Here’s a dirty little secret about books and liking books and the fact that people who are real-life people write books: more often than not, a book reading is deadly boring. A writer will read something that they’ve written and answer some questions, and it’s all very boilerplate. Which is to be expected, as the pursuit of storytelling in the written word is not, on average, an extrovert’s game.
It’s a pleasant surprise when a writer is dynamite in person, whether they’re reading their work or answering questions with confidence and something like charisma. The best live appearances by writers are able to cast a spell over the audience — through a variety of elements — and here are 50 writers make that achievement look easy. Thanks to writers and readers Michele Filgate, Julia Bartz, and Amanda Bullock for their suggestions.
You may know Coates as a blogger for The Atlantic, where he’s a national correspondent, and the author of the moving memoir The Beautiful Struggle, but it’s also wonderful to see him in person and to just luxuriate in the provocative, brilliant pleasures of his brain.
Sometimes it can be very lonely to read hilarious writers on your own; and the pleasure of seeing the wickedly, darkly funny Albert in person is having the chance to laugh along with an audience.
The Brooklyn-based author of The Vacationers has been called the friendliest person on Twitter and things of that ilk, but the real magic’s in person, where she’s charming and generous, happy to share in absurd, true, human stories. Plus there’s always a chance that The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt will show up with a ukelele.
I mean, if you like legends with stories for days, I guess the forever nattily-attired Talese will do.
Charming, British, and able to make up fantastical worlds, Gaiman’s become more extroverted as the years have went on. Perhaps some of that performer’s pizzaz is inspired by his wife, musician Amanda Palmer? He also is the sort of man who will spend eight hours signing books for fans, which is true devotion.
Totally unfair in this case as Wesley Stace, aka singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding (which was a pseudonym), first came to notice as a musician. So he had years of road-dogging it before he started doing book readings under his real name, Wesley Stace. That said, the novelist is a trip and the curator of the very fun Cabinet of Wonders series in New York City, so he knows how to put on a show, with words and music.
As the proprietor of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Patchett is very familiar with the outlines of a book reading, and she uses her experience as an author and a small business owner to speak arrestingly about the magic of stories and the future of books.
Famously perverse and wacky, Baker will actually go the extra mile (filming video beforehand, for one) in order to make his book readings delightful. It is also quite nice when a man that looks a bit like a kindly Santa Claus says anything borderline risky and risqué.
A surprise, out-of-nowhere Pulitzer Prize winner in 2010 for Tinkers, Harding possesses a great intelligence and sharp powers of observation. His self-taught “Transcendentalist” wisdom will stay with you for days.
A fast-talking, prodigiously talented author, Schappell looks at women’s lives with honesty and an unflinching eye, and it’s terrifically fun to go to a reading where someone’s actually discussing the complicated truth behind being a woman.
A writer who’s been ubiquitous this year (and wrote about it, movingly, in the Virginia Quarterly Review) Gay is also, rather quickly, becoming a rock star, drawing ardent crowds for her books Bad Feminist and An Untamed State.
Another writer in the midst of a heck of a year, is it any surprise that The Empathy Exams author is strikingly… empathetic in person, with a knack for answering questions in a fashion that will have you seeing the world a little bit differently? She’s an absolute pleasure.
Here’s the thing about Smith. You could read her writing, see how she manages to be poised, beautiful, and brilliant to the point that drooling BuzzFeed articles are written about her (and they are basically truth!), or you could see her live, and bask in her once-in-a-lifetime energy. Your choice.
Part of the reason that Elizabeth Gilbert, journalist and novelist, has made the jump to the kind of Oprah-level guru is that she is also the possessor of a rare sort of charisma that the average writer simply doesn’t have. She has could-be-a-great-politican charisma. She is uniquely equipped to handle the big demands of her writer’s life post-Eat Pray Love’s dominance.
The author of books like the cult hit The White Boy Shuffle and next year’s brilliant, scathing book The Sellout, Beatty may be the funniest writer working today, and he adeptly straddles a plurality of worlds. I had first heard of him when his poems were featured in the literary journal AGNI, only to realize that he also was the first Grand Slam winner of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe; proof that his work is equally magical in print and read aloud.
