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June 21, 2007

Going Live

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wife and I are coming off a long-ish spell of old-fashioned barnstorming. In recent months we've put our raunchy fiction up in front of live audiences all around the country. We've conferred our genius on San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, L.A., Austin and seven or eight more cities (/irony, of course). Or was it nine more cities? When you're on tour, where you are and where you've been can get to be a bit of a blur.

It has been an elaborate and exhausting procedure, mainly because we don't just show up at bookstores and read from books. That would be too easy. No, we arrange with local actors to semi-read / semi-perform our stories. We put on a real show, in other words. It's all very no-budget and catch-as-catch-can, but even so the process involves arranging a venue, buying advertising, trying to rustle up local press coverage, and auditioning actors and getting them to show up on time.

To be honest, this has all been The Wife's doing, not mine. For one thing, she's promoting a collection of her own stories that has just been published. (If you'd like an Amazon link to the book, email me at michaelblowhard at gmail and I'll email it back to you. And please do! The Wife's book is a super-fun read -- full of mischief, nifty hooks, lively characters, and hot and filthy sex scenes. Not that I'm biased or anything ... )

For another, The Wife just likes putting on live shows. She's that type -- I often tease her that she's more actress than writer, and I wonder sometimes if she wouldn't be even happier making movies than writing books. Performers, venues, applause, audiences, the crackle of electricity that's special to live performances -- for her, that combo is like the world's bestest-ever drug. Me, well ... Let's just say that I enjoy co-writing, lending moral support, and hanging out backstage.

Please don't feel impressed. We put our shows on at small clubs, even at sex-toy stores, not in auditoriums. At our level, the usual audience ranges from 40-60 people. (On the other hand: Be impressed! Most writers would kill to have 40-60 people show up to listen to their fiction.) We've also been doing the touring on our own nickel. What, you don't think book publishers actually promote the books they publish, do you? Please, grow up.

The fact is that, for 90% of book-authors, publishers do nothing besides turn the material into a book and place it on bookstore shelves for eight weeks. That's it. No ads, no touring, no support. The book either finds its audience or it doesn't. (It's an absurd business: How is anyone supposed to learn about the book's existence in the first place?) So The Wife and I -- darned proud of our kooky, nasty fiction, and maybe a little tougher about promotion than many tenderfoot writers are -- have been doing our best to give our fiction a fair chance in life.

In any case: After numerous months of encountering the Real America -- or at least that very special, tiny sliver of it that attends club performances of erotic fiction -- as well as experiencing what it's like to put on live shows, I have a few observations, tales, and reflections to share.

  • The Highs and The Lows. Putting on live performances requires brass balls and nerves of steel. (Either that or a really overwhelming love of performing, I guess.) The ups and downs can take their toll on a person. A few memorable downs: We had one show where the cast outnumbered the audience. It was actually a good show -- the actors were cooking. Too bad only four people were there to enjoy their good work. At another show, a fire in some nearby hills attracted ten police helicopters overhead and finally blew out the electricity at the club. Our gallant actors lit candles and finished the reading anyway.

    But some of the ups: We've done a number of shows that were sellouts. Yeah, baby! At one of them, the audience roared and cheered like the audience at a smokin' standup comedy act. Afterwards, people -- I guess you might even call them fans -- milled shyly around us, then requested autographs. Autographs! We've been asked to give creative-writing seminars in How to Write Erotic Fiction. A few of the articles written about us have claimed that we're among the leaders of today's edgy erotic-fiction-writing world. Who knew?

    Bragging and groveling to one side, here's my main reflection: No wonder many writers don't put themselves through this kind of touring. I'm not entirely a stranger to showbiz; I've taken acting classes and have spent serious time hanging out with actors; and several lifetimes ago I was a mini-impresario who put on dances, speakers, parties, etc. I enjoyed it all. Even so, on this tour of our own fiction my nerves were often both wrought-up and exhausted. Imagine what a trial such an adventure would be for souls more sensitive than I!

  • It's Fiction, People! OK, So Maybe It's Not ... I wrote back here about the way a surprising number of people in audiences feel that, because we write about sex, The Wife and I not only know something about the subject, we also lead a highly-adventurous sex life. At the beginning of our scamper through the country, we were both a little taken aback by what some people were projecting onto us. So we responded by fighting back genially, trying to enlighten people about the actual facts of the writing life. Namely: Writing time is scarce, writing is hard (if fun) work, and at the end of the day it's all we can do to switch on the TV for an hour. Hey, folks, it's fiction -- that means we make it up!

