I had been working throughout 2019 on widening out and experimenting with the format of book readings. I took my second novel, Lanny, on the road with two musicians. We did semi-improvised performances, somewhere in between a reading and a gig. Overseas, I re-wrote sections of the book using submitted text from local audiences so the readings became bespoke collaborative one-offs, and the book changed from place to place.
I guess at the root of this is a slight discomfort with the way we put authors on pedestals. I think it’s far more interesting to share the stage. More than that, it’s my basic responsibility. The privilege of having an audience or a readership, the sheer good fortune of that, means one should make every effort to support the work of others and where possible divide any limelight between many voices, many types of work. The old format of author on stage reading from the new book, followed by intelligent questions from a well-prepared chair, followed by audience questions (nine good questions and a mansplain, as the formula goes) can be wonderful, but we have plenty of it. It may be a little tired, and a little limited, as a way of sharing literature. It also perpetuates a fairly simplistic and limited economic model, which can also grate (I love a signing queue as much as the next bookseller) but perhaps not as generative or suitable to our increasingly diversified methods of cultural participation as it needs to be, if we want to keep books and book culture alive and relevant.
To this end we had been planning a project at the Union Chapel called 'The English Soundwood'. It grew out of a multi-performer project I did when Cheltenham festival kindly invited me to curate events in October 2019. For that first event we had poets, novelists, memoirists and musicians, all performing together. The Union Chapel gig was going to widen it out further to include more musicians, a bigger visual element, audience participation, puppetry, live technological enhancement and so on. And, like everything, this has been postponed.
So this Sunday I will find myself a long way from sharing the stage with others. I will be standing alone in an empty venue, reading not new work, or collaborative work, but old work. In order to support a beloved venue and their extraordinary charity, the Margins Project, I’m reading the whole of my first book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, as a livestream. The idea being that even if you hated my first book, you could buy a ticket and not watch the livestream, and you would be supporting a great organisation.
Readings are a funny thing, and I don’t know what it will be like to do a whole book in an empty chapel. I’m not an actor, so I don’t even know where to look, if there’s no audience. And will I lose my voice? Not that my book is very long, but still, when was the last time I spoke for over an hour with no break? Also peering over my shoulder like an intimidating crow, is Cillian Murphy, who very much made the book his own when he starred in Enda Walsh’s stage adaptation in 2018. I can hear him in my head. I can literally see him in the text because he drew all over my paperback copy. So I need to banish him, because nobody wants a cod-Cillian, a faux-Murphy.
Some authors take a strange pleasure in murdering their own books when they read them. Like it’s cool to drain whatever life was in the prose right out, in front of us, a ritual de-energising of the language, droning on while we all clutch our long-empty glasses: “I’ll just read one more bit, this is from the long central section of the book where nothing happens.”
Some authors either are actors, or were actors, or can just properly do it. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Sebastian Barry read. It’s spectacular. It’s theatrical. Or that other great Barry, Kevin. A pure genius on the mic. Many authors read their work stunningly well. Clare-Louise Bennett, or Sarah Perry, or any of the many great contemporary poets who perform their own work so beautifully.
But I don’t think authors need to be good at reading at their own work. It’s not their job. And if they make a living sitting alone in a room making things up, why should it follow that they like being on stage in front of an audience, performing? It’s actually logically improbable that these two people are one, so we certainly shouldn’t allow one to get in the way of the other. But sometimes there’s a magic sweet spot when an author reads their work (in whatever fashion, be it flat or sparkly, animated or dead calm) and the work becomes more itself. The heart of the work is shown.
And that’s what I’m aiming for. Just to read the book, let it squawk and honk a bit and cuss when the characters cuss, and be quiet when it needs to be quiet, shriek when it shrieks, but basically let the novel be itself. Not make it into anything it isn’t. It’s a short book about ordinary humans living with the pain of losing someone they love. I don’t need to add anything, or varnish or garnish it. That’s all it needs to be right now. It can only be the thing it is. And maybe an empty venue is the perfect place for it, because it was written as a private thing, and unexpectedly went out into the world. So I will read it privately, and hope it connects with people in their homes, out wherever they are, but most of all, I will look forward to a time when we can be many bodies sharing a stage again, hearing each other, sharing a space, telling many stories.
Max Porter is the author of the bestselling Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber & Faber, 2015), which won multiple awards and sold to 27 territories. His second novel Lanny was published in 2019, longlisted for the Booker Prize and is currently being adapted into a feature film.T ickets to the livestream on 25th October are available to purchase online.