The surprisingly divisive author (why, I don’t understand, when work like The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor’s Children are fantastic) may just be the best sentence writer in the game, so the chance to hear those sentences in person is a gift. They’re precise, unwinding, redolent of Henry James and entirely something new, and there are very few contemporaries at her level.
Straight up, the dude is charming. Women literally swoon at his readings. But he’s also, on top of it, a can seemingly-do-anything, MacArthur-anointed genius, like some of my other favorites on this list.
Journalist, documentarian, and screenwriter Ronson understands that a reading can be deadly boring — so what he does is fashion the material into its own best that can stand up on its own in public. He’s currently working out his next book, 2015’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed at Brooklyn venues, and the result will probably be a rollercoaster of emotions.
Percy is blessed with an inimitable voice, a Vincent Price growl that turns his stories of masculinity and werewolves into something very thrilling, indeed. Click here to get a sample of Percy reading Goodnight Moon. It will blow your mind.
The novelist and journalist is also a winner of the live storytelling series The MOTH, so she has some live-and-in-person bonafides. She knows how to set up a joke.
He’s very, very funny and quick-witted and he’s written scarily accurate speculative fiction about our future world. Your ribs will hurt from laughing after seeing him live.
The powerful poems in Jones’ collection Prelude to Bruise are given new light in person, as the BuzzFeed editor is also an evocative, shattering reader in person. He’s also gifted with a ferocious intelligence and miles of southern charm.
She’s a genius. In person, she’s like a ghost, clad in grey, reading from her work in a voice that’s flat in affect. But the cumulative power of Gaitskill’s presentation is that by the end of the reading, you are weeping, squirming, feeling every feeling possible, and it’s some alchemy between how her deliberately cold presentation makes her work even more meaningful.
The author of World War Z and this year’s The Harlem Hellfighters actually gives public health presentations on how to survive a zombie attack, so he’s a speaker that manages to be entertaining, and, well, useful, in this modern world. (He has the most public health cred on this list and that’s important in an age where Ebola’s in the headlines.)
Seeing Denis Johnson in person means that you get an idea of where pure shots of genius like Jesus’ Son stemmed from — and he has an elliptical, circular way of talking that’s rather inimitable. It’s also very funny to note that he has one of the world’s great smiles, a smile that very likely got him out of some scrapes growing up.
No matter what your feelings are on Auslander’s work, from his memoir Foreskin’s Lament to his novel Hope: A Tragedy (which features elderly Anne Frank in an upstate attic), in person, he is really, really funny. A bit like if Eeyore took human form. In what may be the rare bit of good news for Auslander, though, it appears that his Showtime pilot, Happiness, is back on again after Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death.
The Nobel Prize winner is exactly the elegant, long-limbed prophet of doom that you’d expect in person.
While this list is unranked, you can put Robinson as number one. You have to see her in person. The short version is that the Lila author is on another level; the long version is that Robinson is an intellectual of great spiritual power, and there’s something transcendent in seeing the way that she approaches humanity, with kindness and grace.
Apparently the poet stole the show at the Adult Magazine reading last week, and his ability to use his smart, sharp poetry to make the mundane absolutely sublime (thinking about a poem called “I Think TGI Friday’s Wants to Fuck Me“) leaves behind a plethora of swooning admirers.
Michaels wrote a fictional book about the real life inventor of the theremin, Us Conductors — the surprise winner of Canada’s biggest literary award, the Giller Prize — and when he went on tour with the book in the U.S. this summer, there was a theremin player at every stop, making gorgeous sounds out of the world’s strangest instrument, which sounds like a woman sobbing operatically from the apartment down the hall.
The Franzen in your head is a magnificent literary crank, yes? The Great American Writer who just can’t stop putting his foot in his mouth in the most hilarious of fashions. And with the announcement of his new book, Purity, coming in September 2015, it’s time for more Franzen faux pas. But the Franzen who is a real dude would totally let you have some of his weed.
The much-loved author is mysterious, writes charming and/or thrilling work for a wide range of children and adults, and she also has her doctorate in English, so she can parry on about literature and its importance with the best of them.
