I live in the bookstore-packed New York City area, which means that on any given night, there are at least fifty different readings going on. For an author that's both a blessing (Yay! More opportunities!) and a curse (How can I compete with the Pulitzer Prize winner reading down the block?). So are readings worth it? Is a reading with three hundred people and no one buying a book better than a reading with six friends who adore you and who buy copies for themselves, their friends and their second cousins?
Personally, I think both are important.
In my career, I've had my share of incredible readings. One snowy subzero night in Boston when my mother kept assuring me that "No one will show up," the place was packed. And there was that gorgeous sunny afternoon in Princeton when a full crowd was expected and attendance was zero. Absolutely no one showed up. No friends. No writing clients. No one. While I bit back tears, three of the store personnel, sporting name tags and smiles, sat in the sea of empty chairs and insisted that I read, and you know what? It was sort of fun and at least I still got to sign books.
Recently, I read from my just finished novel Traveling Angels as part of a panel on healing and writing hosted by the Bellevue Literary Review at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. The story I read had already won a Goldenberg Fiction Prize, so I felt less anxious than I usually do, and the room was packed, which was wonderful. But when I started reading, something happened. The room grew deathly quiet. I looked up and no one was moving. There wasn't the usual tapping of fingers or rustling, and I felt unnerved. Did this mean they hated what I was reading-or worse, that they hated me? Panicked, I did my best to hide my anxiety and kept reading. It was a passage about a mother of a chronically ill child. She's reached her tipping point, and she takes off in her car, throwing a suitcase in the back. Three hours later, she realizes her child has stowed away under a blanket in the back of the car. When I finished the piece, I looked up and again, there was that strange quiet. And those intense stares, all directed like lasers onto my face.
I knew I had failed.
I sat down and listened to the other two readers, and they got laughs! (OK, I admit my reading was not meant to get any, but still...) But after the readings, when it came time for questions, I was bombarded with them, and I began to realize that that quiet, that intensity of the stares had nothing to do with disbelief. It was white-knuckle interest and approval! What I thought was the worst reading of my life turned out to be the best.
You can really look at a reading in a lot of ways, but I think the key is that you have got to be connected to your readers, whether it's one little old lady who has come in for the free cookies you've provided or one hundred enthusiastic fans. That's the covenant of a reading, the promise of some sort of connection beyond the page.
This reminds me of a story the late Michael Dorris told me, a story I never forgot and deeply love. Accustomed to having five hundred in his audiences, he showed up for a reading where there were only four people. He soldiered on, but halfway through his reading, the cops came in and arrested three of the people. They were bank robbers on the lam and they figured no one would think to look for them at a reading!
Hey, they didn't leave the reading voluntarily. They showed interest. And when you think about it, who could ask for anything more?
–Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eight novels, most recently the BookSense Pick Girls in Trouble. A senior writing instructor at UCLA online and a writing consultant, she can be reached by visiting her personal website.