By Bill Kauffman
In A Tragic Honesty, his biography of Richard Yates, Blake Bailey describes a scene sure to send a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God shiver down the spine of any writer who has ever approached a podium, book in hand, straining to hear the sound of one hand clapping:
That winter he was invited to give a reading at the University of Massachusetts (Boston), but not a single person showed up. He sat in the silent lecture hall while his two sponsors gazed at their watches; finally Yates suggested they adjourn to a bar. He didn’t seem particularly surprised.
Poor Yates. But then that’s what he gets for agreeing to do a reading. Authors with functioning a-hole detectors—admittedly, most need new batteries—understand that humiliation is a lurking presence at any public appearance, and when Kate Winslet finally wants to meet you, it’s long after you’re dead.
My Batavia homeboy John Gardner, no slouch himself in the adjourning to the bar department, told an interviewer, “In those days I would wear a crushed velvet robe—I’m shameless, right!—with a huge silver chain. I felt that every time I did a reading I was cheating the people because they came hoping for something very exciting. I wanted them to think that their $5 or $7 or whatever was worthwhile. So I wore this robe, so that when they went home, at least they could say, ‘I went to the most boring reading in history, but, boy, did that guy dress funny!’”
As luck would have it, my crushed velvet robe doesn’t fit me anymore, so I have no such sartorial fallback when I do a reading. If I’m desperate enough I wear the tie that helped me earn second place in a Marcello Mastroianni lookalike contest. (You can imagine what the other guys must have looked like.)
John Gardner had an ample hambone; like Allen Ginsberg omming and howling his way through an evening’s verse, he probably was incapable of boring an assembly, even one of Yatesian sparseness.
I’ve never quite addressed a vacant room—usually a few stragglers happen by, or if it’s a local talk at least my family fills in a row of seats—but I once was the only pair of ears at a reading by a fine poet. He was embarrassed, I was embarrassed, but he read a couple of poems with a winningly defiant abashment and then we had a good long chat that solidified a friendship. One sympathetic reader (or auditor) is all you really need.
Colleges and universities can guarantee any writer an audience, as long as a professor dangles the carrot of “extra credit” in front of enough grade-grubbing students. Other venues are dicier. Before I spoke at a political rally an incredulous member of the crowd, scanning the roster of speakers, asked the organizer, “You mean this guy’s gonna stand there and read a book?”
Well, uh, yeah, the organizer replied.
“You gotta be f***** kidding!”
Not even the crushed velvet robe could have saved me then.
There is a certain going-down-with-the-ship nobility in playing to an empty house, or lecturing to a listener-less lyceum. In the summer of 1979 I saw Gang of Four play in a Buffalo bar to an audience of eight people, one of whom kept drunkenly yelling “REO Speedwagon.” Talk about driving home the lyric “At home he feels like a tourist”! Yet the band thrashed about as if their lives were at stake that night. I don’t give a damn if Gang of Four were art-school Maoists; they exhibited the spirit of Joe DiMaggio’s explanation of why he hustled in what seemed to be a meaningless game: “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time. I owe him my best.”
And so here is where I offhandedly mention that I’m giving a mercifully brief talk—I won’t call it a “reading,” lest I invite the curse of Yates—on Thursday, July 29, at 7 p.m. at Lift Bridge Books in Brockport, New York, a great indie store located a stone’s throw from that first and most romantic infernal improvement, the Erie Canal. The subject is my latest, Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (how’s that for a wishful thinking title?), which is bound for glory or the remainder bin, you guess which. In deference to Gang of Four, I won’t fill your head with culture, and I won’t give myself an ulcer.
Bill Kauffman’s column “Home Plate” appears every month in The American Conservative. If you enjoyed this article, please support the magazine by making a tax-deductible donation.