A Reading at KGB

I have ambivalent feelings about attending readings. Don’t get me wrong, I love being read to. Particularly when I’m feeling miserable (say, with the flu, or women’s troubles, or the state of the nation). Listening to someone I care about’s voice transporting me away from my runny nose, my cramps, and little Johnnie Howard, is one of life’s great pleasures. Friends and lovers and, in the olden days, my parents, have indulged me on many occasions and read till their throats went hoarse (a heartfelt thanks to you all).

But readings as public performance, as sales pitch for a writer’s published work, are a different matter. I’ve been to many, many excellent, fabulous, life-changing readings but, still, the thought of attending a reading fills my heart with dread.

Public readings do not involve a comfy bed or sofa, and rarely include pillows or blankets. You cannot call for toilet breaks, or more wine, and you can’t ask for a reread because you really liked that bit, or were (momentarily) distracted. You cannot ask for an ending to be changed if it upset you (to this day I’m happy in the knowledge that Ivanhoe and Rebecca rode off into the sunset together).

Public readings also have the uncomfortable habit of revealing that a writer you have worshipped all your life has an unpleasant voice, or one that sounds just like that jerk Richard, who beat you up every day for a year in fourth grade, or worst of all has a perfectly pleasant voice, but can’t read out loud to save themselves.

They rush past the tragic moments, laugh at their own jokes, pause for applause that isn’t ever going to come, and mispronounce all the words with more than two syllables. They put on different accents for each character, all of them cringingly bad, particularly the Australian accent (note to all North Americans: don’t do it, don’t even try. Meryl Streep couldn’t do an Aussie accent, and neither can you).

No matter how brilliant a writer, you know you will never open one of their books, or hunt down one of their stories again for fear of having their dread voice in your head as you read. They kill their writing stone-cold dead.

That is what fills my heart with horror at the prospect of attending a reading. And there is no reading series I dread more than the KGB Science Fiction Reading Series.

KGB is not a large bar. More than twenty people and you start to find breathing an issue. The seats, if you can get one, are uncomfortable. There is a theatre upstairs that seems to specialise in loud thumping, yelling, running-up-and-down-the-stairs plays on Wednesday nights. Fortunately, the amplification has improved a lot since my first KGB in 2000.

Prior to April 2003 (and halelujah for April 2003!) KGB had smoke from floor to ceiling, even if it was just one person smoking a practically no-tar, no-nicotine menthol cigarette. Even now someone coming in from smoking outside is liable to smoke up the place just by exhaling.

An astute peruser of my website might have noted that I attend every KGB reading I can. Too true. Well spotted. Why attend, you might ask, if it’s so dreadful?

Because the bartender’s a sweetie who’s as quiet as a mouse during the readings, it’s just round the corner from where I live, and, well, okay, I’ve yet to go to a bad reading there.

Last night’s reading was no exception. I arrived fifteen minutes early to find the place packed way beyond capacity and no hope of a seat (perhaps because in their listing of the KGB reading, The Village Voice claims that Kelly Link has written the two best sentences of the last 10 years). There were lots of non-usual suspects which is always heartening.

I made the mistake of slipping out to the loo just before it began, thus ensuring that I spent the first reading in the hallway, sitting on the steps, scrunching out of the way for mad thespians running up and down the stairs, and catching the occasional snippet of reading from inside the bar.

Apparently Holly Black read a fairy tale set in the Phillipines about a girl who was trying to avoid getting rabies from some elves at a night market. Everyone I talked to who actually heard her story, said it was fabulous.

I timed my loo break better for Kelly Link‘s reading, and was able to sit at her feet, gazing up adoringly as she read a fabulously funny story about a girl trying to avoid getting rabies from nasty tattooed dog-owners in a small town located near a zombie city not far from the Canadian border. Much fun was had at the expense of Canadians (fine by me as long as she stays away from dissing my people). There were also lots of pyjamas. I love pyjamas. It was wonderful.

New York City, 19 June 2003