    By the end of our tour, though, we'd done a 180. These days we let people project onto us whatever they damn well please. For one thing, no one really seems to want to know the truth about how dull writers' lives are. (And why would they?) For another, fantasizing about the writer seems to be part of the fun of fiction for many readers. Why get in the way of their pleasure? If the audience listening to our sexy fiction enjoys imagining its authors as lusty reprobates who swill cocktails, toss off hot stories, and relax by doing exotic drugs and attending orgies, then by god that's who we are.

  • Live Audiences Aren't Workshops. I'm all for studying and mastering craft, of course. And I understand that for practical reasons many writers don't really have a choice -- for many people, it's a choice between a fiction-writing workshop and no feedback at all. Nonetheless ...

    What irks me is the way some writers mistake the workshop world for a real audience. Workshops can be great, of course. But your writing is being looked at by fellow craftspeople and aspirants, not by civilians. There's (generally) a big difference. Workshop buddies tend to judge and critique, and to fixate on technical challenges and problems. This often results in ingrown weirdnesses. Imagine what would happen, for instance, if chefs-in-training cooked for no one but each other. Within a few weeks, the food being served would grow bizarre, even fetishistically strange -- fascinating to in-group student chefs, no doubt, but repulsive to most hungry people.

    Live audiences are far less "critical" than workshop attendees are. They show up not to judge but to have a good time. It's remarkable how sweet they can be. You don't have to work hard to get them to give over to your fiction; they're already there with you, they're rooting for you. You have to work hard -- or screw up badly -- in order to throw them out of the fiction spell.

    It's not that real audiences aren't demanding -- in fact, they're far more demanding than workshoppers are. It's that they're demanding in a completely different way. They want the basics of involvement in fiction -- engagement, spirit, provocation, characters who seem to live and breathe, suspense, and situations that have spice and appeal. If the liveliness fades, so does their attention. But the finicky, writerly stuff that wows fellow workshoppers? That's stuff that live audiences -- ie., civilians -- don't care about at all.

    Besides, you learn a lot from sitting in a live audience as your material is being presented. You're right there with them. When jokes work, people laugh. When jokes don't work, the silence is painful. In the case of erotic fiction, when people are really enjoying a sexy scene the temperature in the room literally goes up. You really can feel all these things.

    I'm not sure that what I've learned is anything I can put into words. But I have the strong impression that my audience sense, whatever that is, has grown somewhat sharper than it once was. And isn't it better to cultivate an audience sense than a workshop sense? Who are you writing for anyway?

  • Literary People vs. Showbiz People. I wrote a blogposting back here comparing the typical book-person with the typical movie-person. Our barnstorming has only confirmed what I wrote. While The Wife and I do fine with a traditional books crowd, there's often a grudging quality to their enjoyment of our fiction. What we do may be funny and hot, but it isn't what booky people live for. It's too raucous for them, maybe.

    Showbiz people, on the other hand, really get us. Actors rhapsodize about how much they love playing our characters; filmmakers and theater directors have asked us to collaborate with them on projects. A week ago, The Wife took a meeting with an actual Hollywood producer who had come across our work. He told her that he lives - lives lives lives! -- to produce stuff like what we create. Even allowing for showbiz hyperbole -- discounting it by 90%, in other words -- this kind of reaction is still quite a contrast to the more subdued, quibbling reactions of the introverted booky set.

  • Books are a really hard sell these days. The old culture of books is completely shot to hell. It's gone, it's all over, it ain't coming back, period, paragraph, finito. Young people are able to read, of course. But book-reading plays a different role in their media-cosmos than it does in older people's. Settling down with a book at the end of the evening? Hard to imagine why, when you might be surfing the web instead. Sinking into a lot of linearly-organized text? What's appealing about that? Young people have so many media options, and so many of them are so twinkly and enticing, that books look drab by comparison. After all, they don't glow, they don't make noises, they don't move, and you can't click on 'em. While oldies tend to think of books as one of the acmes of civilization and automatically accord them respect, younger people see books as the low end of the media ladder, something to play with only when the Nintendo is on the fritz.

