Feature-Length Readings

Reading Alex Ross’s review of the 6-hour production of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch in the Sept 10 Style Issue of The New Yorker—which opera has a movement where string musicians play while up in helicopters—I started to wonder what a 6-hour literary reading might feel like.

Like a 12-hour root canal you say and har har har. I’m as vocal as the next guy on the importance of short readings, themselves comprising the reading of several short pieces instead of one long one, and of course it has something to do with attention. A reading is not a visual performance—which is a strange thing to realize because neither’s a lecture or a standup set, but audiences thereof gladly sit still for an hour or more. Lectures have slides, often. Comics clown. They also look their audience in the eye, whereas a poet stares mostly at his pages.

Another problem is the problem of attention, which a reading demands much of, uninterruptedly. Poetry readings will always win out over prose ones in this regard, because when you get distracted by thoughts of dinner or a pretty face or that dumb idea you’ve been working on for improving your overall appearance, you can just keep a pleasant look on your face until the poet ends, your fellow audience members sigh knowingly, and finally after some self-amused patter the poet starts a new one right up. The way some stories and essays get written? Zone out and miss one paragraph and you’ve lost the whole darn thread.

And that’s in the end the problem: few to no book writers (only Sedaris comes to mind) write for a live audience of listeners.[!] We ask book writers to read aloud to live audiences the way we might ask sopranos to publish their penciled score notations. No reading is ever fully successful because it’s an inherently ersatz form.

Maybe well bred opera audiences can sit still for three uninterrupted hours, but I’d be happy working on devising a reading that could last the 90 minutes working-class moviegoers are capable of relinquishing. And not a set of three 30-minute ones, either—one author’s own intermissionless ninety minutes.


  • The reading would have to be both episodic and arc-ful, like a play. Scenes and acts and a finale.
  • A printed program might be in order, so that audiences would be always grounded in the course of the evening, able to follow along with its progress. (Sarah Vowell’s dad pencilled a check on the program next to the title of each piece her high school band concluded, getting ever closer to the concert’s end.)
  • No audience would sit 90 minutes for an unknown, and therefore it’s the duty of our Kings, Chabons, Orleans, and Pinksys to pioneer this new form, the way Griffith led the way for Murnau.
  • Voicey stuff has to reign. Orchestra concerts are, save for the wavings of bows and batons, not a visual performance either, but we follow along because it pleases the ear to do so. Voicey need not mean dialogue-driven, or even overly stylized. But perhaps what I intend here is to argue that a piece that gets read aloud should at some point in the drafting be written as a piece to be read aloud—i.e., with an ear toward the way it’s going to sound in the room’s back row.
  • Performing writers might want to take a voice lesson or two. Or, better, yet, MFA programs can build this into their curricula.
  • All that said, without an intermission, it might be advisable to share the stage. Bring another writer up to read dialogue lines voiced by opposite-sex characters. Read a piece written with/for instrumental accompaniment. Let sound happen for a while, any way you can. It’s ninety minutes. There’d be nothing to rush. Think act breaks. Audience participation. That portion of the evening where the writer indulges in crowd work. What might previously composed crowd work look like sound like?

Keeping our readings light and short seems to acknowledge that as an art form or even just a performance they’re inconsequential. And we writers tacitly agree: the page is the thing. But as advertisements for what’s on (or what could be on) those pages, readings are little more than pots of piss. That’s a sentence that’s not so much true as fun to type, but what I’m wondering here is whether whatever’s hurting of The Written Word can be healed through a retooling of our live performances, our in-the-flesh interactions with our audiences.

Anyone with other suggestions are invited to add them in the comments. Folks interested in staging such a reading—in Tuscaloosa or elsewhere—can get in touch (honest) via peopleoughtnotreadforthislongoutloud [at] davemadden.org.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. This post has a fever, maybe, and the only prescription is more analysis of what This American Life is up to.

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