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Book Club Tue Jul 16 2013
Chicago is replete with live lit events and reading series. Nearly any weekday of the month, you can spit and land on a bookstore, bar, coffee shop, or combination thereof full of writerly-performery people reading things they've created. These events span all topics and probe all levels of analysis: there's the personal but professional-grade creative nonfiction of Essay Fiesta; the witty sort-of journalism of The Paper Machete; the personal, confessional narratives of Story Club, Guts & Glory and The Moth; there's the eclecticism of Seven Deadly Sins and Tuesday Funk; the vigorous debate of Write Club. Hell, there's poetry too, in the form of Uptown Poetry Slam.
But in this performative literary oasis, there are barely any fiction reading series to be found. The one exception is Fictlicious, which delivers original fictional work from Chicago-area writers with a side of live music, but sadly, it's only a quarterly event. You can find fictional pieces in, for example, Seven Deadly Sins; there is character work in The Paper Machete. And if you really are starved for fictional narrative, you can always go to a book signing at Women & Children First or The Book Cellar and find an author reading a snippet. But there is no regularly-schedule sample platter of fictional literary creations.
As a wannabe fiction writer and as someone who listens to fiction podcasts on the regular (hello, Liar's League NYC, Selected Shorts, The New Yorker Fiction Podcast), this dearth of fictional fare has struck me for a long time, and kinda bummed me out. This city is chock full of people who write, do comedy, perform, and read books. Fiction is just another form that deserves public expression, isn't it? How can we be so blessed with essays and personal narratives and be so lacking in stories?
I've thought about it a lot, and I've conjured several reasons. Here they are.
Fiction Requires a Big Buy-In
One of the reasons that fiction readings are rare is the same reason that poetry readings are (relatively) uncommon and poorly attended: both art forms require a lot from the audience. With an essay or piece of creative nonfiction, the immediacy and the authenticity of what's being read makes the work more immediately compelling. Someone is sharing something that actually happened to them, or at least relating actual facts. The listener doesn't have to do much mental work, other than pay attention and decide whether they believe or like the author.
When a work of fiction is read aloud, however, the listener must settle in, allow the world to be established, and willingly go along for the whole ride. They might need to use their imagination to help construct the world the author has created. Nothing about the fictional world or its characters can be taken for granted. The unfolding of the narrative and unveiling of information must be relatively slow and languid.
Fiction Can Seem Boring
Fiction is rarely as punchy and swift-moving as essays or memoir-ish pieces are. And many short stories are deadly serious or existential. In most literary fiction, the end of the story is irresolute and kinda bleak, certainly not as tidy as your average Moth tale. Even if a fiction author does have a light touch, it's hard to cram a story full with laughs (unless you're Simon Rich or something).
Plus there's the fact that people don't read as much fiction as they do other forms of writing! The average attendee of a live lit event probably reads humorous essays and scintillating news articles on a fairly regular basis (or aspires to); these same people may not usually have the time to work through a complex, slow-building novel or short story collection. Most people seem to have an instinctual bias in favor of true stories, no matter how large or small they are in stakes and scope. If a story is fictional, it's a lot harder to will the audience to care about it. For all these reasons, people are more likely to find think fiction is dull compared to its other literary counterparts.
Short Stories Don't Get Much Love
This problem plagues the publishing industry and has shattered the hearts of many a writer. People buy novels (kind of), not short story collections. In fact, if you're a new author, it's virtually impossible to secure a first-time publishing deal on the back of a collection of short fiction. It's about as hard to do as making money slinging poetry. Now, the market may be changing slightly thanks to people like George Saunders and Karen Russell, but it's still pretty hard out there for someone who deals in the short fictional form.
As I mentioned above, fiction has a big "buy in," and it's hard enough to get a reader to slip into a fictional world when they know they'll be rewarded with hundreds of pages of escapism and entertainment. But it's even harder to get a reader to invest in a story when they know it end in a few thousand words, usually inconclusively and with some degree of depression or general ennui involved. And the short story is really the only format appropriate for live lit. Something must be done to make each individual short story shine and snare the audience's interest, which brings us to the final problem:
Fiction Writers are Not Performers
Here I am painting with broad strokes, but so be it. Many of the people who read their essays, opinion pieces, and memoirish narratives in public have some kind of performance background. This is the byproduct of Chicago's healthy theater and comedy communities. If someone writes and publicly reads what they've written, odds are high that they act, direct, have taken improv classes, do sketch comedy, tightrope walk, teach, or do something else performative. In fact, many of the people who pop up at live lit events in the city are primarily actors or comedians in search of an alternative outlet for the creativity. Which is to say, they were not writers first and foremost.
This is not so true of fiction writers. For whatever reason, fiction writers are a more introverted, retiring bunch of people, and often are loath to even share their work at writer's groups. The idea of standing before a crowd and not only sharing their work, but performing it? To a lot of fiction authors, especially amateur ones, that's a terrifying prospect. And performance anxiety aside, such writers are less likely to have the attention-grabbing, voice modulating chops necessary to hold a crowd's attention.
This fact alone is probably the main reason we don't have a health live fiction scene: there aren't that many fiction writers clamoring to read their work aloud. Of course, this problem could be addressed by following the examples of Selected Shorts and Liar's League NYC, both of which pair a work of fiction with an appropriate actor. This solution would promote both writers and performers while keeping audience boredom at bay.
Is This a Problem Worth Fixing?
If most fiction writers have no desire to share their work aloud, and most live lit audiences prefer true stories, what's the problem with the status quo? It might seem like I'm complaining about a problem that doesn't exist.
I don't think it's that simple. I think many fiction writers would love to have more ears and eyeballs appreciating their work, and would delight in sharing their precious creations and getting a little applause for it-- they just don't know it yet. And similarly, a lot of live lit audiences may not know what they're missing by not having a fiction series, because they have yet to experience the transcendent rapture of being sucked into an engrossing story that is rendered all the more lifelike and compelling by the human voice.
Having more live literary fiction events could bring a whole new swathe of fiction readers into the fold, by reminding them of the wondrous potential stories really have. A short story or novel has a lot of "buy in," to be sure, but a solid public performance can bring a story to life in a way that silent, individual reading cannot. Furthermore, performing a short story or novel excerpt is a unique kind of theatrical art, one that requires the oldest of old-school talents: the ability to engage in the oral tradition in an interesting way. A fiction performer has to embody character, plot, tone, and narration in one package. It's a remarkable challenge and when done well, is utterly dazzling to see or hear.
So consider this a call for more public fiction readings. Whether the work is paired with an actor or spouted from the author's own lips, we need more stories read aloud. Chicago is the ideal community for such an effort, full as it is of solid writers, badass performers, and attentive, passionate listeners. Let's get it together Chicago.