  • Uninhibited. In comments here and at his own blog, Shouting Thomas has argued that bigcity people have no idea how freely "squares" are enjoying sex these days. The old picture was that bigcity bohemians watch French movies and lead liberated lives, while the rubes are locked into CBS, NBC, misery, denial, and unhappiness.

    The Wife and I have certainly encountered more than our share of bluestockings in our swings through the country -- oh, how we have come to despise fretful soccer moms. But I think Shouting Thomas is onto something major. "Sex and the City" and "The Sopranos" are everyday viewing. The back shelves of Netflix's library are being rummaged through. Every high school has its own contingent of Suicide Girls. The web's delights, diversions, and ickinesses are never more than a click or two away.

    From people who have approached us after our shows, The Wife and I have learned about local swing scenes, have been invited to local S&M clubs, and have received homemade DVDs of local people enjoying themselves in the most salacious ways. Meanwhile, many of our bigcity culturebuddies look anything but lusty and confident. Instead, they look haggard and dull, like people who haven't enjoyed sex in years.

  • New York isn't where it's happening any longer. Here's the culture-picture as New York City likes to imagine it: New York City is the country's intellect, and creativity originates in the brain. By dint of brilliance and determination, creativity of the hot-and-innovative sort starts in the big city, and only gradually makes its way to the hinterland.

    Um, no longer. That image exists now only to feed the big-city ego. It's contradicted by all kinds of evidence. In a YouTube world, anyplace is someplace. Thanks to digital tools, people all over the country are free to create, as well as to display what they make. Thanks to the web, people all over the country have access to 90% of what a New Yorker can get hold of.

    And New York City itself has changed. It's far more expensive, for one important thing. No more living cheap in the Village among the boho set. Prices in the Village are skyhigh; fizzy young people with art ambitions and limited budgets now have to live an hour away in far-flung neighborhoods I've never even visited.

    The mood in the city has changed since 9/11. It's a more cautious, stodgy place than it used to be. A theater director we know who works around the world tells us that he feels NYC has collapsed in on itself and gone glum. Though he has a big and worshipful audience in NYC, he's far happier these days working almost anywhere else.

    And people outside New York have a lot available to them that NYC-ites can only dream about: space, money, and time. Good vibes, too -- there's a lot to be said for living among people who are cheery, sweet, enthusiastic, and optimistic. Although life in the media / culture jungle does toughen you up and make you shrewd, it has its downsides too. Past a certain point, why cultivate ever more self-consciousness?

    People who haven't been through the big-city blast-furnace may look soft and doughy to us. But, really, what exactly is wrong with soft and doughy? Creativity may in fact be as likely to arise out of whimsy, leisure, cheeriness, and eccentricity as out of tension and intellectuality. No, New York City is too much about ego, about success, about prevailing over others and being a star. All too often things here mire down in ego wars and neurotic competitiveness. Meanwhile, the rest of the country is having a ball amusing itself and expressing itself. And it's doing so without any concern whatsoever for the likes of us.

Back here I linked to a fun and freewheeling Pittsburgh-based webseries called "Something To Be Desired." I notice that another no-budget Pittsburgh-based webseries has gone online too. Looking pretty slick and kinky! Does this mean that Pittsburgh is the new Hollywood? Or does it mean instead that Hollywood is losing its monopoly on the production of audiovisual- through- time entertainment?



UPDATE: Shouting Thomas begins what I hope will be a series of postings glancing off of this one here and here.

posted by Michael at June 21, 2007


"I told you so," she said smugly. Well, I would have if you'd asked. Didn't I tell you so?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 21, 2007 7:39 PM

With the distinction drawn in this post between the ingrown, metastasized weirdness of workshop fiction and the lively art/craft of cooking for others, I think some light has been shed on what really differentiates lit-fic from genre fiction, a recurring topic on this blog. Lit-fic is writing written for an audience of other writers (even if the audience is the kind that exists only in the head of the writer himself). Like workshop writing, it's intended for a tiny, insular audience in the lit world, and like workshop fiction has developed into a self-referential backwater, utterly disconnected from the broad currents of the culture (to say nothing of the fact that lit-fic writers often come from a workshop-infested background, and even run some themselves to make at least a little money).

