How To Read From a Novel AND Sell Books
I am on tour (of sorts) with a novel (She’s Gone) these days. Sometimes I feel like I did when my son was born. At the time I had already had a daughter a year or so earlier. The shock of the first child, the anxiety about what to do with this delicate and beautiful lump of living flesh was quite consuming at first. But after a year, I understood babies, their rituals and practices, their sounds, their needs. I understood girl-babies. My wife had taught me much and I was settled with this business of being an active father. We were careful not to find out the gender of the baby gestating in my wife’s womb when she was pregnant again. So when my son came out, there was genuine surprise, and no little amount of uncertainty on my part. A boy! I was not sure what to do with a boy. And this must sound odd for a man to say, since a man, the stereotype goes, ought to be elated and sweetly comfortable with the idea of having a boy—a replication of himself, even if in the most superficial ways. But this equation did not work for me. I am a creature of habit. I pick up addictions through practice. Altoids were an addiction for a stretch. Sun flower seeds came next. Now I eat Wasa bread with chronic devotion. I ritualize everything I can ritualize. So reading from a book of poetry is a habit I have mastered. Reading from a novel is deeply unsettling. I have heard enough readings and helped with enough readings done by my novelist friends, and yet I am still not sure that I am comfortable with reading from the novel.
Here is the problem. How much do you give away? The point, of course, of readings is generally to get people to buy the book. And the way we get people to buy the book is to get them to want to read the book. With fiction, the narrative is all you have to work with. It is what propels us forward—wanting to know what happens. We have done it: we have turned to the back of novels when we are only half-way through, when we have invested just enough into a narrative to care about the characters, to see whether our favorite character is still alive at the end, or whether a couple is still together. We want to know and we know we are cheating a bit when we look ahead like that. Often, when we do know, reading on demands a great deal from the writing, from the surprise of the building moments. So does one read the stuff near the end? Can this be risked?
The poetry reading is different, of course. We read from out poems with the expectation that the listener will want to go back and read the poems again. They will want to read the poems for themselves to see what they enjoyed when they heard it read and to see what they might have missed. Poetry readers tend to know that the experience of a poem is not a on shot deal. They tend to accept that they will read a poem many times over a life time and will find new pleasure in each reading. If readers of novels are like me (and I know that many are not), a book that gets one reading has gotten a great deal for me. I am daunted by the tax of re-reading most novels. There are a select few novels that I like to read again and again. In fact, that statement is a lie. It is not that I like reading them again and again, but I actually can see myself reading again. I have read V.S. Naipaul’s Miguel Street many times and I will continue to do this. I have also read several novels by Milan Kundera a few times, and I know that I will return to these novels. But for me, most novels, having read them once, have been exhausted by me. I really have to admit this. It has meant that even while I studied at university, I had to read slowly and with great care for detail and with plenty notes largely because I really had no plans of returning to the novels even to study for exams. I do reread novels to teach them, but I have to admit that I am still able to teach novels that I read as an undergraduate, without rereading the while thing. So as a reader of my work in front of an audience, I am acutely aware of the fact that I must not give too much away or they will just not read the work. But how much can I give away?
Walter Edgar is a distinguished South Carolinian historian who enjoys literature and hosts a very popular radio program (The Walter Edgar Journal on SCETV Radio) in South Carolina on which he interviews writers. He is disciplined about reading the works of his guests before interviewing them. But he comes to the interview as he would come to a piece of history. In historical writing, the suspense is engaging and fascinating, but very often, the end is already known. The end of the story is not sacred. Edgars treats the novels in the same way. He does not feel any great need to protect the reader from the revealing the details of the plot. I have heard writers say, “Well, I don’t think this will be giving away too much,” but they know that they are wrong. Walter will guide you through the novel, key moment after key moment, and for the listener it is quite exciting. It is good radio, but I am not so sure that it will help sell the book since, after all, so much of the plot is given away. Ironically, however, his show does lead many people to read the books. They trust him. Perhaps his readership is made up of people who have no qualms about reading a book even when they know all the plot details. It has occurred to me that sometimes people will read a novel because it seems to deal with a subject that fascinates them or it seems to have a regional flavor that they are intrigued by. And there are so many readers who read books many times over. My daughter, Sena, is like that. She enjoys re-reading books that she has read, enjoys speeding through these books time and time again. I don’t get it, but there it is.
Still, as a reader of my work at readings and book signings, I can’t afford to assume that the readers are like my daughter. In a Barnes and Nobles in Charleston some weeks ago, I started to read from somewhere in the latter first third of the novel. Some key plot moments had unfolded and my characters had made decisions that had been hanging after a few chapters. I read, people smiled and seemed to enjoy the reading. Then there was a moment for questions and a man raised his hand and complained that I had already spoilt a key element of suspense for him. He did not want to know if Keisha agreed to go to Jamaica with Kofi or not. The thing is he had already started reading the book. Should I read for that reader? It occurred to me while I was driving back to Columbia from Charleston on the I77 that this man must not have read the blurb at the back of the book which answered this question. Then I thought that the issue was not knowing what happens, but knowing how it happens. I shook my head. I could read onloy the first few pages of the novel. But my wife and children have warned me that those sections, which rely heavily on descriptive details, are not really interesting—not as dynamic as the dialogue sections later in the novel. They read well on the page, (although my eldest daughter said she usually skips those long stretches of description), but at readings, they put people to sleep. So what to do?
It gets worse. One of the most successful stretches of writing in the novel for me takes place at the end of the novel. I so want to read that section to an audience. But there is no way that I can do this. I mean, it gives away everything. But the writing is strong, the characters are lively and clearly drawn and the dialogue, when it happens, is punchy and vivid. Must I accept that I will never be able to read from that section? Or must I wait for several years, when the book is out of print to read these sections of the novel? The challenge is to decide whether I will go for a good reading, an entertaining reading, that is, or whether I will do a reading that is acutely aware of the audience and the dynamics of bookselling.
As you can well imagine, none of this is an issue with poetry. I can read the best poems that are best suited for public readings. I can read them again and again. Instead of making people feel as if they have been cheated, it will likely make people want to get the book and read the passages themselves.
So as I travel around with She’s Gone, my novel, I am still learning how to read from it. So far there are some set passages that I rely on. I offer some plot synopsis and then I plunge in. The hope is that the characters will arrest the audience, and yes, I am also thinking that I will hook people into wanting to read the rest of the work. I have heard really good novelists read from their work. Colin Channer is masterful at this. He is able to read from all over the novel and still protect the plot shifts that are most crucial. I have heard him adlib, change lines, change whole passages while reading, and still manage to get away with it. He will string passages together that may not be directly connected in the novel. He reads his novel with the kind of editorial eye that you know must guide those people who do long trailers for films. It is masterfully done, impressive and seems like a whole lot of work. But maybe that is why he is a novelist. Short story writers will read a short story in its entirety. They approach the business of reading as poets do, I suppose. They are saying, “If you like this story, you will like other stories in the book.” The novelist does not have that luxury. She is managing and full narrative and this is something that requires skill and grace to manage.
I am curious what other people do, what other fictions writers do about this business of reading.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...