Readings Aren’t Writing and the Scene Is Not Selling

Here’s a guest post from Bluestem contributor Matt Pine. His fiction can be found in the June 2012 online issue.

I’ve got two things to say, and they don’t talk nicely to each other. Let me place them side-by-side.

1) Readings in bars, readings in basements, chit-chat, applause, praise, nervous introductions, that drunky-urgent talk part of literature, is great. Both in Chicago and San Francisco, the two cities I know, it’s been (surprisingly!) easy to meet writers and poets and artists and publishers and literature enthusiast. Readings! You should go to these if you don’t already. You only stand in the corner like a muttering loaner for a moment. And then, after an awkward ‘Hello, how are you, your poem is like a Thai massage for my heart,’ you make friends who are talented and supportive, friends who will invite you to read and who will publish your work. Friends whose work you admire. Friends who you will be proud to know.

2) The socializing part of literature is a complete and total waste of time. I mean, everyone knows and says and repeats and explains and justifies and bemoans and National-Novel-Months around the fact that writing takes time. And you know what’s not writing? Being a scenester.

To Repeat:

Go to readings. I mean it. My undergrad was in history, and my day jobs have been in offices, so if it wasn’t for readings I would know no writers. If you go to enough readings, you will get invited to read. You will get invited to submit to magazines. We all sometimes think of literature as a game, and this is a great way to score points. But never say this out loud. Sometimes you will even sell a few copies of your novel.

Don’t go to readings. I mean it. Because it’s not just that it’s a Friday night or a Saturday night or a Monday night or a Tuesday night drinking, when you could be more profitably sautéing kale and memorizing the thesaurus. It’s that, at some point you start saying to yourself, “Why didn’t I get on Janey Smith’s list of people he’d like to fuck? We’re casually friends! I go to his readings! (Which are awesome, btw.) And I know so many people on that list!” That isn’t a productive thought to have, not even for a second. (Although on that article, the comment thread is like artisanal vitriol – seasonal, locally grown – with notes of envy, distain, and lust.)

Your local lit scene is vital. Really. I mean, you can’t just write-and-write-and-write into a void. You are, after all, writing to get read and published. And so are so many other people. You are not adversaries. You are a community. You will support each other and buy each others’ books.* You will teach each other, and you will find beauty in the way others assemble words. Art is hard and comrades are good. (*No one will actually buy your book, nor you theirs. Although sometimes, a trade is possible.)

Your local lit scene is a time-sucking whore. Really. Did you know that vampire bats don’t actually suck blood? Instead, they cut open a vein and
then crouch beside the wound lapping blood like a kitten. That’s the lit scene. But instead of a vein, it’s a high-school-drama-insecurity-jamboree-where-social-engineering-is-as-valuable-as-writing-chops.

Why was that even hyphenated? Because all tied up into one complex yet surprisingly consistent morass. I mean, at some point, you’ll meet someone who is charming, and organizes events, and who is at practically everything you go to, and sometimes the person recognizes you, and sometimes the person is a little standoffish, and this will make you crave approval even more, and then you’ll see this person read, and you’ll say to yourself, “Well, maybe that was good? Did I miss something? Um… No. That was… I have to say it… Mediocre… And I am disappointed to discover that was the art created by the person who seems so valuable to this art scene.” And you will realize that the fixtures of our community were not installed by talent alone.

And at the same time you will feel guilt about harshing on someone’s work. Because this person will have given you beautiful nights and some great
memories and introduced you to work that lingers.

And at the same time, you will say, “Damn, I’ve been thinking about this person a lot. You know what I should have been thinking about instead? The imaginary people in my next novel. I believe, last I visited them, they were on the verge of a dangerous epiphany. I really should return to my desk.”

So… go, don’t go. It’s awful and it’s all we’ve got. Also, please invite me to read at your next event. And buy my novel.

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