The winners of the National Book Awards were selected this week following an evening in which all the nominees participated in a reading hosted by New School.University. Even though I have no idea whether or not the judges attended the readings, I couldn’t help noticing that the best readers — at least in poetry and fiction — ended up winning in their categories.
As I listened to all twenty fine writers read their work, I came to the conclusion that several of the prose writers had made ill-advised choices for their five-minute excerpts. For one thing, it’s hard to plunge an audience into the middle of book that is building on gut-wrenching events. We have no context, we have not witnessed what the characters have been through (and certainly don’t know them either) and therefore we listen politely with disconnected sympathy. Out of context, overly descriptive passages can sound labored, whereas scenes that actually develop between characters are far more apt to engage a listener. Moreover, a scene between two people has a better chance of giving the true sense of a book rather than a list of well-observed details and precious rumination which, we have come to believe, brings contemporary writing to the level of literature.
I thought it was interesting that Adam Johnson, the fiction winner, also made the best choice of material. It got me thinking that perhaps an understanding of scene structure correlates to good authorship, and that the best authors instinctively know what passages best define their book, or will best move their audience. The very talented young writer who attended the readings with me made the point that a good scene in literature should be like a good episode of television, representative of the whole season or story, an anecdotal incident that represents the main mechanisms that will play out on a larger scale later on.
Being an avid audio-book listener, whenever I want my friends to hear something great in say, Trollope, I invariably choose a scene between two characters. That said, there are certain obvious scenes between characters to avoid reading to an audience: somebody dying, for example, unless that death reinforces living itself. And yet there are always exceptions. I would love to hear the reading of a masterful death scene in a certain Charles Baxter novel: two cousins row out to the middle of a lake in early spring where one, who is dying of cancer, plans to throw himself overboard. The beautifully observed conversation is filled with remarkable moments of insight and humor. And it can be read aloud with spellbinding effect. I know this because I used to read it to my MFA students at NYU, like giving sustenance to inspire their own work. I don’t know if Baxter has ever read that scene to an actual audience, but I’m certain if he did he’d get lots of laughs.
Some of the books on Tuesday night sounded bleak. Yes, I think the audience probably expects and wants to be sobered by a reading, but listeners also want to feel uplifted. Like we did when he heard Adam Johnson.
So, here’s the rub: if you write a book you’re expected to read from it, and sometimes while I’m out there in the audience, listening to droning prose, I find myself wishing actors were doing the talking, as they do in the wonderful bicoastal series, Word Theater. And yet many authors do develop a reading style and are actually quite good – as was the case on Tuesday night. Some of the poets were almost too good.
I used to love poetry readings because the best readers (Sharon Olds comes to mind) read their poems mellifluously and naturally, talk about the poems, the circumstances of writing the poems and then read more poems. The lovely language is piped directly into the blood; but best not to jiggle the needle while you’re giving the injection. Nowadays, so many poets feel they have to perform, to make their voices stentorian and loud and whoop it up for the audience. Perhaps some of the performing poets need to give lessons in reading aloud to prose writers whose plodding selections desperately need some spin. On Tuesday night, luckily, the poet who read the most naturally and, in my mind, most adeptly, just happened to win in her category as well. Now, I’m wondering if any of the judges were out there in the audience, listening.