Take Back the Q & A at Author Readings!

It’s the happy satellite to the autumn book season: a calendar packed with author readings. As writers hit the promotion circuit to tout their new releases, big names and new discoveries appear all over the country, tapping their mikes and ruffling through pages. Add on fall’s special events such as the New Yorker Festival and LitQuake, and we book lovers are as happy as Patti Smith with a great sandwich.

So yes, you can hardly wait to catch Neil Young roaming through his memoir or hear Zadie Smith’s buttered-rum voice intone the dialogue from NW. But once they’ve finished their excerpts, they usually open the floor for questions from the audience—and that’s when things often go pear-shaped.

We’ve all been there: Someone launches a rambling question-that’s-not-a-question. A too-personal query. A hyperintense analysis, pushing for the author’s approval. A flare-up of self-aggrandizing, off-topic piffle. Occasionally, an outright verbal attack. Everyone gets antsy and squirms in their seats, as the author tries to craft a polite response. The good energy from the reading seeps away. You build a head a resentful steam, wishing you could have asked your question instead.

Here’s my challenge, Book Rioters: Let’s try to improve these Q&As by asking better questions. The opportunity’s too good to waste. You might never get that chance again. We can do better than “do you write on a computer?”

Part of it is sheer mechanics: Get to the microphone stand pronto. Squash that awkward pause and just raise your hand. Come prepared and think of a smart, engaging question or two ahead of time. If you’ve wiped out and embarrassed yourself in front of a favorite author, now’s your shot at redemption!

It’ll make for a far better experience for the authors, too. One solid, astute question can get things on the right track, making the session feel like a good conversation, prompting anecdotes and unscripted asides. A couple of dud questions and no matter how game the author, the atmosphere curdles. (I’m convinced that Anthony Lane reduced his participation in the New Yorker Festival because of a particularly lame audience Q&A session.)

What questions do you like to ask, or hear, at author readings?