8 October 2009 0 Comments

Leselust! Reading to Germans

Here’s my latest post on the International Crime Authors Reality Check blog:

When authors travel to promote their books in the US and UK, they’ve given up on referring to their appearances as “readings.” Now they’re “events.” Because no one wants to hear an author read.

It could be because authors aren’t such compelling readers or because many of the biggest-selling authors don’t actually write their own books (I assume they usually read the final draft, but you never know….). More likely, I think, our attention-deficit cultures deprive us of the ability to listen to conversation, let alone the recitation of a text that wasn’t, after all, written to be read aloud.

Like many authors, when I read in Britain and America, I can spot people zoning out before me, or bouncing in their chairs because they can’t constrain their desire to ask a question (enthusiasm which, naturally, makes me endlessly grateful). Our blogospheric, unrestrained self-expression doesn’t prepare us for old-fashioned sitting and listening. Some big authors, like Harlan Coben, don’t even read from their work anymore. They do a half-hour “shtick” about their books and then open the floor.

Not in Germany.

When a foreign author visits Germany, they make you sweat. Here’s how a reading goes: Introductory conversation with your host. An actor reads a chapter from your book in German. You read a full chapter in English. Some more chat. Then back to the actor for another chapter in translation. Finish up with questions from the audience. (And then dinner or drinks with the booksellers, which is delightful, but can take an 8 p.m. reading well past midnight.)

On my German tour last month my reading in Hamburg clocked in at two hours, even before I was dragged off to the bar. That’s a lot of time under the lights. I wasn’t joking when I said they make you sweat.

It’s not as though you can switch off when the actor’s reading your work. How would it look from the audience’s point of view if you didn’t smile at the laugh-lines or frown when a serious issue is mooted. You have to stay focused—even if the only reason you might be aware of those points is because it’s your book and you’d know at least a little of what’s going on if it were being read in Japanese or Greek.

I stopped in at a reading by Simon Beckett, one of Britain’s most popular purveyors of maggot-infested corpses, in Hamburg. He adopted the interesting technique of reading the first half of a chapter in English and having the German actor complete it in translation. But he also read chapters from three different books with no introduction, which would’ve been as confusing to the audience as it was to me if they hadn’t all been swooning over him as though he were the Pope and they were middle-aged Latin American ladies.

Perhaps the best reason for keeping your attention on your intensive reading is one that many authors might ignore, or even disdain: you can learn something about your work. At no fewer than three of my readings in Germany, an audience member commented that they liked that fact that, in my Palestinian crime novels, everyone seems to be guilty in the end. No one character is the source of evil.

That’s how I’ve built the books—to suggest a broader responsibility for the violence of the place where I live. But it was fascinating to hear an observation on my own work that seemed freshly phrased even to me, and to hear it in more than one place.

One other difference about Germany: they pay you. Over 300 Euros for each event, from bookshops and book festivals. Tell the Germans that in the US and UK authors are expected to show up for nothing — for the privilege of publicizing their books — and they’ll explain that they pay because they need to attract top writers to their stores. It’s the best way, they say, to insure that their bookshop remains a cultural center in their town or city.

Then they’ll shake their heads and say that writers in the UK and US are being cheated. Which is true. In comparison, two hours of intense concentration isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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