Like any award of this stature, everyone wanted to know where I was when I got the phone call. Well, the news didn’t come directly from the organization itself. No, the way I found out was from Rod Harmon of the Portland Press Herald’s Go section, who called seeking comment. “Award?” I replied, ankle deep in 2012 tax receipts in my office and grateful to be interrupted by anyone or anything. “What award?”
That’s when I was directed to the website of the blog Gawker, and discovered that li’l ole me had been selected by its editor, Hamilton Nolan, as the author of the “most obnoxious letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review of the entire year [of 2012].” The entire year, I tell you! According to Harmon, I’d gone “viral.” (Last check, the post about me had almost 250,000 hits, whereas the site’s Golden Globes recap had a mere 168,000 — and that included a funny video of Taylor Swift’s “bitchface” [their term, not mine] reaction to rival Adele’s acceptance speech, and commentary on Jodi Foster’s non-coming-out ramble.) Writing in Go, Harmon said, “Portland is in the national news again, and not in a positive way. Hot on the trail of the Zumba madam case… comes this Dec. 31 award from Gawker.com.”
That’s right. A Kennebunk prostitution ring and I are equally besmirching Maine’s good name.
As someone who’s made a career out of being obnoxious, I can’t say I didn’t feel deserving of this honor, but recognition like this still comes as something of a surprise, when so many so much younger than I are more deserving. Well, I’m afraid they’ll just have to wait their turn like I did.
It wasn’t so much the post itself that caught my eye. It was the commentary that followed. Even though I don’t read blogs, I am aware that the comments posted there are usually anonymous garbage. I also know you’re not supposed to pay attention to them if they’re directed at you, but how could I not? There were 92 of them, one more incendiary than the last. It was like eating potato chips, albeit fiery red-hot BBQ potato chips dipped in battery acid and ground glass. Still, I just couldn’t stop.
For your edification, I’ve compiled a little mash-up of some of them:
She’s so stuck-up and completely ridiculous. She’s an idiot, she’s gross, a self-important solipsist, a self-important twit, beyond tedious, angry suburban fem. What a twit. I’m sorry that there are such nasty, unhappy people in the world. I’m sure she had ‘My writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review’ on her CV within seconds. Oh yeah, a humor columnist. The funny thing about the columns is that they’re published at all. Publishing this letter just validates her self-importance and snobbery. CREATOR OF NOTHING, SPEAKER FOR ALL.
And just what did I say to incur such vitriol? That memoirs featuring dogs are annoying? That Jonathan Franzen is overrated? (I dump-picked The Corrections and I still want my money back.) That ever since he moved to Paris, David Sedaris’ work has jeted le shark.
No, my letter was simply a response to an essay by New York Times writer John Schwartz, who had, in preparing to record his first audiobook, “discovered” there’s an art to reading aloud. I merely suggested that writers who choose to read their work for an audience should first learn the craft, known as oral interpretation of literature. OK, so perhaps my dictum that they otherwise “should put a sock in it” might’ve sounded a bit cheeky, and making fun of Tina Fey tearing up at her own writing (as cited in Schwartz’s essay) was a cheap shot, but come on, I was just trying to provide a public service.
See, as I said in the letter, I’ve been involved in public speaking and reading literature aloud since I was a schoolgirl. Since that time, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of more readings than I can begin to count. Many of them have brought me to my knees. (Most recently, Monica Wood’s perfect rendering of her memoir, When We Were the Kennedys, comes to mind.) But I’ve also seen writers bury their faces in their books and read in a droning monotone, or bluster and chew up the scenery. There are those who rip through their work like the Tasmanian Devil and those who read in that oft-mocked incantatory tone in which ev-er-y syl-lab-bul is car-essed and ends on an up-note? Sound fa-mil-i-ar?
Here’s the thing (and the point I was trying to make with my letter): It’s not (entirely) these writers’ fault. Just because you write a book doesn’t mean you know how to read it aloud, any more than it means you know how to play the harp or swallow swords. But you wouldn’t do those things in front of an audience without a little training, would you?
So, I’m going to offer a quick primer here on how to read your work aloud in 10 easy steps:
1. Prepare. I know this sounds fairly obvious, but you would not believe the number of writers who get up there and start paging through their book with a “Letsee, what should I read?” Figure out your selection. Make sure it has a beginning, middle and end. And when you get to that end, stop.
2. Edit. It’s OK to splice together parts of whatever you’re reading to make that beginning-middle-and-end thing happen. You can also replace difficult-to-say words with easier synonyms. Same with homonyms. Get rid of any unnecessary exposition. This is your work, you can muck around with it — even though there will inevitably be someone with your book open on her lap in the front row tisk-tisking every change. (Yes, it’s happened to me.)
3. Rehearse. Say those words out loud. More than once. If you’re good, a couple times. If not, many.
4. Know your allotted time and time your reading. And then time it again.
5. If you will be working with a microphone, ask for a sound check so you will know in advance where to position yourself and won’t have to fumble around when you get up there.
6. Don’t make the introduction and setup longer than the actual reading itself. And don’t forget that all the introductory material is part of your allotted time — not a 20-minute reading and a 15 minute lead-in.
(7. Emcees and hosts, this goes for you, as well. Keep those intros brief. We’re there to hear the writer.)
8. Breathe. Project. Pause every once in a while. Hold for your laughs. Occasional eye contact also helps.
9. Be considerate and attentive to the other readers. (You all know who you are and what I am talking about.)
10. And most important, repeat after me: I shall honor the clock. (See item above about timing yourself.) While there will always be people who hang on an author’s every word and wish the reading would go on for eternity (see below), most of us — no matter how much we are enjoying ourselves — will be ready for you to end when your allotted time is up. The thing is, most authors have absolutely no sense of time once they take the stage. (I wish I could draw, because I have an idea for the perfect New Yorker cartoon: A tweedy, leather-elbow-patched kind of poet, leaning on his lectern and looking up at his audience — except they’re all skeletons, some of them clasping a copy of his book on their bony laps. The ceiling is blown off the room, the walls are in ruins, and the sands of the end of the world are blowing around. The caption reads: “How’m I doing for time?”) Dear Author, we love having you share your work with us, but some of us have to go to bed or the bar or the bathroom, so wrap it up on time, will you?
But back to my letter: I will grant you, my tone may have been a titch on the snarky side. I will admit that in the realm of dish it out/take it, I was, in a way, asking for the lambasting. But what got me was the mob mentality of those anonymous posts. It was like the closing scene in Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery,” but at least the target of that assault could see her assailants. So, this is the state of social discourse?
Now, I know in 20 years of column writing and expressing my opinions out loud that I have stepped on toes, rankled and offended. Sometimes a seemingly harmless jape or jest misses its mark, and I could probably occasionally tone it down. And I know I can be obnoxious.
But here’s the thing: When I speak my mind, I sign my name.
Elizabeth Peavey would like to thank the Academy, whoever you are.