who gave a lecture at UCLA.

        Freshman: Where do you get your ideas?
        Mamet: I think them up.
        Freshman: Can you be more specific?
        Mamet: I think them up in my head.

        While I share much of Mamet’s misanthropy, his misogyny makes it hard for me to deal with his stuff. And now that he’s decided he’s the Great Intellectual Force of Anti-Liberal Gutter Sniping, his coefficient of insufferability has gone off the charts. Alas!

  5. Worse than the nuts who show up are the people who don’t. A mega-writer, international bestseller, had a signing for his first book. No one showed. Not one person. It so terrified him that he refused to do signings for years, even when his books were going into second and third printings. I always go to a signing with one question prepared. If someone else asks it, I’m off the hook.

  6. You forgot to include the students who are there for extra credit and ask totally uninformed questions to prove their presence.

    Also, way back in the early 90s, I was at a reading by Alice Walker that was held in a large university auditorium that was full of people. A male student stood up and asked her this question: “How do you get your hair to grow that way?”

    I kid you not.

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