Short stories! Authors! Actors! Cake!
That’s what it says on the flyer and it’s no lie. Tonight’s menu: a ‘literary evening’ of short stories by four authors (Tania Hershman, Jonathan Grimwood, Lydia Davis and Viv Groskop) read aloud by professional actors Jason Hewitt and Jenny Johns, at the Old Fire Station, Oxford.
I’ve seen a number of storytelling ensembles and was excited about this one (reading the self-referencing superlatives in their Tweets somewhat contributed); in reality, I was more ambivalent about this particular evening than I wanted to be.
There were many good things. This venture creates a space for what is arguably a dying art. It introduces literary talent, familiar and new, through two main vehicles: storytelling, and a Q+A with selected authors. A sort of cross between a stage performance and a book club. It may also encourage dissemination of ideas outside the event, through real or virtual interactions between the audience members, many of whom appeared to know each other and/or the organiser. If you can be part of that, great. The little things – cake and wine, frequent intervals, prizes for the best audience question – were thoughtful, fun and well-received.
The Q+A session was, for me, the better part of the evening. Jonathan Grimwood and Viv Groskop answered questions written anonymously by the audience beforehand, which was good for those of us who cringe at anything ‘interactive’ and great for managing time. Both authors were first asked to introduce, in a few words, their most recent novels - a nice contextualising aid to questions that ranged from advice for budding writers to ‘what is your favourite sweet?’ It was relaxed, engaging and informative.
The brain processes visual and auditory information differently and I couldn’t tell whether it was this specific set of stories, or their reading aloud, that didn’t immediately connect with me. I find myself most captivated in someone’s spoken words not necessarily when they are acted, or professional, or perfect, but when told with a complete lack of self-awareness. In short, when told with love, like when a parent reads to a child. Therefore I realise it’s a pretty mean feat to try to recreate that sort of feeling for an unknown mass of people.
Jenny Johns (who does The Archers, we’re told) was great. Jason Hewitt was a little more nervous; I wasn’t sure whether I should have been thinking 'Mr. Pecksniff' as he characterised the doctor in Grimwood’s The Spy’s Retirement, featuring none other than Sherlock Holmes himself. But only Hewitt sat down to read one of the stories, creating an intimacy that was occasionally displaced by over-dramatisation. Waving on the Moon, by Hershman, was quirky and appealing. The other two stories, about being born a woman, and the relationship between two sisters, felt inappropriately light to me, but of course it’s a matter of personal taste.
There are three elements here: the quality of the stories themselves, how they are told and the organisation of the event. If you love a particular author and they happen to be in that week, go. If you’re open-minded, it may be hit or miss but, for a fiver, still worth it. I’m taken by the idea, enjoyed being introduced to new authors, had mixed feelings about certain elements of the evening, am interested in the future line-up and will definitely go again.