The Event's The Thing

A provocation from Jarred McGinnis

You don't cheat reading. The author's manipulation of the viewer's mental state is direct and deliberate. When you stop paying attention, the connection frays and breaks. You must stop, go back, read again until the intentions of the author, if they have done their job, are revealed. The reading of literature is an unique sharing of responsibility between the artist and the viewer. With performative arts such as theatre, the play keeps rolling with or without you. Shakespeare will 'Then fall, Caesar' whether you are paying attention or thinking about the interval ice cream. Mmmm, interval ice cream. That is why these forms are constantly looking for ways to keep the audience engaged.

And that, just maybe, is the reason the vast majority of literature events are so tedious. When hours, months, years are spent crafting a text to be transferred directly into the consciousness of another human being via reading, it is understandable to think the literature event as someone's else problem. Usually the publicity department intern who is working too hard for too little. Welcome to publishing, Emma!

the vast majority of literature events are so tedious

The standard literature event is a variation on a simple equation: celebrity author + a few words of pontification + Q&A + a plastic cup of red wine or room temperature white = the Stale, Male and Pale. There are the Open Mic Bataan Death Marchs to see how many first time writers can be packed into one evening before hysteria or sleep infect the audience. Most festival programmes are padded out with box ticking exercises arranged between publicists, the festival and venue including the occasional panel discussion on 'diversity in publishing' or 'is the novel dead'. Spoiler alert, there is very little and no.

There are very good reasons for why literature events and festival programmes are so unvaried. They are successful. The grey pound that funds literature events like them just the way they are, thank you very much.

But, the Special Relationship wanted something different. We have the luxury of not having to shift units and hit sales targets. We approach the literature event as a form of artistic expression in itself. A unique event that lives beside the reading experience rather than as an afterthought for the written work.

In 2015 we came up with the outrageously ambitious idea of 'Moby-Dick Unabridged'. It was probably impossible. We had never done anything at the scale we had envisioned. When we started approaching people to help out, we were surprised how easy it was to convince others that we could deliver. Maybe it's the American accent. Most important of those to fall for my newscaster voice was Ted Hodkinson, Senior Programmer at the Southbank Centre. The Southbank, from director down to intern, gave us space, support and most importantly the freedom to realise our vision.

'Moby-Dick Unabridged' was 4-day unabridged reading of Herman Melville's classic novel as the centre piece event for the London Literature Festival. In support of the reading, over a hundred artists, illustrators, animators, sculptors, dancers, actors, choir singers and musicians were commissioned to further celebrate the text. The novel flips between a straight-forward adventure story, an introspective meditation on existence and God, exhaustive descriptions of the 19th century whaling industry, a tongue-in-cheek taxonomy of marine mammal biology, a Shakespearean play and a sermon. This multitextuality of Moby-Dick suited the creation of ‘flare events’. Over the course of the four days, we had choirs, dancers, theatre groups, performance poets, a food van selling chowder, a funeral procession, projected illustrations and a theatre set including life size whale ribs and painted backdrop. Half of the 142 readers were members of the public who had volunteered to read the 25 hours of text. We took a single book and made a festival of it. The enthusiasm of the participants, the large audience and national press coverage proved the success of that vision.

In May 2016 Writers' Centre Norwich invited us to be involved with The Story Machine project, part literary festival, part funhouse. The stories we worked on had to fit within the context of a larger event. Our goal was to bleed the edges between readings to create a holistic experience made of the varied authors, the different stories and presentation and the space itself. Dragon Hall has a monastic air that suits the sacred form of short fiction and it was perfect for this event. The reading of my story 'Charles III' (Galley Beggar Press) started with the dragging of the quartered limb of Carol Ann Duffy through the gravel to where I sat. The prop of the limb accomplished the practical task of moving the audience from the preceding reading. It also created an incongruous event that bolstered any flagging attention. As I began my reading, the marks of the limb dragged through Britain, a key visual element of the story, resonated with the physical tracks made by the prop. The meaning and significance of the object, the anatomically correct limb, revealed itself as the story progressed. Like a good sentence, the more work one prop corpse can do, the better. It also gave the audience visual rest, if their attention flagged, that kept them in the story rather than wandering off to thoughts of interval ice cream. The production value of the leg drew large audience for an unknown author as myself. If this had been any other literature event, the audience would have inevitably picked the reading with the well-known author. Note to other young writers: to upstage Kevin Barry drag a corpse between him and his audience.

