AURAL PLEASURE — Best American Short Stories at Selected Shorts

1. Isiah Sheffer, host and short lit proselytizer. 2. The dais: Cristin Milioti, Marin Ireland, Brooks and Dylan Baker.

The host was Isaiah Sheffer, the venue was Symphony Space, and the idea was simple: have professional actors from Hollywood and Broadway read great fiction, then broadcast across the nation. Selected Shorts’ formula for success sounds obvious enough, but in reality, most readings these days suffer from piss-poor presentation. Great writers don’t always equal great readers, and after listening to enough mind-numbingly dull readings over the course of my time as an Electric Literature blogger, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for public speaking skills. When I got the word I had tickets to last night’s Selected Shorts installment, a smorgasbord of short lit organized around Best American Short Stories 2011, my ears were totally relieved.

So last night, I headed uptown to the no man’s land that is the West Side between 92nd and 116th to soak in the fiction, presented by silver-tongued host Sheffer and organized by editor/writer Geraldine Brooks. The first to take the stage was Cristin Milioti, reading a short story by Juan Martinez that was specially commissioned by Selected Shorts, and the reading I was most excited about. If you’re a fan of 30 Rock, as I am, you’ll recognize Milioti as Liz Lemon’s evil foil, Abby. Both Milioti and Martinez are bitingly funny. The most interesting thing about this particular reading, though, (and in fact, the best thing about Selected Shorts) is that the writer can have one idea for the piece, one way of delivering his or her work, but it’s the performer’s prerogative to take the story in an entirely different direction. Especially for a writer like Martinez, whose work is heavily driven by a cheeky style, the ways in which the piece can manifest itself in another performer’s mouth are fascinating. I haven’t heard Martinez read, but Milioti’s dry, wry voice really made this story sing.

Next up was Dylan Baker reading a piece by Mark Slouka called “The Hare’s Mask.” The story involves a man reminiscing about his dead father, a man who narrowly survived the Holocaust. The presentation couldn’t have been more different than Milioti’s. To begin with, Baker has made a career playing straight-laced characters like businessmen, doctors, and police officers, under duress. Slouka’s elegiac story was perfection with Baker’s delivery. Slouka is a master at capturing the ripples in a father/son dynamic and Baker, with his upright posture and close-clipped hair, was just the man to tell the story.

1. I love that when I was double-checking the spelling for Milioti, this is what came up on the Selected Shorts page.

Last up was Marin Ireland reading Allegra Goodman’s short story La Vita Nuova, about a Yale art school graduate coming to grips with loss and sadness and under-employment, which was at turns funny and thoroughly depressing. Maybe it was because Ireland looks so much like another Yalie I know — they both have the sort of pretty, puffy eyes that somehow seem like they came from sitting in Bass Library too long — so I totally bought Ireland’s portrayal.

And in between all the readings, how can you dislike the Deardorf Peterson Group, a jazz ensemble that performed “That’s the Deal,” Selected Shorts’ new radio theme? You can’t really.

Check out my video bootleg of the new theme song!

The crowd was definitely more of an older Upper West Side intellectual gang than the hipster-y Brooklyn crowds I’ve gotten used to, and I wouldn’t mind except this crowd really didn’t want to be pictured or interviewed. That made my job as a blogger for a hip, new media lit site, well, a little bit impossible. Whatever. I guess it’s just NoZa. (Author Note: I once was at a dinner party with artist Justin Lieberman when he started griping about how real estate agents labeled different neighborhoods. “Nolita,” he said. “What are they going to come up with next? UpSta? I live “Upsta” from my neighbor. “NoZa? North of Zabars?”) This was definitely the North of Zabars crowd: a sea of salt-and-pepper hair, round John Lennon glasses, woolly coats and scarves — paisley scarves, Hermes scarves, striped scarves; it was a well scarf-ed crowd — I’m describing it because you’re not gonna see any pictures of it.

So the actual reading itself and the pieces that were presented were well-chosen, thanks to Brooks. She herself was a lovely host, and shared charming stories about how she developed a lust for literature at a young age and how she was a huge fan of plot. The bottom line is: Geraldine Brooks has great taste. If the stories presented last night are any indication, Best American Short Stories 2011 is totally worth picking up, and it is refreshing for an editor to say, out-loud, “I like narratives! I like story stories!” Show host Isaiah Sheffer told us that Selected Shorts is now on 150 public radio stations across the nation, and that nearly 300,000 Americans tune in to each episode. The success of the program, now in its 26th year, must owe in equal measure to the fact that the stories are top-rate and the performers are engaging.

So I end with a note for writers: If you’re gonna read your stuff out-loud, please modulate your voice. Fleeting eye contact helps too, as does projecting from the diaphragm — you know, all those stupid lessons you had to learn in 10th grade speech class. Turns out, these skills can make the difference between, “Yawn, where’s the closest Starbucks?” and “Hmm. Geoff Dyer is the shit. I’m totally buying that book.” (Dyer happens to be an author that gives a good reading.)

But why go to a reading at all when you can just read the essay/short story/novel at home and use your own imagination? The answer, for me at least, is two fold: there is the celebrity element, where you see the author, in the flesh, that so captivated you, and there’s the communal element, being in a room with other lit lovers, which is really just the feeling, for an hour at least, that this thing you obsess over and spend a huge chunk of your live engaging with — the written word — is actually important.

If your favorite author is a terrible reader, it can be kind of a let-down, so Selected Shorts fulfills both the celebrity and communal urges, but what you miss in literary celebrity you get back in a guarantee of aural pleasure. That’s hot.

The Best American Short Stories 2011 (Best American Short Stories)

by Geraldine Brooks

— Cassie Hay is a regular contributor to The Dish.

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