Cooking Eggs

I went to a reading this fall where one of three writers, having been asked to read for no more than fifteen minutes, went for over half an hour. I went to a reading about a year ago where one of four writers read (at a breakneck pace, well aware of what she was doing, seemingly trying to burn through an entire short story) for forty minutes—until the curator slipped, if I remember right, a hand-written note onto the podium that said something like “STOP NOW.” And at a reading a few years ago where I was one of four on the lineup, one of the other writers seemed to be hell-bent on passing the hour mark, but she read so quickly (breaking a vicious sweat as she went) that you couldn’t follow the story at all—although later she confessed she had no idea how long she’d been up there.

With all that in mind, I’ve been meaning to post a gentle suggestion here, for any series curators who might happen to stop by, to please, for everyone’s benefit, consider purchasing egg timers to put on their venues’ podiums or music stands (facing the readers, of course). In my experience, not only do all curators give their readers time limits, they also all contact their readers in advance with helpful hints on how to stay well within those limits, such as rehearsing their material at home beforehand with a stopwatch. But some writers (who tend to also be the second-rate ones), for who knows what reason, persistently either misunderstand or ignore or flout this advice completely—so perhaps a more blunt, or even cynical, time limit-enforcement technique is needed?

As with so many things, the Google reveals that there is nothing new in the tubes; a search for the phrases “egg timer” and “reading series” currently brings you, at the top of the list of hits, this page, which would seem to indicate that Jackie Sheeler over at the Pink Pony West series at the Cornelia Street Café has already thought of this idea. But then I’m wondering, if Sheeler does this, why don’t all curators? And why would any writer take this (at best) clueless or (at worst) self-indulgent approach to performing? (Isn’t it obvious that dreading a performance like a trip to the dentist on the one hand, or relishing it like an exercise in onanism on the other, will almost certainly make the experience into a kind of hell for the listener?) Fortunately, I noticed recently, there’s an article in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers that does more than just complain about this phenomenon, as I’m doing here; “Stand Up or Sit Down: Performance Tips for Reading Your Work” by Meredith Broussard is not available online, but is well worth reading. “If an audience has come for a ten-minute reading and you deliver forty-five minutes, there will be a lot of chair scraping and uncomfortable coughing. […] ‘There’s a diminishing return: The longer you read aloud, the less people will feel the need to buy your book,’ explains [writer and consultant Bella] Stander. ‘Leave them wanting more, not fidgeting or falling asleep.'” Why should this be a difficult concept to grasp?