The Special Relationship hand-crafts events. They are bespoke affairs that take more effort than is probably reasonable. Without going to our extremes I think the literature event could learn from our experiences.

  1. The text is always first, foremost and sacrosanct. This is central to us. It must work on the page. The written word is to be celebrated, not apologized or compensated for. We don't do dramatizations or storytelling. That's something else.
  2. Resist the cult of celebrity. It is a zero sum game where we all chase a few authors or worse, the famous personality flogging their ghostwritten novel. We are shifting the importance to the person and away from the work. We are undermining the value of literature itself. With 'Moby-Dick Unabridged', we had newspapers refuse to cover the event unless we had famous author X write them something for free. The problem was famous author didn't know anything about the event and undersold it. This silliness should be undermined as often as possible.
  3. Make events an ecumenical matter. Literature festivals for all their success can feel very excluding; the crowds are very homogenous. Look to collaborations beyond the usual suspects. Question all the arbitrary segmentations between genres of writing as well as other art forms. You'll draw crowds from beyond your normal reach.
  4. Literature is everyone's. Both Writers' Centre Norwich and the Southbank Centre shared our core value of involving local community in our events. We've found that often it is the everyday readers who infuse events with an enthusiasm that events with only professional authors lack.
  5. Celebrate the writing, not the writer. A few years ago, there was an event where Jon McGregor had a conversation with George Saunders. The audience got to eavesdrop on a conversation between friends who happened to be accomplished devotees of the short story. It was a rare treat that has ruined me for the type of journalist-led interview where they ask whether they write long hand. With the Moby-Dick project, when we approached well-known people to read a chapter, it was based on their enthusiasm for the book, not their twitter follower count. That paid huge dividends as it added to the celebratory air of the event. It became about revelling in Melville's text rather than any one person's career.
  6. Every book is different. Question why the presentation of every book is the same. I'm not expecting people to do these hand-crafted artisanal one-off events that the Special Relationship do but spend some time thinking about it. Think about the form the event could take. What kind of book is it? Is there a better venue? Ask Emma the intern, let her do something interesting for a change.
  7. Every author is different. Some are great readers (let them at it). Some are horrible (get someone else to read or don’t do a reading at all). Some enjoy it. Some don't. Think about that. It takes just a little consideration and a little bit of effort to shape something that might be enjoyed. Authors too should think about their weaknesses and strengths, because if trends continue you can't depend on Emma. She's the only one in publishing getting paid less than you.   

I find it hard not to speak about literature in religious terms. It is a cult. One of the best around. Anglicans only get a choice of room temperature red wine and just a sip at that. Readers are eager to celebrate their faith together as an audience. Make literature events enjoyable. The Reading is not reading. We are not bound by anything, especially not the ever-present Oxbridge-style lecture. The same passion that drives your love of writing should be drawn upon to create literature events. Amen.

About Jarred McGinnis

Jarred McGinnis is the co-founder of The Special Relationship. In 2015, he was the creative director for ‘Moby-Dick Unabridged‘, a four-day live reading of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby-Dick’ at the Southbank Centre. The Special Relationship is one of our showcased ILS organisations.

His short fiction has been commissioned for BBC Radio 4, and has appeared in journals in the UK, Canada, USA and Ireland. Most recently he has had stories shortlisted for the 2016 Galley Beggar Story Prize and the 2016 Wasafiri New Writing Award. When not inspiring the able-bodied with his ability to open doors and use public transport, he is working on his second PhD.

Find out more at jarredmcginnis.com.

© Jarred McGinnis, 2016