Saturday, May 16, 2015

Authors performing: why meet the writer?

Portrait of the author being The Author - Sydney Writers Festival
I've a piece in The Age and Herald this weekend, 'Meet the author: why writing is no longer just about the words'

Extracted from my longer essay in Island magazine, this column explores the longing some readers have to meet authors. Not simply for entertainment, but to calm the anxiety that reading can evoke. A sample:
"In my first 15 or 20 years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author's photograph on the back flap." – John Updike, "The End of Authorship" 
A publishing contract is now more than an invitation to write. It is also a request for performance. The author becomes, as John Updike puts it in "The End of Authorship", a "walking, talking advertisement for the book". The very year the American novelist gave this speech in Washington, a publisher told me in passing: "Of course, we'll fly you to the festivals, get you reading at shops and libraries." Of course. One does not simply have talent, which Flannery O'Connor insisted was vital for a literary vocation. Now one is a talent: an artful player, with all the ambiguity of each word. 
My point is not that there is anything necessarily vicious or vulgar about performance, or that we have lost a literary golden age: from enlightened literacy to primitive orality. The Romans regularly held public performances, in which poets tested their verse in a public laboratory. (Or lavatory. "You read to me as I shit," complained first-century poet Martial in his Epigrams.) Pliny the Younger lamented that his listeners did not obey audience etiquette: "two or three clever persons … listened to it like deaf mutes." Greek philosophy itself began with public performance; with the need to grab interest along with intellect. Put simply, we are not the first era to ask writers to tap-dance, and this request does not automatically corrupt literature. 
But Updike's observation does prompt the question: when readers book tickets for their "soiree with author", what are they paying for?

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