‘I’d like to say this about that’

Stuart Evers is hacked off with literary readings:

Jayne Anne Phillips is one of those writers whom you fall for in a swoon; and it’s easy to spend hours eulogising about her striking, haunting and original novels. To me – and clearly to Kirsty Gunn – she one of the greatest writers to come out of America in the last 30 years. Yet it was hard to watch her sat politely mute for so long as Gunn dominated the conversation. The questions rambled on, twisting and opaque, full of sub-clauses and digressions, allusions and metaphors, quotations and anecdotes from Gunn’s own life to arrive, with exquisite bathos, at a question that amounted to ‘how did you get the idea for the novel?’

There are two things that can irritate me at author events. Number one: a huge emphasis on the admin side of the process. I went to a conversation-style chat at a university where the academic asked the novelist a series of long technical questions about agents, publishers, editors, cover designs, print runs, ISBNs… This went on for the first twenty minutes. Anyone called away at this point would leave with no idea of what the author’s book was about. Okay, the audience was mainly creative writing students but, erm, don’t you have to write something first?

The second annoying thing is audience participation – specifically, long multipart speeches masquerading as questions. I don’t know what it is, but people who go to these events seem to have serious ADD. The example that comes to mind was at Manchester uni a few years back when a bemused Sarah Waters was dealing with a question that went on for about five minutes. I still remember the querulous ‘And the third point I’d like to make’ followed by immediate derisive laughter from the audience.

It’s not just writers. When an agent spoke at the MMU’s Writing School he opened the floor to be asked, in all seriousness, how the questioner could become an agent’s secretary. Aren’t you glad you travelled 200 miles to give advice on how to get a clerical job.

For an example of how it should be done check out this public conversation between Salman Rushdie and Irshad Manji. Manji takes questions from the audience, stressing that contributions must be single-part questions delivered in under thirty seconds. She has a gavel, and she’s ready to use it.


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