The first public literary reading I ever gave was at Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge for a now-defunct magazine’s issue showcase. I was 21 years old and had never read my poems in front of a live audience. More important, I had never built up the requisite nerves to read my poems aloud, and, as a way of coping, I had spent that afternoon day drinking in nearby Washington Square Park with a group of strangers from the Bronx who could have been troubadours from Kentucky. By the time I got to the venue, drunk on whiskey siphoned from their flasks and cheap beer from the local bodega, I was shocked to see that some of my friends and professional peers had shown up to watch me perform. If it wasn’t enough to want to impress them by reading at a public space, I had also trained myself to recite the poems, sans paper. Hours earlier, I had even been so bold as to crumple the printed poems and pour beer on them as a final act of humiliation. Now, in the impractically lit basement that functioned as a lounge, a bar, and a performance space, the lines of the poems melted away and the humiliation was turned inward. Once I was called up to the stage, I looked into the far recesses of the dim basement for something—call it a friendly face, call it a sign—to look back. But I saw nothing; I heard only applause and a couple glasses clink as they were placed on the bar. I put my sweaty palms inside my pocket in an attempt to dig out poems that were no longer there.
“Thank you for coming,” I said to the expectant crowd.
In the decade since that first reading, I have been fortunate to have performed my writing at over twenty-five venues across four boroughs (Staten Island, I haven’t forgotten you). And as a senior editor at a major publisher, I have attended countless readings where I have heard writers make similar utterances of gratitude. But in 2020, the global pandemic arrived, which changed the format for literary readings seemingly overnight. Readers, publishers, and audiences alike adapted to a new mode of viewership (me included, as my debut poetry collection was published in the fall of 2020). For some, the pressure of having to perform at a venue eased—wardrobe choices became dramatically simpler for one thing. For others, the necessity of managing the technicalities of Zoom while trying to be present was a necessary but unwanted challenge.
Thanking an audience member for attending a Zoom is not the same as thanking them in the same physical place. For the latter, people took care and time to get there. They fought through crowded subways or postponed dinner plans or braved inclement weather, or, maybe hired a babysitter so they could have an extra drink and prolong their freedom from familial obligations. In the Zoom world, “coming” isn’t a verb as apt as “logging on” or, perhaps even more appropriate, “clicking on.” Especially when it’s just as easy to leave with a muted wave, a powering down with a click on the keyboard.
Literary readings, when they existed, were taken for granted. They were omnipresent, free, and open to the public. They served as catalysts for writers to test out new words or to sell their books, and writers served as reading spaces’ perpetual role players, so that the entire ecosystem of reading, and being read to, was a natural half-step toward acceptance in the literary world. Want to expand your network? Go to a reading. Want to promote yourself? Set up a reading. Want a potent slice of the culture? Attend a reading.
If physical readings could often be performative, self-aggrandizing, and even competitive, the emergence of "digital’ readings has had the inverse effect: they are impersonal and dull. Dare I say, they are vacuous. The phrase, “Thank you for coming,” when spoken to a screen, doesn’t hold the same sway. It begs the question: is anybody really ever there?
Which says nothing of book sales: ask any publicist in the industry and you’ll hear fledgling quotes about how Zoom events don’t sell books; or how they contribute to author-participant burnout; or how, even when there are books for sale, the potential for someone to purchase a copy decreases for the mere fact that they are not face-to-face with the writer. One does not feel the same kind of pressure as they would if they were at a local independent bookstore and previewing the physical object while getting to ask the writer about a passage they heard. Then there’s the liberal flow of cheap wine and spirits, which have become staples of literary events, emotional elixirs for both the writer and the audience. Or, if nothing else, a reason to go, to stay after the reading has ended, to acknowledge — even flippantly — that even a subpar reading could be worth the almost-always free price of admission for below-average table wine.
Once, on my way to a reading in Bushwick in 2013 I was to attend as a guest, I got lost and popped into a bar to ask directions. I met a woman there whom I ended up talking to for three hours and forgot about the reading entirely, only to overhear some writers talking about their reading experiences at the same bar hours later. They used adjectives like prolix and despotic, and I was glad to have missed it.
At a reading at Dixon Place on the coldest, rainiest day in January in 2015, people stomped out their boots and sopped up their foreheads and dripped wetness onto the floor while I read a prose piece about Charlie Chaplin. I remember thinking of Shakespeare as I watched them watching me: For the rain it raineth every day…
I recall how at a reading at a VFW in Park Slope it felt intimidating to read mawkish poetry while veterans threw back whiskey and Budweiser, but oh their placid expressions as they carefully listened, like the faces in a Philip Levine poem.
Once, my oafish friend I hadn’t seen in four years wandered into a BYOB reading at a vintage shop in Crown Heights and knocked over three glasses while managing to keep his own from spilling as a performer started his poem. I remember how I glowered at my friend, but also how I smiled inside.
In our now-too-accustomed Zoom milieu, in which bodies are supplanted by virtual boxes, and background noise is chillingly absent, the audience-reader relationship is devoid of the powerful personal connections we used to make at in-person readings. The same authentic power of being together that felt rote and predictable to us before the world turned upside down.
Digital readings have given bookshops, publishers, writers, and readers all around the globe an essential replacement these last months, for which we are all grateful. When the new normal allows us to comfortably and safely resume our places inside our local bookshops and bars, I hope we’ll gain more than just the chance to be together; I hope we’ll attain a deeper appreciation of its importance. Imagine it now: Glasses of beer and liquor being sipped and prudently placed down, a couple stifled coughs undercutting the reading, like misplaced commas. A stack of books, signed and inscribed, in a Jenga-like pursuit toward the lights. And the reader, under them, knowing their brief time to bask is almost up, as another invisible moment begins.
Matthew Daddona is a writer and senior editor who resides in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. His debut collection of poems, House of Sound, was published in 2020. He estimates that he has been to over 250 readings in his lifetime.