Talking Books

This coming fall I have a new book coming out called “On Conan Doyle.” It’s being published by Princeton University Press as part of their “Writers on Writers” series. No doubt, I’ll mention it again come mid October when the book is actually printed.

But right now I’ve been setting up some talks and signings to help promote OCD, and this has led me to think about authors who give talks or readings. In general, I’m usually pretty good at connecting with an audience, though there are times when I”ve failed. Try talking to kids who are aged 12 to16--they are just too cool to pay any attention to some old dude who keeps going on about the joys of reading. Sometimes, too, I’ve been asked to give an “address” at a convention while people were actually eating their lunch and conversing about the day’s events. At such times, one wonders: Why did the organizers bother to invite me?

In both cases, I just carry on the best I can and pocket the honorarium and wish it were more.

At times, though, I’ve gone to author presentations that were just wonderful. The science fiction writer Connie Willis is famously delightful in all her talks, whether she discusses her own fiction, romantic comedies, or the books she loves. Neil Gaiman reads his own stories with great clarity and conviction, and with just a trace of his English accent, which adds just the right touch to the already charismatic attraction he has for his admirers. I once heard Richard Howard literally perform his poetry--gesticulating wildly, changing accents, pretending to be the historical characters he often uses as the narrators of his poems. The late Robertson Davies brought an immense theatricality to his readings, appearing in old-fashioned dark suits, with a handkerchief up his sleeve, sporting his great white beard; he looked like Santa Claus as an Edwardian gentleman. I once heard him read from “What’s Bred in the Bone” at the Library of Congress and have never forgotten the evening.

On the other hand, I’ve also gone to hear poets read and found that they mumbled their words, stumbled over their lines, failed to use the microphone properly, and generally bored everyone since what they had to say either couldn’t be heard or wasn’t very well performed. And I don’t mean to single out poets. I’ve heard droning novelists and journalists too, or people who simply didn’t bother to prepare for their presentation at all and just rambled stupidly. At such times, I wonder if I should feel insulted--Doesn’t the writer care about his own work, let alone the effect that his maundering might have on potential readers? Of course, some authors really are shy, but these generally don’t give many public readings.

But what do members of the Reading Room think? Have you heard particularly outstanding readings or talks from favorite authors? Or particularly bad ones? What makes for a good evening’s literary performance? What should a writer do or not do when he or she comes to a bookstore to flack a new masterpiece? Do you have any gripes about bookstore or library evenings with the author? Please share your thoughts.

- Michael Dirda

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