Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part V

Today we present the fifth installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave talks about the art of the reading.

The Implied Author Part V:
Readings: Rapt and Unrapt

I used to love reading to my children. It was one of the greatest joys of having them. There were other joys, of course, but I remember them more dimly. I did accents and voices, and the boys always seemed utterly enrapt. It was only later, when, as teenagers, they would pick up Stanley Bagshaw or some other classic and start snidely mimicking my performances, that I wondered whether they listened so intently just so they wouldn’t have to go to bed. When the first (and best) of the Harry Potters came out, we passed it around the circle as a family, taking turns reading aloud, even though by then we were all too old for bedtime stories. With the children grown and gone (for now), I find I have to restrain myself from reading huge pieces of books aloud to my classes, terrified to be judged as one of those people who is in love with the sound of his own voice (In fact, I hate the sound of it, but I’m afraid I might love making sounds with it.) With the publication of Silver Salts, I once again have a legitimate excuse to read aloud. I leap at every chance. It’s more challenging, though, than those six-thirty post-bath sessions on the edge of a tiny bed.

First, there can be distracting people: family who have heard it all before but come along gamely to swell the numbers, which is nice but I feel so sorry for them; way-back acquaintances whose faces I recognize but have no name to put with them (how will I address them afterwards?); other writers, waiting to read from their work (will they read better?).

Then, there are the distracting places. I totally get why it’s important to have readers reading in public places. In theory. I understand the argument that if people wandering casually through a public space can see that literacy is not something to be ashamed of, that reading is actually a socially-acceptable public act, more people will read. But you don’t see people taking baths in public places to encourage more people to wash. The very first reading I did of Silver Salts was in a public library. It was going to be a wonderful kind of karmic space (or something) because it was the very library in which I had done lots of the early research for the novel. Tucked away under the open stairs, reading to a dozen seated people, most related to me by blood, while patrons returned and borrowed at the adjacent circulation desk, and reference librarians were paged over the P.A., it was harder to believe in the absolute value of the exercise. How could I compete? Months later, at an outdoor literary festival that has been held indoors for the last several years, I read to the accompaniment of tribal drumming two booths over, and I was tempted to reach under the drapes and burst the balloons that were being inflated six feet from where I stood rhapsodizing. But that’s not that different from teaching, now that I think about it.

There have been quieter, more concentrated readings, too: the ones where the listeners are there absolutely on purpose (or maybe they just don’t want to go to bed.) Reading to the crowd who came out so supportively to the Gladstone in Toronto, to the hometown crowd in Sackville, and to the other hometown crowd (way over a hundred of them) who listened in Saint John was magic. If pins dropped, I was having too much fun to hear them.

Whether the reading is one of the rapt or the un-rapt variety, choosing material is always tough. What’s the audience’s threshold—which is partly to ask will they be standing around with drinks or sitting in the dark? (Marc Côté wisely got me to trim my plans for a group that was doing the former, and Anne Compton was clear on the attention span of a group doing the latter.) Is one long piece better than three shorts? (Not, usually.) Are there things that might make a particular group, or me, in their presence, uncomfortable? (I was lucky enough to be invited to talk to a class that had studied the novel, and they had sent an e-mail request that I read a section where my heroine throws herself down the stairs to abort a pregnancy. I didn’t. We had a good talk anyway.) Can I find pieces that won’t need endless explanations about their references to other bits of the book? (Sometimes.)

And the reading must go on as advertised, no matter what. Inevitably I have a sinus flare-up and an asthma attack just before every reading. I used to hate the sound of my voice. Now I loathe it. But, oddly enough, I never cough till after the question period.

The one challenge about giving public readings from Silver Salts that I didn’t anticipate has to do with channeling the narrator. While Lillie, for reasons that have to do with her feelings about events, tells some of the novel as “she-Lillie,” most of the story is told by Lillie as a character-narrator (“I-Lillie.”) It didn’t occur to me that having my voice read Lillie’s aloud might strike some audiences as strange. But at a recent reading, the question came up. I tried to answer it with something about how all fiction-writing involves appropriation (which I firmly believe). I didn’t get into a discussion about essentialist and cultural constructions of gender because I am by nature a chicken. Besides, what was really bothering the questioner, I think, was the presence of the historical author (me), and the implied author (the book’s shape, my intentions for it), and the narrator (Lillie) all in one room, and all speaking out of one set of pipes. Unfortunately, it’s not one of those questions that can be just shrugged off with a curt “time for lights out now.”

Coming Soon: “Editing and Dramaturgy: How Many Cooks?”

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