Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Tuesday (Saturday) Alternative: Authorial Readings

yawning foxThe Tuesday Alternative – an exploration of all things book, blog and word is back – for one day only and on a Saturday. But never mind about that. As I have a tendency to be a bit of a waffler, I am determined to keep this post to 500 words. So that’s 449 to go. I mean, 444. (Or do I mean 342 or even 343? Do we count from the number or the end of the sentence? And do we count the number itself? Oh heck.)

Better get on with it then (406).


Today, I thought I’d talk about readings.

There has been much excitement in the den as Jackie has managed to get hold of a copy of an audio book of her beloved Ralph Fiennes reading The Four Quartets. Now, you are never going to convince me that actors reading poetry is a good idea, but hopefully Jackie will be able to convince me otherwise at a later date – perhaps on our planned week about audiobooks. But the whole thing got me thinking about readings, the difference between reading and acting, what makes a good reading and what we want from our authors in terms of “performance”.

It is ironic that writers, people who tend to eschew company in favour of many hours alone with nothing but the typewriter (or, even less romantic, the computer screen – along with the dubious distractions of Facebook, Twitter and all sorts of other pseudo-social contact) are now expected to be performers. Not only do we want our writers to be virtual recluses, staring analytically at the world with that piece of cold ice in their hearts…we want them to be all-singing, all-dancing bonne-viveurs, displaying the qualities of Lawrence Olivier, John Hegley and Dawn French rolled into one and entertaining us with their general tap-dancing bonne-viveur-i-ness at events in bookshops, book groups, libraries and a multitude of book festivals all over the country.

Not a big ask then.

Having done a few of these events over the summer, myself, and having been to more than my fair share of dodgey book events (and many excellent ones too), here are the Tuesday (Saturday) Alternative’s Top Ten (Eight) Tips for Readings. Ahem.

The Tuesday (Saturday) Alternative’s Top Ten (Eight) Tips for Readings

1. Look up. It doesn’t matter if you lose your place, drop your book, stumble and stutter, faint with fear and fall on the ground, gibbering like an idiot. As long as you look up – everything will be fine. Looking up engages the audience and allows them to like you and liking you turns out to be rather important.

2. Keep it short. We have all experienced that guilty back-of-school-assembly teenage stupor when listening to an author mumbling on – and on. And on. And…zzzz…(have they finished yet? Bugger, they’re still going, back to sleep again)…on. It depends on the environment as to how long a piece to chose but I’d say 5 mins is good. And 2 sets of 5 mins tends to be easier on the audience than one lot of 10. Unless it is a short story which can probably afford to go on for longer. Which brings me to…

3. Choose a piece that is relatively self-contained, like a short story, and has a strong beginning, middle and end. If not, at least have a strong end – preferably one that makes the audience want to read on. After all, you want them to go off and buy your book at the end of all this, remember.

4.The power of the pause. Many people will tell you to read slowly as though to an audience of vegetables. The danger of doing this is it can sound like you are also a vegetable talking to an audience of vegetables. Much better to pause – hopefully at a good point, where it makes sense. Actors with stage presence tend to be the ones who move around the least and draw your attention however still they are. Just as stillness is power and pausing is a sign of great confidence and can be remarkably effective. Try it.

5. If you can’t do accents, please don’t try. There is nothing more excrucriating than hearing a terrible accent in a reading (note, TS Eliot’s “mockney” impressions in his reading of The Waste Land). A touch or a hint can be more effective that a full-on wincing and gurning Eastenders impression. Try and find a mannerism or an attitude to differentiate your characters instead.Find a way to make it clear who is talking without going the whole hog. You don’t have to be an actor – the audience understands that. Which brings us, apparently contradictorily, to:

6. Don’t be afraid to go OTT. There is nothing more awful than an actor hamming it up when reading out prose. That is why audiobooks are almost always read by Stephen Fry, Alan Bennett and Martin Jarvis – because they are all wry and dry and have the kind of all-knowing/all-seeing quality you might expect from a narratorial voice and their all-knowing wryness means they couldn’t go over the top even if they were dressed in sequins bikinis, feathers boas and stilettos and singing Abba songs. However, chances are, you aren’t an actor. In which case you are completely safe. You are so safe you could probably afford to turn it up (and out) another couple of hundred percent and people would still be going, “ooo, bit monotone.” Which leads me to:

7. Have fun. There is nothing as delicious as watching an author enjoying their own work. Ok, unless you write humour perhaps “fun” is slightly the wrong word – it’s maybe a little inappropriate to be chuckling over a particularly nifty simile in a prose passage of bleakest angst. But, whether you are enjoying your own lines (comedy) or feeling the angst (tragedy) we do want to see the author believes in their own work and is engaged with it enough to really communicate it. There is nothing worse than a reading which is like a unenthusiastic pupil forced to read out a poem at the school service – standing up and greyly chanting a passage with no connection at all. You have to engage with your work to deliver it well, and show us all there is to be got out of it if we were to sit down and read it ourselves.

8. Alternatively, give up and just employ Stephen Fry or Alan Bennett to do it for you. Easy.

(-587. Bums.)


More from the Tuesday Alternative here.

CREDITS: This yawning fox (obviously in the audience of an extremely boring authorial reading) is the copyright of Mike Baird on Flickr and reproduced here under the Creative Commons Licence.


RosyB would love to be either Stephen Fry or Alan Bennett, though in a film of her life she’d prefer to be played by Jack Black. To find out more about her click ‘ere!

3 comments on “The Tuesday (Saturday) Alternative: Authorial Readings

  1. Jackie
    September 26, 2009

    But all that you say is actually an argument *in favor* of actors reading poetry or any sort of audiobook. They are trained to hold the attention of an audience with subtle gestures and voice. Granted there is something to be said for an author reading their own work, but I would imagine the idea terrifies some of them. I look forward to convincing you of Ralph Fiennes appropriate perfection for the job.
    You’re much funnier than Jack Black & far less annoying, so I think you ought to give up that idea.
    That photo is highly amusing, I’ve never seen a fox yawn before. It’s cute.

  2. Moira
    September 27, 2009

    Aha. Some writers can read their own stuff and some can’t. Very often for me – on an audiobook – the words “Read by the author” are a death knell. I make honourable exceptions in the case of Bill Bryson and the aforementioned Alan Bennett.

    On t’other hand, just because someone’s an actor doesn’t mean they can read out loud successfully. I can name you a whole slew who can’t read prose. another slew who can’t read poetry and a substantial number who can’t do either. (Mind you, in the latter category are several I’d say can’t act, either …). The problem arises because so many think that because you can’t see their faces, they need to do more with their voices – and they go OTT.

    But in general, I’d say that most people who attend authorial readings are minded to be generous and don’t expect Oscar-winning performances — and I, for one, would pay good money to listen to our Rosy reading her own stuff …

  3. Caroline Rance
    September 27, 2009

    Great post, and I totally agree that the advice to speak slowly isn’t always helpful. People say ‘speak slowly’ when they just mean ‘don’t speak too fast’. I think it’s important to vary the speed depending on the emphasis required, and include pauses as you suggest.

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This entry was posted on September 26, 2009 by in Entries by Rosy, The Tuesday Alternative and tagged , , .



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