DIY Literary Scene: How to Build a Literary Gathering

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Ever since the post on the Millions last week about DIY literary scenes, I've been considering what makes for a good hip indie literary gathering. Also, I've been thinking about why the indie concert is often so different than a reading and how that distance can be abridged. 

Let me first share about a literary gathering I've engaged in for some time. It takes place at a house just north of Los Angeles and it's called Jack London Night because it's modeled on how Jack London used to invite artists of all stripes over to his house every Wednesday night to perform. Numbers of attendees vary: high as forty and low as ten. As far as frequency, it happens every month or so. Jack London Night always involves lots of food, alcohol and conversation, then an invocation of a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy ("We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams"), then the reading. The reading sometimes includes short films or music. Candles are lit across the house, and there's a buzz of artistic conversation preceding the reading and in the lulls. It's been going on for three years, and has provided a kind of model for me of what a literary community can be, as well as what makes a literary scene work. 

We can't expect the reading to work like a concert. It's just a different beast. Music is much more body-centered — I can't picture a mosh pit or a dance circle at a literary gathering. But we can make readings worth attending, even must-attend events. Here are my suggestions: 

Create unique and innovative traditions that set your reading apart. At Jack London Night we lit candles and read the same poem before every reading. Traditions offer a kind of stability to the group, set it apart from other gatherings, and offer a kind of insider sense of belonging to those accustomed to the tradition (I know that poem by heart now).

Assign a vivacious personality as spokesperson. It seems incredibly obvious. Except most readings break this rule. Unfortunately, nothing kills a gathering quicker than having the shy reticent leader dampen everyone's enthusiasm. Or a pedestrian introduction to the author. Find the most outgoing, exuberant person in the group and assign them as the spokesperson. It will spike the excitement level. 

Create an intimate rather than antiseptic setting. Too many university sponsored readings happen in classrooms or on campus. In that case, yes, the N+1 quote is appropriate: "A reading is like a bedside visit." Other options are always better. Bars are good. Independent buy meds from canada bookstores are good. But nothing beats out someone's house. Or some cool open ampitheatre in Griffith Park. Or art gallery warehouses just south of downtown LA. Unusual spaces offer a spark of excitement. They make the event feel like a "happening," in the art sense of that word. McSweeney's readings are wonderful in this regard, often choosing art locations and spicing up the reading with multimedia shows and surprise appearances. 

Build a Core Group of Attenders.
Have a core group of people around which you can invite literary types. Also, don't be afraid to invite authors to come and read. They love to do this stuff.

Readers need to perform. This point is so obvious that it appears not to need repetition — except author after author fails to obey it, and contributes to the Decline Of The Reading. Musicians are accustomed to the stage. They know that they are expected to entertain, and do whatever is necessary (breaking guitars, jumping off the drums, unannounced duets) to thrill the audience. At too many readings I've seen soporific authors. Just remember that passages should be short, and if at all possible, funny. Sorry, but funny always works. Humor is the best way to not bore the audience. Barring that, action, or mystery, or some strong genre element. Leave subtlety for other times. 

Have Live Music. The best readings I've attended have included a band. It's a combo punch — music and words — that really enlivens the scene. Once, Jack London Night had a bluegrass band. Many other times, solo guitarists played original songs. I still remember a reading at Skylight Books, with Jonathan Lethem. Before he read, my buddy Arlo and his three-man band played a set of songs based on his book. That reading also included my next suggestion . . . 

Serve Alcohol/Food. At this same Lethem reading, a vodka company sponsored the event. Open bar. God bless vodka companies supporting the lit scene. Two other great reading series in Los Angeles, Vermin on the Mount and The Loudest Voice, are both held at the Mountain Bar, which has all the drink and ambience desired. 

The trouble with readings is not that they have to be boring. The trouble is that the institutionalized version of readings, orchestrated by well-meaning but ancient gatekeepers of literature, have executed a chokehold on literary gatherings, until expectations of excitement have lowered to the level of a geriatric bridge game. Writers, Readers, and other Lovers of Literature, lend me your ears: It can be so, so, so much better.

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