I last attended a literary event in April last year. Prior to that, for several years, I had been averaging around one event a month. I kept an eye on the author talks happening in Bath and Bristol bookshops. I would treat myself to the occasional trip to London. I enjoyed immersing myself in the rarefied literary world – a mostly invisible audience member who made sure never to put their hand up during the final Q&A to make ‘more of a comment than a question’. My fear of attracting the contempt of participants resulted in me keeping thoughts to myself until my write-up.
I became aware of this contempt from following authors on Twitter and reading their blogs. They would post mostly humorous but still biting opinions on aspects of their publicity tours – from the unflattering high stools they were required to perch upon to the boringly repetitive questions they would be asked: where do you get your ideas from? are your characters based on real people? what is your writing process?
Lengthy journeys to previously unknown locations, the loneliness of a strange town, the need to perform – all would be recounted as an adventure yet also a trial. While empathising I began to wonder if authors wanted to take part at all.
And yet, authors write that going to events is a great way of supporting them as they don’t wish to read to empty rooms.
Perhaps there should be audience guidelines as we don’t always know what behaviour is acceptable. Regulars will audibly sigh when a question becomes a monologue. There will be people attending who are genuinely interested in how a writer creates their work, who don’t yet understand there is no formula, and that finding the right words then putting them in the right order can be tantamount to magic. Aspiring authors are eager to feed off success, to learn how this writer got published that they may do the same. I have observed so many audience members who could be fans but obviously covet the literary achievement.
Audience members will not always know what questions have likely been asked before, sometimes ad nauseam.
There are other aspects of events that have unspoken rules. I still cringe when I think of the author I asked to sign my copy of his book before the event, who hadn’t been provided with a green room to shelter in. I regret not taking the opportunity to chat to an author I admire who remained sitting at his little table after the long signing queue had been dealt with. I had forgotten to bring my copy of his title and didn’t feel I could approach him without being able to prove I had made the purchase. Maybe he was happier to be left in peace.
I still don’t know if asking an author to sign a proof copy is frowned upon.
Benjamin Myers recently wrote a fine article on the pressures, sometimes self inflicted, that authors suffer and the difficulty of saying no to promotional work (you may read it here). He is not alone. The last couple of times I made plans to see Joanna Cannon in Bath she couldn’t make it due to health issues. Authors cannot always cope with the demands made of them to promote their work.
I have been lucky enough to meet Ben at a couple of events and he comes across as friendly and genuine – a joy to chat to. Other authors are more obviously performing. Some exude warmth, others remain distant. They are individuals and, in the context of our encounters, are working.
Many writers talk of being introverts. Prolific readers, those of us with an interest in literary events, are often introverts too. Acceptable social etiquette is not always obvious and we will dwell on perceived indiscretions.
There is another side to this coin. Bookshops often rely on the revenue from author events to keep their business going. It is for this reason that I am planning to end my hiatus. I want to support the authors and their publishers. I also want to keep the oasis that a bookshop represents in existence on the high street.
To start with though I am attending a publisher’s roadshow where they introduce the media and booksellers to authors with new work to promote. Events such as these come with few expectations other than to engage and then consider supporting the books. I am looking forward to an enjoyable evening amongst those who share my passion for a variety of literature.
I prefer small, more intimate events to large capacity gatherings. I wonder which of these authors favour – as they hope to sell their books I am guessing the latter.
And here I also encounter a dilemma. One of my prerequisites to attending a literary event is that I have read the author’s work that I may better understand where they are coming from. I write up my impressions within a few days and can add more depth if I am familiar with the book being promoted. I will often still buy a copy on the night, but this is not always a given. I ponder if this makes me welcome at all.