Genre fiction is written for an audience of other people, different people, varied people. Like cooking, it is disciplined by the need to connect with someone not of the producer's world. Interesting to think that the malformations of lit-fic may not just be a product of the usual causes--the maleficent influence of Joyce, Eliot, Hitler, Stalin, television, etc.,--but is instead the probably inevitable perversion of a craft that has replaced an interest in connection with an actual audience of real people, with navel-gazing and mutual masturbation--a Manhattan circle jerk, and not a very big or interesting one, either.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 21, 2007 8:28 PM

Oh no! Don't tell me you swept into our cities like stealthy ninjas without telling the blowhardians to come and cheer you and the missus on!

Interesting sub-post on NYC too. I don't see the attraction anymore either. Maybe we're both right about Pittsburgh... or Buffalo!

Posted by: the holzbachian on June 22, 2007 12:03 AM

I'm about to move from a happy but somewhat provincial medium-sized city back to the Big Time, and I'm totally worried about exactly what Michael describes. The level of exhaustion and stress created by the nonstop obsession with work is remarkable. It's desexualizing and damaging to creativity, especially given the soul-lessness of most modern work. Seeing people troop out of the office at 5:30 PM here in the "provinces" is a little lesson on what life is supposed to be about. I'm hoping I can resist the culture a bit while still enjoying my ringside seat at the big-city spectacle...not to mention all the attractive single women who tend to flock to where the action is.

Posted by: mq on June 22, 2007 12:55 AM

Great food for thought. Questions:

Are you paying the actors out of your own pockets? Are you charging admission? Do you see an increase in sales?

Is your material dialogue and dramatic or prosey? I'm guessing two readers per scene/story?

I see a lot of your insights with our storytelling group. We perform original stories, and most are carefully crafted too, but they don't seem as highbrow or as ornately written as Updike/Roth/Morrison. Frankly, the kind of people who show up for our events are nonliterary types. It amazes me.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on June 22, 2007 3:13 AM

Hello Michael,

Yes, public performance is an incredibly rough and tumble affair. In the midwest and south, the old dingy bars (dives) still exist, and you can go honky-tonking. The Blues Brothers movie captures this experience from the band's point of view so perfectly.

Public performance is either a great high or a terrible disaster, in my experience. There are few dull moments.

In the next couple of months, I'll be launching my new band in New Jersey, playing first at political events... both Democratic and Republican. As long as the check doesn't bounce, I don't care. I've always preferred to play in front of drinking audiences, and the political events are keggers. Drinking audiences are so much more explosive and fun.

Good luck with the book!

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 22, 2007 7:46 AM

"American art and culture ends at the boundaries of New York City, and one day it'll get in.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on June 22, 2007 8:27 AM

And, yes, Michael, I will respond to your post at some length over in my blog.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on June 22, 2007 9:21 AM

Best of all, it sounds like you're having fun.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 22, 2007 9:45 AM

It just sounds great what you guys are doing - I really admire you for this. Give us a holler when you get to Seattle.

Posted by: doug on June 24, 2007 1:59 PM

From your post on movie people vs. book people:

The movie person's conviction is that trash and art are closely and necessarily connected -- that, since movies have their roots in lowbrow entertainment, the ultimate movie is one that fuses the oomph and power of popular entertainment with the values, complexity, and pleasures of high art.

So, when are we going to get the Michael Blowhard take on Balzac? You refer favourably Lost Illusions, and if ever there was a writer who embodied the "movie person" outlook it was Balzac.

Posted by: Thursday on June 24, 2007 2:18 PM

Congratulations on your book and your tour- takes some balls, energy, stamina and creativity. It sounds like you're going at it imaginatively, which is just great.

Utterly agree about NYC. I had a blast at art school in the late 80s and even throughout the 90's. It's become a dreary workaday place, old buildings bulldozed for gleaming new condos for the hedge funders etc. Nothing wrong with corporate types- only now it seems like that's ALL you meet, the only ones who can afford to live in Manhattan. It's sad for me, nostalgist that i am.

Also, the rest of the country has become a great deal more sophisticated in the last 20 years, Internet having a great deal to do with that- it's a positive thing.

Best to you Michael! You'll won't soon forget your tour, rock star you.

Posted by: Deschanel on June 24, 2007 4:02 PM

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