Saturday, April 16, 2016

Worst. Reading. Ever.

It was nice of JK Rowling to share her early stories of rejection and humiliation with us a few weeks back. Rejection, of course, is part of the book business but no humiliation is quite as abject as that of the book reading gone awry and Jo Rowling doesn’t seem to have had many of those to complain about.
Like comics celebrating their bad gigs however pretty much every other author can humble brag about book readings they have given where only two or three people came. This is far more common than you would think and in fact the majority of all book readings are probably for “crowds” of a dozen or less. You don’t get to hear much about these sad events because this never happens to celebrity authors or best selling writers, though for the majority of novelists it’s the humiliating norm: the crowd of four, two of whom are asleep, one of whom is clearly mad and the last person is your auntie.
Far more impressive to me are the authors who can boast of zero attendance at their book readings. For zero people to show up you have to be particularly skilled in the arts of non persuasion. This has happened to me half a dozen times and now I quite look forward to these nihilities as they are, actually, pretty easy situations to handle. If no one comes you simply sign stock and go home early free of the whole unpleasant business. Much trickier is the circumstance where one person shows up. Then you feel obliged to go on with the show, sometimes to the annoyance of the shop owner who is forced to go through the motions with you. Once in the Boulder Bookstore as I proceeded to read to one person (my wife’s cousin) the owner began aggressively putting away the clangy metal chairs he had laid out for twenty. "Tonight, I'll be reading a brief chap-" CLANG "ter of my book Dead I Well-" CLANG etc.
            I’ve got many other reading horror stories. At a book reading in Spain once my host began the event by throwing my book on the table, pointing his finger angrily at me and demanding “why I had betrayed the revolution!”
But my worst reading of all was in Boston, Massachusetts where I had to deal with a heckler. Comics are used to dealing with hecklers but not authors. I’ve had my share of online trolls, of course, where it’s easy for someone to say that you’re a “terrorist sympathiser” or a “provocateur working for MI5”; but it requires courage to show up to someone’s book reading and try that on.
At this particular store in Boston I had a respectable crowd of about eleven and I’d been reading for about five minutes when I noticed a man in the front row (they’re always in the front row) starting to get agitated. He was about thirty, well built, tall, wearing black jeans, work boots and a button down white shirt. He looked completely normal but evidently something I was doing was driving him crazy. Finally he could take it no more and yelled out: “This is shit!”
I decided to ignore him and carry on but a minute later he interrupted again, looking at his fellow audience members for support: “Can’t you all see this? This is such utter shit!”
Authors go through a lot of self doubt over their manuscript and as you read and re-read the book in the proofing and editing stages the jokes start to seem flat, the plot points predictable and the characters dull. Part of you is always thinking: “Can’t you all see this? This is such utter shit!” If I’d been, say, Stewart Lee, I would have articulated all of this and potentially disarmed the man, but as it was I kept ignoring him and attempted to continue. Incensed, he stood up, went to the podium, and tried to snatch the book out of my hand.
            “Look, what’s the problem, mate?” I asked.
            “This is shit.”
“Specifically what’s the problem?”
“What’s with all the big words? Who do you think you are? What can’t you talk in normal fucking English?”
A line from Fawlty Towers rose up in my head that I unwisely gave vent to: “What? Pretentious, moi?” I said.
This only maddened him further and he successfully snatched the book out of my hands. I tried to grab it back before he muttered: “I have a knife!”
            So do I, I thought, a whole kitchen full of them until it occurred to me that he probably meant with him, here, tonight.
            This particular bookshop had no security of any kind and enjoying what was turning out to be a much livelier event than advertised no one in the crowd was calling the police.
            “This word, what does this word mean?” he said shoving the book in my face and pointing at the word ‘tenebrous’.
            “It means ‘shadowy’ or ‘dark’,” I said.
            “What can’t you fucking say ‘dark’ or ‘shadowy’ then?”
            “I could have, but I’d said ‘darkness’ earlier on the page and if I remember rightly I liked the association the word ‘tenebrous’ conjured up with the Catholic liturgy of—”
            “My point exactly! You could have fucking said dark!” the man yelled triumphantly and stormed out of the bookshop still holding my book.
         The reading more or less ended there in mass embarrassment for everyone and if it had, in fact, been the worst book reading ever, the audience would have agreed with the heckler about my purple prose and left with him. Actually I got more sympathy purchases of the book than normal, although I still wouldn’t recommend this as a strategy for boosting your book sales up into the JK Rowling territories.