The Dowager Empress of CanLit, Margaret Atwood, recently announced she was developing a software program that would allow her to conduct all future book tours via webcam, with book signings performed by a robot arm. Since much of Canadian literature is actually written by robots, the Atwood-bot seems like a logical next step.
For those of us unable to afford mechanical valets, however, there remains the wondrous hell of the book tour.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I feel very privileged and grateful to be invited anywhere, anytime, to show off my wares. I have no pride when it comes to self-promotion – I have read in bars and cafes, libraries and classrooms, on radio and television, and even in mosquito-infested parks. I once sat in front of the busy entrance to a Chapters store in Halifax, half hidden behind a pile of my latest unwanted book, and watched people walk, even jump, around me the way people dodge panhandlers, or those annoying sausage sample ladies at Dominion. I not only have no pride, I have no ability to say no. Nor am I plagued by shame.
But, unlike men and sexual bottoms, all book tours are not created equal. One of the best readings I ever gave was to exactly three people in a tiny bookstore in Montreal. Two of the attentive guests were old friends, and the third was an obviously maladjusted person who had the misfortune to work in said store.
My friends sat politely and listened to me read aloud from books they had already read, kind of like patient penitents in church. But the miserable shop-keep was literally transfixed. He didn’t fidget, sigh or even blink for half an hour, and after I finished he told me to pick any book I wanted from the store. That’s when I knew he was crazy.
At a reading in Moncton, I looked up from my shaking page and saw an entire family plunked in the front row – Mom, Dad, three little kids, arranged in descending order by height, each clutching a copy of my book and following along. I started to panic. What if I slipped up, forgot a word, neglected to pause at the commas? Would they correct me? Interrupt to offer the proper pronunciations?
After 15 minutes of torture, the family got up, en masse and with a chorus line’s precision, put my books on their chairs, and left. They didn’t buy even one copy, after making me sweat, literally, over my p’s and q’s. If the place wasn’t packed with witnesses, I might have pulled an In Cold Blood on the whole brood.
Last summer in Winnipeg, two old ladies sat right beside me and scolded me every time I said a “dirty” word. They also kept up a running commentary during my reading, with the following unsolicited advice: “You’ll never get anywhere reading filth,” and, “There’s no need of that kind of talk in public.” The next night, I was asked to read at a no-alcohol, no-smoking, no-drugs, no-meat, no-wheat, no-fun “Pride Café,” in a fucking church yet, and was the follow-up act to two earnest lesbian folk singers who sang songs about (I am not making this up) breast cancer and aboriginal treaty rights. Now that’s entertainment!
Oh, I could go on… about the time the host of a gay and lesbian community radio show told me I’d “never get on the CBC with sex talk” (ah, the humble goals of the oppressed), or the time I read at Toronto’s Rivoli after performance artist Istvan Kantor had just deafened the audience with a 25-minute sound sculpture that involved (again, I’m not making this up) banging filing cabinets, hammers and sexy ladies with amplified megaphones screaming slogans from the French Revolution, or that fateful visit to London, UK, where I met Margaret Atwood’s nephew (honest), who asked, “How many little books have you written?”
Forget the book tour webcam, I want a switch-blade pen.