Last night I listened to Gary Shteyngart read from his new novel Super Sad True Love Story at Paul Constant's event, Verse Chapter Verse, and it was fantastic*. It was easily the best reading I've seen in awhile**—the kind you dwell on because it hits you pitch-perfect in the gut. The performers were great—Shteyngart's writing is sharp and hearing him voice his characters with a Russian accent added a richness to his humor that you'd miss if you were reading the book yourself. After the event, I bought a book, mingled, and then went to bed happy with the sound of Orkestar Zirkonium (a Balkanesque, umpah umpah brass-and-drum band) honking in my ears.
This morning I was still mooning over it. And then I realized why: It was formatted to please its audience, not pander to its performers. Having the goal of pleasing your audience sounds like a no-brainer but it's not. In fact, most local readings, involving local writers, seem almost designed to stoke the egos of their performers rather than earn their audience. Here are some key indicators of this:
—The shows don't start on time (many start at least 20 minutes late).
—Curators allow their readers to read for way too long, basically holding their audience hostage.
—The readings start with the weakest reader first and then ramp up to its strongest readers, with an intermission in between (during which one-third of the audience leaves).
This shows a blatant disregard for people's time and attention. And at nearly every local reading that I attend—and I attend a lot—at least one (if not all) of these factors comes into play.
Here's what I'd like to see: Readings that start on time and don't run longer than 90 minutes, tops. Curators who vet their readers beforehand and make it clear that if they read for 25 minutes from their Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants ripoff novel instead of 15 minutes, they will never be invited back. (I'd also like to see audiences heckle writers who waste their time—which is one cool thing about poetry slam audiences, they're not afraid to heckle you—but Seattle's too polite for it.)
Events should also open with their strongest writers—their "headliners." Readings are not rock concerts, they don't need warm-up bands because audiences don't have the luxury of walking away from the stage or carrying on conversations with friends if the performers suck. Instead, people are trapped in their seats, which is why so many of them escape at intermission when events start late and run long. Opening with the best readers gives the optimum number of people the chance to be exposed to great work, which will put them in a generous enough frame of mind to stick around and see what comes next (instead of suffering through mediocre work and praying that something good will follow).
Obviously, Shteyngart isn't local, he's a touring professional. Some could argue that it isn't fair to compare his performance to that of local writers. But the success of last night's show had as much to do with respect as it did talent. Local writers and curators—the ones who actively striving to attract an audience as large and diverse as Shteyngart's last night—should be taking notes.
*Yes, I have my tongue halfway up Paul's ass here, but he totally deserves it.
**Yes, it is difficult to pronounce 'sycophant' when your tongue is halfway up someone's ass.