Reading is a solitary pleasure for me. I love to drop into a story so that my sense of self, my person, disappears, immersed in narrative. Yet one of my favorite parts of being a mother is reading aloud to my son.
I’ve always liked reading aloud, as well as being read to. Reading a text aloud requires performance. It’s slower, and it asks for a different sort of attention to the story, a weighing of every word, every sentence. It requires you to listen, to hear, and to take the story at its own pace instead of the pace of your own desire — your wish to know what will happen next, your need to skip the parts that aren’t as interesting, your yearning to control the story even as you soak it in.
I struggle with reading poetry, but I love to hear it read, I think because when poetry is read aloud, again, I don’t get to choose the pace at which I receive it. I’m forced to pause, to listen, to hear.
I like, too, to hear fiction read aloud. In October, I spent a few days at a rented cabin with Wonko writer friends, and one of my favorite moments was when Mary Ann Rivers got so excited telling us about this book she liked that she said, “Hold on, I’m just going to read the first chapter,” and then she did — whipped out her Kindle and read the entire first chapter straight through, a little breathlessly, so that we could all hear exactly what she loved about it.
Of course I bought the book.
I was not the only one.
Earlier this month, I had an opportunity — due to arrangements made by Mary Ann, in fact, and by a wonderfully enterprising Beloit College intern — to visit Beloit. I gave a short talk about my New Adult novel Deeper, and then I read a scene from the story for thirty minutes.
I was a little nervous about that thirty minutes. Thirty minutes is a long time. Was it too long? Would they get bored? Would I get bored? Sometimes my son wanders off after twenty minutes of reading. Sometimes he sits on my lap, and then I get sleepy, and I nod off until he pokes me awake.
I wasn’t sure. I was excited, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t want anyone to nod off, you know?
It’s hard to describe what the reading itself was like — how interesting it was to do that. I don’t read my own material aloud as part of my drafting process, so this was the first time I’d ever performed my own text in that way. It was the first time I ever slowed down and listened to it. Doing that in concert with an audience of students and faculty who were also listening — some of them nodding at me, some of them smiling, some of them saying mmm-hmm or laughing or inching forward in their seats — it was wonderful and fulfilling in a way I can’t really describe.
It was affirming.
It was my voice.
It was my story, my message, my thoughts on the page, ringing through the room, and each of them was something I owned.
I found that I couldn’t read my work aloud, in fact, without claiming ownership of it, because there was simply no chance that I was going to miss the opportunity lean on the jokes in just the way I wanted them to be leaned on. No possibility I would resist slowing down over the phrases I liked, saying fuck with just the right kind of emphasis, letting the heroine’s sex-charged meandering thoughts come out of my mouth all breathless and fast and excited.
This book was mine. I read it like it was mine.
I read it with so much love, and it was so much fun.
Why is it that we don’t do more readings in the romance genre? When my friends who write literary fiction and poetry have new work published, they seek out venues to read it. At writers’ conferences like AWP, a lot of the panels are readings.
Writers, generally, understand reading as a way for an author to share her voice, perform her material, and connect with an audience in a way that we simply cannot when all we do is pass ebook files from device to device, or sit alone with words printed on paper.
As the audience, we know this. We know it from our fond memories of the way the school librarian read that Christmas story while the girl sitting behind us sifted her fingers through our hair. From never forgetting the way Mrs. Lambert sounded when she got to the end of that story of the boy and his sled dog — the tension and pain of it, and how the final pages made us sob, tore at our hearts right there at school, where we’d never allowed our hearts to be so vulnerable before.
There is a sense, I think, in romance that we are not supposed to read aloud. That it is not supposed to be performed, is not perhaps good enough to deserve this distinction.
There is a sense that our books are somehow … funny. That we would be embarrassed. That we would be ashamed of having written them.
But I’m not ashamed. I wasn’t, and when I got up in front of that audience at Beloit College, I couldn’t have been. I was only me. They were my words. I wanted to say them, to perform them, to give them to the audience as an experience, a gift.
I want to give more readings.
I want to attend more readings.
I want ALL the readings.
I’ve begun adding readings to my Wednesday what-to-read blog posts. Here’s one from Molly O’Keefe’s Wild Child:
Authors reading from their work is the primary exhibition of an author’s accomplishment of a particular novel, or of their body of work. Authors have been invited to read in diverse venues, though there is a way that academic settings and sponsors have proprietarily assumed ownership of author readings.
I have a great deal of experience organizing author readings, mainly in the academic setting. I’ve attended a great many, as well, participated in them, read myself.
The excitement surrounding an author reading from her work, it seems to me, is voice. How the work is read, what kind of ineffable magic is made when the author is so exposed, vulnerable, and naked — nothing but her words and how she arranges them in the head of her listener. That’s exciting. Vulnerability thusly performed moves us and interests us and engages us.
Beloit College, who hosted the Robin York DEEPER reading has a nationally recognized undergraduate creative writing program and is a fiercely progressive campus. However, it is still very unusual for a commercial fiction writer, particularly a romance writer, to be brought to campus to read.
It was one of the most well-attended readings on campus in some time, and I think there were reasons for that. Namely, this vulnerability I mentioned. When I say that there is excitement surrounding the idea of voice, this also includes the kinds of choices an author makes. We expect to hear something beautiful, just as we expect to see something beautiful in an art museum or hear something beautiful in a symphony hall.
There is a belief that what commercial fiction writers write is not beautiful in this way, and that we do not make choices about how we write, but simply what we write.
In this way, the Robin York reading was deeply subversive, and the campus knew this, and so attended. The author was made even more vulnerable, then, by the audience’s expectation that the author and the genre had something to prove.
The moment the audience became expectantly and thoughtfully silent, the moment their expectation that genre had anything to prove at all had been challenged, was when the author told a story about discovering genre as a reader, and her realization that genre writing was something, as humans, we needed.
From this moment, then, important intersections between sexism, art, women creators, the academy, and the publishing industry crossed and recrossed and were in every way palpable. This author, she was reminding us of something everyone in the audience knew — that they read genre, had read genre, had at many times in their lives needed it. She stood in front of them as a woman creator, writing in a woman-dominated genre, on a campus that attended to her from a position of subversive interest, and she read what she had written.
Her words, from her, into an audience.
Such a thing is an act of power, because to do that, to stand in front of an audience like that at this point in time, within this genre, and this industry, is to do nothing less than declare that you are here. That you belong. That your words were your choice, and your story is something which must be listened to.
More authors in romance and readers should be connected in this way. More tensions should be deliberately created, like they were created on the campus of Beloit College, to engender discussion, argument, and power.
Young women in the audience came to the author after — young women who read romance, or had and had stopped, young women who wanted to be writers, or had been and abandoned writing. They needed to talk to the author, they needed her, they needed the entire experience.
Writing the books readers need is the first part. Then we help the books take up space. Then we fill that space with more voices. All of us vulnerable and naked, our words in the air.
Please read your books aloud. Contact your local bookstore to organize a reading, the community events person at your local library. Go to open mic nights. Invite friends for reading and open mic parties at each other’s homes. Contact your local RWA chapter to organize or participate in a reading. Start a local branch of Ladyjanesalonnyc.com. Invite authors to read their work on your blog. Read your favorite authors on your blog. If you have questions on how to contact local colleges, feel free to ask me how that works.
You’re needed. Your voice — we must have it.