AWP 2014: Say Goodbye to Boring Readings

Posted on 14 March 2014

In the wise words of the moderator of an AWP session that considered ways to spice up the average literary reading: “Readings can be a wonder and a delight and an inspiration, and they usually are, but sometimes we get trapped [at a boring reading].”

Look, I love going to readings and hearing authors read their own work. That’s great, and I’ve definitely been spellbound by some amazing words at these events. But sometimes, your average reading can be a bit dull. I for one am interested in exploring fun and alternative reading ideas – so AWP’s “Don’t Just Stand There and Read: Literary Events That Go Beyond the Usual” was definitely the session for me.

So far, my own experimentation has been limited to a book launch party with beer, wine, cupcakes, and chocolate-covered potato chips; an event featuring a PowerPoint presentation that included embarrassing pictures and memories from my young writing career; and a more traditional type of reading that offered door prizes. I also had the opportunity to watch one of my stories read aloud by an actor at Stories on Stage in Sacramento. In short, I’m definitely on board with unique, interactive, or otherwise engaging literary events, so I was happy to pick up some additional tips at this AWP session, which promised an antidote to the common but sometimes dull “just stand there and read” literary event.

Panelists included Jamie FitzGerald from Poets & Writers (moderator), Teresa Carmody, Joshua Raab, and Karen Finneyfrock. I had to leave the session early because of a scheduling conflict, but I managed to pick up some great tips and ideas nonetheless:

Set your reading to music. Take it from Karen, who was involved in a reading that partnered with the Seattle Orchestra, which performed an original score as a poet read: People who don’t go to the average literary event are more likely to go to this type of event. It’s different, it’s interesting, and it brings people in.

Encourage a little literary mingling. Karen also described a fun game that works for larger crowds. First, she created a set of nametags that include poetic/literary questions (she sifted through Paris Review interviews to find some good poetic questions). Then, she created another set of nametags with poetic/literary answers. Each guest received a nametag and was encouraged to mingle to find someone with an answer/question that could correspond to his or her nametag. The paired nametags were then displayed on a wall. This is a fun exercise that gets people to mingle and stretch their metaphorical muscles – though it might be a bit of a challenge for those who are more literal-minded and are bothered by the fact that there are no right or wrong answers.

Let the audience participate. Theresa curates reading events like art galleries. In one event she described, writers created literary work on gallery walls, and the public was then invited to add their own work to the space. A performance at the end of the event spoke to all the work created that night.

When planning a book launch party, ask yourself, “What is my purpose here tonight?” For her poetry collection launch, Karen wanted her event to feel like a show. She charged $5 admission (which amounted to a $5 discount on the book) and had a band, an accordion, and a ukulele player. For her novel release, however, she thought a different type of event would be more appropriate – so she hosted a free event that featured a short, simple reading and a fun Q&A.

Throw a literary carnival. Josh of the Newer York Press hosts events that trend toward the carnival rather than the typical reading. His arsenal includes any sort of interactive game that involves words: Mad Libs, free association, word searches, literary Rorschach tests, live painting/drawing interpretations of stories or poems, caricature stations that generate fake bios for guests on the spot, etc., all created based on the piece(s) being read. These interactive activities encourage audience participation so guests feel they had a hand in the creation process at the end of the night.

Your event should contain these three elements: interaction, performance, and the possibility of failure. According to Josh, these types of events entail some risk, and not everything might pan out – like his failed attempt to have a girl walking through the crowd calling out “Books for sale!” (a la “Get your ice cold drinks!”). But ultimately, the reward — a fun, interactive, and unusual event that puts zero guests to sleep — is in the risk.

How are you spicing up your readings?

Image (of a literary carnival I have to assume sadly only exists in the past): rachelkramerbussel

1 Response to AWP 2014: Say Goodbye to Boring Readings

  • Teri says:

    Hands down, best reading I’ve ever been to is the recent “Bedtime Stories” with Suzy Vitello (and writing group friends) to launch her new book THE MOMENT BEFORE. We all came to the bookstore in our pajamas, and there were 5 writers under the lights on stage — in their pajamas! — reading true performance pieces.

    It was fun and racy and a little crazy. Not your mother’s author reading!!!

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