Not only a great novelist (go read The Last of Her Kind, stat), Nunez also has the fascinating memoir Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag to her name, so she has stories about what it was like to live with Sontag while dating her son in the ’70s. Intimidating, wild, and intellectually stimulating, to say the least.
Weiner is super funny in person, and she can hold forth on any topic with admirable equanimity and ease, from The Bachelor to U.S. drug policy. She also connects with her readers in a manner that any novelist would be smart to learn from.
The most mysterious writer on the list, so far. I want to know where Dombek’s going. She’s had some stunning essays in N Plus One and The Paris Review, where she deconstructs gentrification, youth, sex, Ryan Gosling, and the struggles of addiction with grace and humor, and the work plays just as well, if not more so, in person. I’m waiting to read something of great heft by her.
Alexie’s clear-eyed view of America through the eyes of a Native American provides heartbreak and humor in equal measures, naturally, he’s a dreamboat in person, willing to crack some jokes and share his beautiful writing.
Brilliant journalist Wilkerson won the Pulitzer Prize for The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, the result of fifteen years of reporting on the route that African-Americans took from the southern states to other homes. It’s a striking piece of work, and in person, she tells fascinating stories about how she got a “silent” generation of African-Americans to open up to her — including her own mother, who was the hardest of all.
Poet and writer Myles is arresting in person, with a vintage Boston accent that’s slowly becoming an endangered species. Her poetry, journalism, and fiction is daring and looks clear-eyed at every aspect of life. She’s also particularly good at writing (and reading) about sex.
Rare is the writer who can make superheroes funny and poignant with just words; so Yu is quite the treasure. Plus he’s great at pulling off weird, humorous, meta sci-fi fiction, the sort of work that makes you laugh and think at the same time.
Totally unfair advantage in this case, obviously, but as musician and artist Smith proved in her National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids, she has stories for days, and she’s awfully quotable when it comes to the life of an artist right now. We should all listen to her and move to Poughkeepskie.
Wilson specializes in slackers and young dudes who can’t quite cope, and the results are as funny as they’re touching. He’s also gifted with the sort of voice that turns excerpts from his short stories into events.
The New York Times Magazine ‘Drink’ columnist wrote a whole book about her life in bars, Drinking With Men, and when she appears at New York events, she steals the show with her bawdy, well observed, warm and inviting presence.
Poetry is an interesting medium, as people can find it alienating with ease: too highfalutin, too lowbrow, too silly. But I’m pretty sure that Simic, with his absurdist, comic take on the world, could make a convert out of anyone sheepish about poetry. He’s hilarious and touching in equal measures, and a hell of a writer, too.
On paper, Russell is a conjurer of dreams and nightmares, able to make the normal extraordinarily strange. In person, she talks in a fashion reminiscent of her writing, particular and dreamy, and it’s fascinating to see how, exactly, her brain takes flight. Her MacArthur “Genius” Grant-winning brain, that is.
Writing is only one part of Miranda July’s experience as a performer, but she’s able to present her books and her writing in a manner that busts the staid confines of a book reading, reenacting interviews and asking the audience wild, personal questions. Her new book, The First Bad Man: A Novel, is due in January, and her book tour should be fun.
The Princeton professor is an experienced speaker who writes stunning, thrilling novels of identity and assimilation, some of them — like this year’s On Such a Full Sea — taking place in a dystopian future. The results are dreamy.
This charming octogenarian MacArthur Grant and Pulitzer Prize winner and the bard of Albany, New York, with his “Albany Cycle” of novels that includes Ironweed, is an Irishman blessed with the gift of gab. He can tell the best stories in ribbons of verse, and it’s all fascinating.
Recommended: try seeing Salter with a longtime friend of his, like William Kennedy. The yin and yang of the two is extra funny — Kennedy is all Irish garrulousness, spacious and epic in his replies, while Salter is terse, simple, exact. A man given to say what he needs to say and that’s it. You’ll learn a lot from his koans.
The stunt-happy writer had a knife-thrower throw knives at him at a book reading, he wins, forever.
I mean, if she was appearing live, I would be first in line. Sometimes she seems like a writer’s writer’s dream that we’ve all made up.