Sometimes little events take place in my day that seem to refer to each other – that shed light on each other. It happened yesterday: I attended a literary reading for the first time in over a year and had a lot of conflicting thoughts about it. Then, upon arriving home, I found that Ben had bought the 2007 copy of Best American Short Stories, which contained a forward about the state of the short story by this year’s editor (and one of my favorite writers) Stephen King.

It was as if the essay was saying, “Confused about your feelings regarding the reading tonight? Here, let me explain.”

I attended the reading because my friend Amanda (you can read her blog here, or look at her comics here) was a part of it. She read three new, short pieces, and was the only reader of five that showed energy, life and had things happen in her stories. Of course, I’m biased.

But the readers and what they read wasn’t really what I was concerned about, so much as I was troubled about the state of readings in general. They tend to be too long, they tend to be filled with friends and relatives of the writers (usually also writers themselves) and no one else. But was that what was bothering me? I couldn’t put my finger on it – there was just something icky I felt about it.

Like how, before the reading started, I listened to a conversation behind me. A woman writer said, “You know, for a long time I was tortured by that saying, writers write, but in the last couple of years I’ve come to understand that there are other things in life that I have to work on before I can return to the page.”

Enter Stephen Kings’ essay, which was weirdly sitting on the coffee table when I returned home:

“What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.”

Yes, Stephen King! I said icky and you said yucky! The only difference is that you could actually articulate formed ideas to support your feelings! Thank you!

He goes on:

“Last year, I read scores of stories that felt … not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf. It’s tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience.”

Which brings me back to the reading last night, as I listened to a poem that was about a poet attending a poetry reading. King had pegged the feeling that I had – that I was copping a feel for the competition. That I was hearing stories written for writers, self-conscious rather than gloriously open. That I was looking at the shrinking audience of these events and I was one of them – sort of bored, sort of curious, sort of jealous, sort of desperate to succeed and looking for hints. I wasn’t there to be entertained and they weren’t there to entertain me (except for Amanda). We were all there to feel better about ourselves.

Later that night as we were going to sleep, I talked to Ben about it – Ben who has always been notoriously anti-literary-reading. We listed the readings we’d been to and enjoyed (we probably attended two or three a week while in graduate school) and didn’t come up with many. Really, I remembered my favorite “readings” weren’t readings at all – like the time Jim Shepard gave a close reading of the short story “Emergency” by Denis Johnson or the time Andrew Greer gave a technical lecture on craft. These were writers talking about other writers that they respected.

And as much as I like both of these writers’ work, reading their work is something I prefer to do alone in my sweatpants. More than that, reading their work is something I can do when they are not around. Shouldn’t we take advantage of what these people know instead of having them read something that’s in print already?

Writers talking about writing – not only does it seem more interesting and honest than writers reading their writing for other writers – but it also might just be part of what’s ailing the short story these days. Yes, we’re faced with a shrinking audience and the bottom shelves at the bookstore.  But the answer is not to hold readings in coffee shop basements – like kids that are forming their own club because they weren’t let into some other, better club – but to work together and talk about the gloriously open writers, the writers who have stumbled upon something.

We need to forget that we are scared of not making it and just entertain one another. To have fun with the tools we have. More than that, we need to take off our hipster outfits, put on some sweatpants, and write. No matter what you hear at readings, Writers write.

You can read Stephen Kings’ full essay here, as it was published in the New York Times Sunday Book Review a few weeks go.

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